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The Way We Talk About Gender Can Make a Big Difference

Surprising findings about how we unknowingly build stereotypes

We are obsessed with gender. In the hospital, babies are given a pink or blue blankets. They come home in pink or blue car seats that get clicked into pink or blue strollers, and they sleep on pink or blue sheets in pink or blue rooms. Boys doze cuddled up to stuffed cars and trains, and girls have their “My First Baby” doll waiting in their nurseries.

We do a lot to ensure that other people recognize the gender of our children. Notice all of the baby boys sporting “Daddy’s Little Man” onesies and girls wearing “Daddy’s Princess” bibs.

Once children enter preschool and then elementary school, the emphasis on gender increases. They enter their first classroom and see birthdays listed on the bulletin board with pink or blue faces. They line up boy-girl-boy-girl.

And the teacher greets them with, "Good morning, boys and girls."

This labeling, sorting, and color-coding by gender happens so frequently, you probably don't even notice it. You may even assume that it doesn't matter. Many parents say, "I encourage my girls in math. I teach my boys to be thoughtful. I am not passing along stereotypes. So what if I say 'What a smart girl!'"

Not so fast.

Rebecca Bigler, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent much of her career showing that simply labeling a group leads children to develop stereotypes about those groups. Early in her career, she conducted an experiment with a group of elementary-school teachers and their students. Half of the teachers were told to use gender to label, sort, and organize the classroom. They had a pink bulletin board for girls and a blue one for boys; each child’s name card was written in either pink or blue; and children always lined up boy-girl-boy-girl. The teachers would say, “The girls are doing a great job today,” or, “The boys are being good listeners.”

One important part of this experiment, though, was that teachers had to treat boys and girls equally. If boys were allowed to pass out scissors, girls had to be allowed to pass out glue—no favoritism or competition allowed. They also couldn’t express any stereotypes. Boys were never asked to be “big and strong” and lift the desks; girls were never asked to sweep the floors. The teachers simply had to “use gender” to sort, label, and classify. In other words, it was a typical, ordinary classroom.

The other half of the teachers in the study were instructed to completely ignore the gender of their students. They used individual names when referring to children and always treated the classroom as a whole. There were no comments like, “What a smart girl," or, “I need the boys to settle down." Instead, they said, “Lauren, you are being a great helper” or “Tommy, what a good learner you are!”

What did Bigler discover after teachers managed their classrooms like this for four weeks? Students in the gender-labeling classes developed stronger gender stereotypes than those in the individual-focused classes.

What does it mean for children to develop stereotypes? Does it really matter?

In Bigler’s research, developing stereotypes meant that students in the gender-labeling classes were more likely to say that “only men” should have certain jobs, like construction worker, doctor, or president of the United States. They said “only women” should be a nurse, house cleaner, or babysitter. They also said that “only women” can be kind, gentle, and take care of children.

Pause a moment and reflect on this. This is extremely important.

After just four weeks of simply hearing their gender mates labeled and sorted into girl and boy groups, elementary-school children, both boys and girls, were more likely to say that only men can be doctors or the president of the United States and only women can be nurturing and kind. Parents who want their daughters to aim high in their careers should take note, as should parents who want their sons to become nurturing, caring fathers.

Developing a gender stereotype also means that students in the gender-labeling classes perceived less variability within each group. They were more likely to say that “all” of the boys acted one way or “none” of the girls acted another. In other words, by having teachers simply focus on their gender instead of their individual characteristics, children began to overlook that there were, indeed, individual variations within male or female groups.

Why does this matter? For one, it is simply wrong. There is absolutely no behavior that all boys or all girls do, not one.

But more importantly, if your child is different from the norm in any way, you as a parent do not want them to feel like a failure or a misfit. If kids believe that “all boys like sports” (something they are more likely to say after four weeks in the gender-labeling class), imagine what life is like for the boy who doesn’t like sports, can’t throw a ball, or throws “like a girl." Studies show that other kids will tease him, and his self-esteem will take a hit. Through no fault of his own, he will get treated poorly, simply because his peers think all boys or all girls should act a certain way.

That is a high price to pay for the convenience of having pink and blue bulletin boards.

More on the WHY this happens in the next post.....

For more information, start with a classic study: Bigler, R. S. (1995). The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children's gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development, 66(4), 1072-1087.

—Adapted from excerpts of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise your Children Free of Gender Stereotypes

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