Evidence for Independence

Several researchers have made the argument that gender knowledge and preferences are independent after observing that young children do not mention gender as a reason for their choices (Eisenberg,

Murray, & Hite, 1982), that gender preferences emerge before gender knowledge (Perry et al., 1984; Weinraub et al., 1984), and that there is no significant positive correlation between knowledge and preferences (Bussey & Bandura, 1992; Carter & Levy, 1988; Hort, Leinbach, & Fagot, 1991). As raised by Aubry et al. (1999), there were several methodological limitations in these studies that question the validity of their findings. For example, some of the research used different types of knowledge and preference tasks, with the knowledge task being far more challenging than the preference tasks (Bussey & Bandura, 1992; Weinraub et al., 1984). Moreover, one study used different items for the knowledge and preference tasks even when the tasks were more similar (Carter & Levy, 1988). Asking children about their knowledge of some activities (e.g., ironing, sweeping, boxing, digging) and assessing their preferences for other toys (e.g., kitchen set, doll, gun, truck) does not provide much information in terms of the relationship between these two dimensions.

Another difficulty with the literature assessing knowledge and preferences is that studies often use the Sex Role Learning Index (Edelbrock & Sugawara, 1978) to measure gender knowledge (Carter & Levy, 1988; Hort et al., 1991). Besides the fact that the items may be outdated, mostly all of the child feminine items include chores such as ironing, dishwashing, and sweeping. In this case, girls might show a reluctance to endorse these items even if they have the knowledge that they are stereotypically appropriate. Furthermore, a limitation of the Perry et al. (1984) study was that their results relied on using an analysis of variance method to explore developmental trends in knowledge and preference scores. This type of analysis does not detect whether individual children show knowledge-preference links, thereby raising the question of whether a correlational or regression analysis would have identified a significant relationship. A final concern is that longitudinal studies in this area are sparse. Thus, if there is a lag between the attainment of gender knowledge and the time it takes to influence children's preferences, an examination of only concurrent relationships might miss this important effect (Aubry et al., 1999).

Since the publication of the first edition of this volume, we are aware of one study that specifically addressed the role of gender knowledge in children's gendered preferences. In this study, Campbell et al. (2002) included measurements of gender-knowledge, peer preference, and toy preference in a sample of 2-year-olds. Interestingly, the gender knowledge measure was given by the child's mother and involved asking the child to point to either the boys' toy/game or the girls' toy/game after two opposite sex-typed toys/activities were pictorially presented. Using the same toys, children were observed in the same room with the mother and experimenter to see how long they played with each of the toys. Prior to this session, children were also observed in a group situation to see how long they played with other sex-typed toys, and same-sex and opposite-sex same-aged peers. Using an analysis of variance model in which children were categorized as knowing or not knowing stereotypes, the researchers did not find any significant effects when examining whether gender knowledge was associated with sex-typed behavior in either the group or individual observation sessions.4 The authors, therefore, concluded that the impact of cognitive variables on children's sex-typed preferences might have been overemphasized. They stated that " . . . sex-congruent toy choice predates the ability to assign toys to male and female categories . . . " (p. 213) and assert that these data present a challenge to gender schema theory.

The conclusions drawn from this study do not seem justified for some of the same methodological reasons that were discussed regarding the earlier studies (e.g., differential processing demands of the tasks, using unattractive feminine toys, inappropriate analysis model). Moreover, the only significant sex difference found in terms of time spent with these toys was for doll play. Given that children were grouped solely on their overall success rate on the gender knowledge measure, it is unclear if the children who knew the gender labels of specific items (e.g., dolls) were the children who were more likely to approach or avoid these toys. It is noteworthy though that a correlational model may not have even detected a possible relationship. Overall, stereotypic knowledge was very low and, therefore, there was insufficient power to examine its possible effect on preferences. Thus, while it is reasonable to expect that the 2-year-olds in this study demonstrated sex-typed preferences before having stereotyped knowledge, the low levels of both stereotypic knowledge and sex differences in preferences make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Moreover, even if the children did show preferences before knowledge, it would not constitute a challenge to the tenets of gender schema theory. It would be interesting, however, to follow the children in a longitudinal study to see if preferences shift once children do have knowledge.

In summary, prior conclusions that gender knowledge does not play a role in the development of sex-typed preferences seem premature. The data available to date are not convincing because of the myriad conceptual and methodological limitations of these studies. In fact, this claim is even more questionable when reviewing research that has found that gender knowledge relates to sex-typed preferences. These studies are summarized in the next section.

The Polarity Path

The Polarity Path

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