Maybe it’s our culture’s preoccupation with superheroes, or pirates, or football players, or cowboys, or explorers, or astronauts, or firefighters.  All of these brave and bold archetypes are almost always depicted as men, and are heavily marketed to boys.  I have learned these facts the hard way, slogging through toy aisle after toy aisle. As a mother of a daughter who loves superheroes, I am well aware of how difficult it is to find female superheroes (thank goodness for eBay). And we have plenty of firefighter toys, because my husband is one, but they are all men. This is a minor frustration to me, as I would love to more easily show my daughters models of brave, bold, and daring women.

But a new study published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research by researchers Laura Doey, Robert Coplan, and Mila Kingsbury is a stark reminder that there are times when living in a gender stereotypical culture is much harsher for boys than girls. 

 The study examined the issue of shyness in children. Shyness is part of our temperament from birth. It has complex biological foundations, and seems to be largely heritable. Shyness is associated with fear and anxiety in social situations, and leads kids to feel self-conscious and inhibited. Shy kids do not boldly rush into new situations. They typically speak less and interact with their peers less often. They are not depressed or “broken.” They are simply shy (largely because of the genes they inherited from mom and dad).

When children are infants, in preschool, and in early elementary school, there are no differences in shyness between boys and girls. By 5th grade, however, twice as many American girls than boys label themselves as shy! These vast gender differences continue through adolescence as well.

What happened? Why did shyness, which started as a biological trait that was similar across boys and girls, become doubled in girls relative to boys by middle school?

Although the answers are complex, a big reason, according to the authors, is that boys aren’t SUPPOSED to be shy, fearful, or anxious. Shyness definitely doesn’t’ fit the stereotype. We never hear about the meek and quiet superhero, pirate, football player, cowboy, explorer, astronaut, or firefighter.

It appears that boys begin to underreport feeling shy by late elementary school. In other words, they don’t become less shy. They just learn to hide it better. The question immediately becomes why hide a biological, heritable, perfectly normal trait. Because boys (but not girls) are penalized for showing shyness, as though it is a sign of weakness.  

In a review of past research, the researchers highlight the ways that parents, teachers, and peers discourage and punish boys for displaying signs of shyness. We see that shy boys are consistently encouraged to be assertive and bold, whereas shy girls are allowed to be who they naturally are. Parents in cross-national samples reward sadness, fear, and shyness in girls, but punish boys for the same emotions. In other studies, mothers interact less positively with shy boys than with shy girls. These differences seem to be exacerbated among parents who endorse gender stereotypes.

We also see differences in how shy boys and shy girls are treated in the classroom. “For example, teachers from the U.S. tend to praise boys for outspoken behaviors, but praise girls for restraining spontaneous conversations in the classroom.” Boys get the message from their peers at school, too. Shy boys are more likely to be rejected by their peers than shy girls.

The researchers even point to studies that have examined children’s books. In one study, children’s storybooks were analyzed and found that shy male characters were portrayed as having exceptionally unhappy and difficult lives compared to shy female characters (who seem pretty content to sit and read a book). It doesn’t take much in-depth research to notice that boys’ toys almost exclusively feature aggressive, heroic action figures.  

The stereotype that boys should not be shy is even reflected in children’s memory. When children were read vignettes about other children, they remembered more information about the story and the characters when the story involved a shy girl compared to a shy boy. This is a common principle in the stereotyping literature­– when it fits the stereotype, it is easier to remember.

Why does penalizing boys for being shy, and only showing them bold brave role models, matter? Because research shows that it is extremely stressful to be shy when you are a boy. Even in preschool, shy boys have higher cortisol levels (the hormone that becomes elevated when stressed) throughout the day compared to shy girls. This increased stress level stays throughout childhood. If you conceptualize drug and alcohol use as a means of coping with stress, it is not surprising that being shy increases the likelihood that boys will engage in substance abuse in adolescence. For girls, being shy actually reduces their likelihood to drink or do drugs.

This research puts my frustration at only finding Wonder Woman party supplies on eBay in perspective. The reality is that I can find Wonder Woman, so I can show my daughter bold role models (in tiaras). I can also find plenty of quiet role models. She is allowed to be timid when she wants to be and no one seems to mind.

My concern is for all the shy boys who have a much harder time finding timid or meek male role models. Timid men are only portrayed as less-than "real men." The Clark Kent rube hiding the real hero Superman. "Man up!," boys are frequently told. But the reality is not the stereotype: being timid is not a weakness nor a deficit. It is simply a temperamental style children are born with, one without a real gender difference, and one not to be punished or penalized.    

Reference: Doey, L., Coplan, R.J., & Kingsbury, M. (2014). Bashful boys and coy girls: A review of gender differences in childhood shyness. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 70, 255-266.

About the Author

Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D.

Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the effects of gender stereotypes among children and adolescents.

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