Gender stereotyping more prevalent in children than previously thought

Researchers from the University of Sussex found that boys are particularly susceptible to gender stereotyping employment roles

The gender stereotyping of employment roles may be more ingrained in children than previously thought, according to new research from the University of Sussex, with boys found to be particularly susceptible.

Psychologists from the university determined what the children really thought about men and women doing different jobs. It was feared that the normal manner of research – simply asking children what they thought – could hide their true feelings, with replies influenced by a desire to say the ‘right’ thing.

Instead, 82 primary school-aged children were asked to speak in the voices of people working in nine different professions: three traditionally male, three traditionally female and three gender-neutral. Boys and girls spontaneously masculinised and feminised their voices for the stereotypical occupations, while boys used an overtly masculine voice even when imitating workers in gender-neutral roles.

Children continue to entertain gender stereotypes even if they are not prepared to say so explicitly – Professor Jane Oakhill

Moreover, while the girls’ tendency to exaggerate gendered voices fell away around the age of seven, the boys’ continued to increase. The research has been used to create an ‘index of stereotypicality’ to help quantify implicit occupational stereotyping in children.

Jane Oakhill, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, was one of the people behind the study.

“The strength of stereotypicality based on vocal pitch revealed stereotypes that were not found in children’s direct responses to the conventional questions about men and women doing different jobs,” she said. “This suggests that children continue to entertain gender stereotypes even if they are not prepared to say so explicitly.”

Oakhill and her team are warning authors and children’s TV writers to be extra careful about linking job roles too strongly to a specific gender, as well as calling for the voice to be a better-utilised resource in determining the stereotypes children may hold.

“If we are to successfully challenge these occupational stereotypes, then as well as having depictions of both male and female nurses, we need occupational role models who vary in vocal masculinity and femininity, such as male nurses with both low and high vocal pitch,” added Oakhill. “Unconscious bias training should also include voice cues to help teachers and parents become aware of and challenge biases about gender stereotypes in relation to particular jobs.”

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