Gender Equality

Often parents and educators want to help children avoid becoming strongly sex typed. They do not want children's options for activities, interests, and aspirations to be limited to those traditionally associated with their gender. Adopting strongly sex-typed interests may be especially problematic for girls because the traditional female role and the qualities associated with it (that is, emotionality, nurturance, and dependence) tend to be devalued in American culture. Traditionally masculine interests and behaviors are usually tolerated in girls before puberty; it is all right to be a "tomboy." Traditionally feminine interests and behaviors, however, tend to be vigorously discouraged in boys; it is not acceptable to be a "sissy."

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Considerable research has focused on whether and how socializing agents, including parents, teachers, peers, and media such as children's books and television, reinforce gender stereotypes and teach children to exhibit sex-typed behaviors. Researchers have been concerned both with how gender roles are modeled for children and with how sex-typed behavior is rewarded. A study by Lisa Serbin and her colleagues carried out in the 1970's is an example. These researchers observed teachers' interactions with children in a preschool setting and recorded their observations in a standardized way. They found that teachers gave more attention to girls when they were physically close to them than when they were farther away; however, teachers' attention to boys did not vary with the child's proximity. This finding suggests that teachers reinforce girls more than boys for "dependent" behavior without necessarily meaning to do so.

Parents often report that they try to treat their children the same regardless of their gender. Many of the most powerful influences parents exert result from behaviors of which they are probably unaware. Research studies have shown that parents consistently interact differently with male and female children in areas such as engaging in gross motor play (for example, running, jumping, throwing), encouraging children's sex-typed play (particularly discouraging doll play among boys), demanding effort and giving help with problem-solving tasks, and allowing children to have independence and freedom from supervision.

Children's peers have been shown to play an important role in sex-role socialization. Particularly in early childhood, when children's gender concepts tend to be far more rigid than those of adults, peers may be the source of misinformation (for example, "girls can't be doctors; girls have to be nurses") and of strong sanctions against behavior that is inconsistent with one's gender role.

Laboratory studies have shown that exposure to gender stereotypes in books and on television tends to have a measurable effect on children's sex-typed behavior. For example, children are more likely to play with a "gender-inappropriate" toy after reading a story in which a child of their gender played with that toy. In addition, these media may be important in the development of a child's gender schema because they provide a rich network of information and associations related to gender. Extensive studies of the gender-related content of children's books and children's television were conducted in the 1970's, and this led to reform efforts by some textbook publishers and television producers.

One influential study by a group called Women on Words and Images published in 1975 analyzed the contents of 134 grade-school readers and found gender-stereotypic portrayals of male and female characters, gender-stereotypic themes, and male dominance to be the rule. Boys outnumbered girls as major characters by five to two; in 2,760 stories examined, only three mothers were shown working outside the home. Systematic studies of children's television have produced similar results.

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