Evidence for a Relationship

Designing a study that directly addresses the relationship between gender knowledge and preferences is a challenging task. Nonetheless, a few studies that have avoided at least some of the limitations of the previously reviewed research have found that a relationship appears to exist (Aubry et al., 1999; Coker, 1984; Serbin et al., 1993). For example, using a Guttman scale analysis, Coker (1984) found that 3- to 6-year-olds had knowledge of the gender stereotypes associated with concrete objects before they showed preferences for those same items, and observed a significant positive correlation between knowledge and preferences for boys. Unfortunately, the author did not specify the specific items used in these tasks, which makes it impossible to speculate whether the nonsignificant correlation for girls was due to the inclusion of unattractive feminine items. However, Serbin et al. (1993) used a range of gender-typed items to assess 5- to 12-year-olds knowledge and preferences for activities, occupations, and traits and found that these two scores were significantly correlated for both girls and boys. Taken together, studies that have examined correlations, and used the same items and compatible tasks for the measures have found that a relationship exists between gender stereotype knowledge and preferences.

In addition to the limitations associated with the assessment tasks and analyses, it is also important to note that most of the studies examining the relationship between knowledge and preferences are confined to an assessment of concurrent relationships. This is especially problematic when considering that, in some situations, there may be a lag between the attainment of knowledge and the emergence of the associated preferences. For instance, this may occur when the gender-appropriate item is unattractive or when the new knowledge would require giving up a previously desired item (Aubry et al., 1999). Recognizing this issue, Aubry et al. (1999) conducted a 3-year longitudinal study to examine how knowledge of gender norms for concrete items and traits influences gender-related preferences in 4- to 8-year-old children. Using almost identical knowledge and preference tasks, they ran a series of regressions to examine both concurrent and lag predictions. For concrete objects, they found that knowledge of opposite-sex items in year 1 predicted a sizable decline for those same items the following year and that, for boys only, total gender knowledge in year 1 predicted greater preference for same-gender items relative to other gender-items in year 2. These results suggest that gender knowledge of objects may mostly influence behavior by predicting an avoidance of opposite-sex objects and that children's gender knowledge of concrete items tends to show a "lag" relationship with preferences.

To account for the same-sex bias phenomenon that has been found when assessing knowledge and self-descriptions in terms of attributes, Aubry et al. (1999) divided items into "no-conflict" items (i.e., positive same-sex and negative opposite-sex attributes) and "conflict items" (i.e., negative same-sex and positive opposite-sex attributes). In terms of the no-conflict items, the results suggested that boys who showed greater knowledge of same-gender positive attributes in year 3 were more likely to identify with those items the same year. The boys who were also aware of other-gender negative attributes in year 2 were less likely to identify with these items the following year. For conflict items, the findings indicated that knowledge of same-gender negative items in year 1 predicted identification with those items in year 2 for boys, and the girls who had knowledge of the same-gender negative items in year 3 were more likely to identify with those items the same year.

Overall, the results of this study illustrate that important gender knowledge effects can be missed when only examining concurrent relationships and when not considering the separate influences of same-sex and opposite-sex knowledge. For example, it may take time before the attainment of gender knowledge influences preferences. This was apparent when knowledge required that the children avoid opposite-sex objects and attributes or identify with negative attributes. This lag effect was less evident though for girls' endorsement of same-gender negative attributes. For some reason, girls may be less reluctant to self-identify with negative attributes. Nonetheless, girls' preferences, in general, seemed less affected by gender knowledge when compared to boys. This interesting finding is consistent with the literature and requires researchers to consider additional factors (e.g., status, gender identity) that may moderate the relationship between gender knowledge and preferences (Aubry et al., 1999).

The literature reviewed up to this point has examined children's existing knowledge of gender stereotypes and its relationship to children's sex-typed preferences. While some researchers have presented data to conclude that a relationship does not exist, the results from a few correlational studies have illustrated that this claim may be unwarranted. This inconsistency seems largely due to the theoretical and methodological limitations that exist in the research. Although studies have found significant relationships when addressing some of the methodological and theoretical critiques, conceptual challenges and confusions have continued to affect current research questions and design. Specifically, researchers have attempted to tackle the question of whether gender knowledge influences preferences from an all or none perspective. It should be clear by now that this approach to the issue is limited mainly because current theories of gender development do not predict a one-to-one correspondence between gender knowledge and behavior. Other factors such as attractiveness, situational demands, salience of schemas, knowledge accessibility, gender attitudes, and degree of gender identification are also likely to influence children's gendered behaviors. The inclusion of these factors in future studies would allow researchers to determine the variables that may moderate the influence of gender knowledge. For example, a girl who identifies highly with femininity, has rigid gender attitudes, and considers doll play to be an essential identifying feature of what it means to be a girl is likely to choose a doll over a truck. In contrast, the girl who identifies as a "tomboy," has egalitarian gender attitudes, and who does not consider doll play to be an essential feature of girls may be less likely to choose the doll over the truck. Thus, it is unrealistic to claim that gender knowledge always or never affects children's gender preferences. The next step in this line of research is to ask more sophisticated questions such as, when and how does gender knowledge influence children's preferences?

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