Category Labels versus Ability Labels Effects

When describing the results of the experimental studies, we suggested that the different types of labels might interact with age to determine the gender labeling effects. In this section, we provide a more detailed analysis of the developmental trends and offer two developmental predictions regarding how susceptible children are to different types of labels. Table 13.1 divides the gender labeling experiments into two types of labeling studies: general category labeling (CL) studies and ability labeling (AL) studies. This information is marked by noticing whether the effects are reported in the CL or AL column. The CL studies employed labels that specified whether the task was "for boys" or "for girls." For example, Montemayor (1974) told children in the boy condition that Mr. Munchie was "a toy for boys like basketball." In contrast, the AL studies provided gender information regarding ability assessment. This was accomplished in two different ways. Four of the studies told children that the test was designed to see how good they would be at a particular task. Three of these studies (Hargreaves et al., 1985; Davies, 1986, 1989) used subtle labels (e.g., "This test is to see how good you would be at operating machinery.") and one study (Stein et al., 1971) made more explicit gender references ("This test helps to tell how good you might be at boy's subjects like shop and industrial arts."). The other two AL studies (Gold & Berger, 1978; Herzog et al., 1982) referred to how well girls or boys are expected to do on the task ("girls can do much better than boys in the Munchie game" or "boys generally do well on this task").

As shown in Table 13.1, almost all of the studies that used CL with the younger and middle-aged children found significant gender labeling effects. The two exceptions are the Bradbard et al. (1986) and the Etaugh and Ropp (1976) studies. Although Bradbard et al. (1986) did not find any significant results for the children under 5, the children aged 6 to 9 (i.e., mean age = 7.3 years) seemed to be affected by the gender labels. Using an almost identical design, however, Bradbard & Endsley (1983) did find significant exploration effects for 5-year-olds. It is possible then that children under the age of 5 find the objects that were used in these studies (e.g., hole puncher, shoe stretcher) generally less interesting when compared to children age 5 and older. For example, Bradbard et al. (1986) reported that the older children touched the objects significantly more than the younger group. Moreover, even though there were no significant differences in touching between the same-sex and opposite-sex objects for the younger children, their scores were in the predicted direction. This suggests that the children under 5 may have shown significant results if they spent more time attending to and tactually exploring the objects.

The Etaugh and Ropp (1976) study also did not find any category labeling effects for children 9 and younger. In fact, they did not find any effects for either the third or fifth graders in their study. This may be due to the fact that their sample was older than the samples in the other studies that used CL with children 6 to 9 years. The mean ages of the Etaugh and Ropp (1976) sample were 8.6 and 10.5 years. In contrast, the ages of the children in the other 3 studies were the following: mean age = 6.8 (Montemayor, 1974), 6-7 (White, 1978), and mean age = 7.3 (Bradbard et al., 1986).12 Taken together, this information provides some support for the hypothesis that children older than 7 are less likely to respond to CL when compared to younger children.

A second reverse hypothesis can be gleaned from examining the AL studies. Specifically, we propose that older children are more likely to be influenced by AL when compared to younger children. For example, the two studies that used AL with children younger than 9 either did not find any effects (Herzog et al., 1982) or found effects for boys only (Gold & Berger, 1978). In contrast, 3 out of the 4 AL studies with older children (Davies, 1986, 1989; Hargreaves et al., 1985) found significant results for both girls and boys, and one study found effects for boys and the girls with high masculine preferences (Stein et al., 1971). Taken together, our two hypotheses suggest that there are developmental differences with respect to how vulnerable children are to different types of gender stereotypes. Next, we review some relevant research that lends some support for these ideas.

Why might older children be less susceptible to CL? The literature involving children's developing understanding of the mind might shed some light on this issue. For instance, there is a wide body of literature that suggests that children from preschool to adolescence progress from being cognitively egocentric to developing an understanding that different people can hold multiple perspectives (e.g., Flavell, 1992; Piaget, 1928; Selman, 1976, 1980). In fact, Selman's (1976) stages of social role-taking propose that children are unable to recognize that people can have different perspectives when given the same information until roughly 8 years of age. Furthermore, more recent research suggests that children under the age of10 tend to believe that adults are the ultimate authority of information (BarTal, Raviv, Raviv, & Brosch, 1991; Burton & Mitchell, 2003; Rosenberg, 1979). When asking children about the authority of their self-knowledge (e.g., "Who knows best what you want for your birthday?"), Burton & Mitchell (2003) found that children age 7 and younger were more likely to cite their parents, whereas 10-year-olds were more likely to cite themselves. These two areas of research imply that, unlike younger kids, older children understand that people can disagree about social information and are likely to trust their own beliefs about what they like and do not like rather than rely on an adult's authority. It seems possible then that older children will be less likely to passively accept an adult-imposed gender category label when compared to younger children. Instead, older children might use their own experience, toy attractiveness, or information from peers as guides for behavior.

Our next question is concerned with why older children might be more susceptible to AL when compared to younger children. First, the main differences between the CL and AL stereotypes are that AL is focused on specific gender information (e.g., ability) and actually provides the child with evidence that can be used for self-evaluation. Given that the literature indicates that there is a developmental progression in children's interest and capacity to use ability and social comparison information, we believe that older children will be more vulnerable to AL. For example, research suggests that children older than 7 years of age are more likely than younger children to utilize social comparison information to evaluate their own ability (e.g., Ruble, 1987; Ruble, Boggiano, Feldman, & Loebl, 1980; Ruble & Frey, 1991). While some research has also found that younger children can use social comparison information, it has been suggested that this is likely to depend on the complexity of the comparisons (see Butler, 1998). For children to be affected by AL (e.g., "girls can do much better than boys"), they need to attend to, process, retain, and use this abstract information in such a way that will affect their performance on a novel, future-oriented task. These processing requirements are likely to be quite complex for younger children, which may limit their motivation or ability to utilize this information.

Similar to their proposed interest and/or capacity to utilize social comparisons, it also appears that ability and performance concerns may be more salient and meaningful for older children (e.g., Ruble, 1994). For instance, Ruble (1994) suggests that as children begin to realize that their competence is stable and significant (between second and fourth grades), they are more likely to be focused on assessing their performance. Moreover, research has found that the perception of ability as a trait increases with age (Droege & Stipek, 1993) and is associated with greater interest in social comparison information among older children (Ruble & Flett, 1988). Consistent with this idea is evidence that suggests that young children tend to believe that effort and outcome are positively related to each other (Heyman, Gee, Giles, 2003; Nicholls, 1990). This implies that younger children tend to believe that if they try hard, they will do well on a task, which should presumably make ability information meaningless to them. Therefore, the existing literature provides some support for the ideas that children should show increasing vulnerability to AL and decreasing vulnerability to CL after approximately age 7. Whether these predictions will survive the tests of empirical research is, for now, an open question.

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