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Sibling Sex and Gender Inequality

Parents gender-stereotype mixed-sex broods more, offsetting sibling play effects

Even siblings who are not close to one another in adulthood may have a profound impact on each other—childhood experiences and interactions, often shaped by our siblings, have lasting and complex effects throughout our lives. Of particular interest to gender scholars is the effect of sibling sex composition on gendered behaviors—both directly, through sibling interaction, and also indirectly, through altered parental socialization. Insofar as gendered socialization is an important driver of gender inequality in adulthood and the family is an important arena for social learning, it is important to understand the factors that promote stereotypical gendered learning in families.

Having an other-sex older sibling may decrease gender-stereotyping by the younger sibling who follows the older sibling’s lead in selecting play activities, despite mothers expressing more gender-stereotyped toy preferences when the children differ in sex (Stoneman and Brody 1986). Siblings’ influence on gendered activity preferences persists, at least into early adulthood (Colley et al. 1996). Likewise, having a next-oldest sibling who is female (male) shifts the younger siblings’ political opinions to be more female-typed (male-typed). However, having a larger share of siblings who are sisters may cause young men to express more conservative views about gender issues and to identify as Republicans (Healy and Malhotra 2013). This suggests that although an other-sex older sibling may be in a unique position to instill gender-atypical behavior and attitudes of the next-youngest sibling, in some instances having more other-sex siblings may promote gender-conservative attitudes.

One hypothesized explanation for the link between more other-sex siblings and increased gender-conservative attitudes is parental socialization. Even egalitarian parents tend to treat boys and girls differently, and parents gender-type their children to a greater degree when they have children of both genders (Brody and Steelman 1985). Intensification of gender socialization during adolescence, especially the shift toward increasing involvement with the same-sex parent, is more extreme in the presence of an other-sex younger sibling (Crouter et al. 1995). Thus, while nearly all children receive gendered treatment from their parents, the presence of other-sex siblings may exacerbate parental gender differentiation.

Importantly, in this instance, different is not equal. Having other-sex siblings has a marked effect on children’s gendered socialization in ways that disadvantage girls—particularly, girls with brothers—and prepare children for gender-typed and gender-unequal lives. One salient aspect of gendered childhood inequality is responsibility for household chores. Girls are assigned more chores, especially female-typed chores (Gager, Cooney, and Call 1999) and this effect is larger in the presence of other-sex siblings (Healy and Malhotra 2013). Moreover, despite doing more chores, girls are 10% less likely than boys to receive an allowance or pay for their work—and even when they are paid, girls earn 15% less than boys for doing the same tasks (Covert 2014). In addition to unequal pay for equal work, children also experience a gender gap in housework and leisure that mirrors that of their parents: Girls spent two more hours per week on housework than boys and boys enjoy twice as much play time as girls. Similarly, adult women perform two-thirds of unpaid household labor (Bianchi et al. 2000) while men enjoy more leisure time with fewer interruptions (Mattingly and Bianchi 2003). Housework performance during childhood may have a direct effect on the division of labor and the gender pay gap in adulthood by teaching girls to take disproportionate responsibility for unpaid household labor and to expect unequal pay.

This gendered childhood inequality may be exacerbated by parents’ preference for at least one child of each sex (Nugent 2013). Parents are more likely to have a third birth when their first two children are of the same sex (Pollard and Morgan 2002), inadvertently creating a more gender-unequal family context if they succeed in attaining a mixed-sex brood. Increases in parental indifference to child sex (Pollard and Morgan 2002) would therefore bode well for gender equality among the current generation of children.


Bianchi, Suzanne M., Melissa A. Milkie, Liana C. Sayer, and John P. Robinson. 2000. "Is Anyone Doing the Housework? Trends in the Gender Division of Household Labor." Social Forces 79(1):191-228.

Brody, Charles J. and Lala Carr Steelman. 1985. "Sibling Structure and Parental Sex-Typing of Children's Household Tasks." Journal of Marriage and Family 47(2):265-273

Covert, Bryce. 2014. "There's Even a Gender Gap in Kid's Allowances."…

Colley, A., et al. 1996. "Childhood Play and Adolescent Leisure Preferences: Associations with Gender Typing and the Presence of Siblings." Sex Roles 35(3-4):233-245.

Crouter, Ann C., Beth A. Manke, and Susan M. McHale. 1995. "The Family Context of Gender Intensification in Early Adolescence." Child Development 66(2):317-329.

Gager, Constance T., Teresa M. Cooney, and Kathleen Thiede Call. 1999. "The Effects of Family Characteristics and Time Use on Teenagers' Household Labor." Journal of Marriage and Family 61(4):982-994.

Healy, Andrew and Neil Malhotra. 2013. "Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment." Journal of Politics 75(4):1023-1037.

Mattingly, Marybeth J. and Suzanne M. Bianchi. 2003. "Gender Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Free Time: The U.S. Experience." Social Forces 81(3):999-1030.

Nugent, Colleen N. 2013. "Wanting Mixed-Sex Children: Separate Spheres, Rational Choice, and Symbolic Capital Motivations." Journal of Marriage and Family 75(4):886-902.

Pollard, Michael S. and S. Philip Morgan. 2002. "Emerging Parental Gender Indifference? Sex Composition of Children and the Third Birth." American Sociological Review 67(4):600-613.

Stoneman and Brody. 1086. "Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Siblings: Activity Choices, Roles, Behavior, and Gender Stereotypes." Sex Roles 15(9-10):495-511.

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