Stereotype Knowledge

In terms of children's stereotype knowledge of concrete items and activities, it has been consistently found that this knowledge emerges during the preschool years and reaches ceiling levels by age 5 or 6 (see Ruble & Martin, 1998, for a review). For example, children as young as 3 are beginning to understand that items such as hairbrushes, dolls, domestic tools (e.g., iron, broom), and a needle and thread are associated with females while bats, balls, shovels, and cars are linked to males. Moreover, recent research has found that 4-year-olds show awareness of metaphorical gendered associations (Leinbach, Hort, & Fagot, 1997) and that 18-month-olds have formed metaphorical associations specific to the male role (Eichstedt, Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Sen, 2002). This type of knowledge refers to children's ability to perceive some abstract similarity among items that are associated with males or females. For example, hearts, the color pink, roundness, and softness are metaphorically associated with females while bears, the color blue, anger, and roughness are metaphorically associated with males. While there is some overlap between metaphorical and conventional knowledge, some theorists believe that abstracting metaphors requires going beyond direct associations and, therefore, may drive the acquisition of more conventional stereotypes (Eichstedt et al., 2002).

As children grow older, they continue to develop more detailed knowledge of concrete items and begin to learn about the stereotypes in other domains (Ruble & Martin, 1998). Specifically, research suggests that occupational stereotypes are learned around kindergarten and that attribute stereotypes emerges around age 5 and may continue to develop into adolescence (Aubry et al., 1999; Huston, 1983; Ruble & Martin 1998). Assessing knowledge of personality attributes has been complicated due to children's tendency to mainly attribute the positive items to their own sex and the negative items to the opposite sex regardless of the cultural stereotype (see Aubry et al., 1999). It has been found, however, that this same-sex bias is gradually replaced by more "accurate" associations during middle childhood (Aubry et al., 1999; Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993).

In addition to expanding their stereotypic knowledge to include other domains, older children also seem to show increases in the ability to make more complex associations (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990). This finding is based on the application of a component model of gender stereotype knowledge, which extends the assessment of gendered associations to include children's knowledge of "horizontal links" (see Martin, 1993). In addition to determining whether children can link certain attributes to a gender label (woman—dress), this type of assessment involves finding out if children can make a link for the attributes within (dress—high heels) or between (dress—nurturant) components. Research using these types of assessments have found that children are able to make horizontal associations for their own sex by age 6, but are unable to make opposite-sex horizontal links until about 8 years of age (Martin et al., 1990). It is important to note, however, that having more stereotyped knowledge and attaining the cognitive ability to make more complex gendered associations does not mean that children will continue to apply this information in a rigid fashion. In fact, just the opposite occurs; as children grow older, they become more flexible when assigning stereotypes. This idea is drawn from research that found that as children grow older, they are more likely to assign specific stereotypes to both sexes rather than stating that items are true for "only boys/men" or "only girls/women" (Trautner, 1992; Trautner, Ruble, Cyphers, Kirsten, Behrendt, & Hartmann, in press). It has been suggested that these developmental changes are partly due to children's advancing classification skills (Bigler, 1995; Trautner, 1992). Consistent with this belief, recent longitudinal research found that by 8 years old, children had similar levels of stereotype flexibility regardless of how rigid they were at earlier ages (Trautner, Ruble, Cyphers et al., in press). Moreover, children who showed earlier rigidity were even more flexible later on rather than less (Trautner, Ruble, Cyphers et al., in press). These results imply that young children's high levels of gender stereotype rigidity is part of a predictable developmental stage that occurs when they are first learning about and trying to make sense of gender.

The measures used to assess stereotype knowledge generally have children either verbally match pictures according to sex or have them sort into or point to male/female labeled boxes (e.g., Edelbrock & Sugawara, 1978; Leinbach, Hort, & Fagot, 1997). While these types of measures may seem age-appropriate for older children, it is possible that the tasks are too complicated to accurately detect the knowledge of children who are 3 or younger (Aubry et al., 1999). This indicates that children might develop stereotypic knowledge at much younger ages than is generally believed. In fact, recent studies using nonverbal looking-time tasks have found that infants age 2 years or younger have some knowledge of activities and objects that are associated with each gender (Eichstedt et al., 2002; Levy & Haaf, 1994; Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, Colburne, Sen, & Eichstedt, 2001; Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Eichstedt, 2002). For example, Serbin et al. (2001; Experiment 2) used an adaptation of the preferential looking paradigm to determine if 18- and 24-month-olds were able to correctly match gender-typed toys with the face of a boy or a girl. This first involved having children look at two identical pictures of either a masculine (i.e., vehicle) or feminine (i.e., doll) toy that was displayed on side-by-side computer screens. As the toy was shown, a gender ambiguous voice said, "See my doll (car)? That's my doll (car)!" After 5 seconds, a picture of a boy and a girl appeared on the screens accompanied by the statement, "Look at me!" The assumption in this procedure is that children who knew the gender stereotype associated with the toy would look at the matching face (e.g., girl after doll) longer than the mismatching face (e.g., boy after doll). The results indicated that there were no differences in the boys' looking time; however, the girls in both age groups looked significantly longer at the matched face when compared to the mismatched face.3 This suggests that girls as young as 18 months are aware of the gender stereotypes associated with toys.

More recent studies using similar paradigms found that both boys and girls were aware of some of the gender stereotypes associated with adults (Eichstedt et al., 2002; Serbin et al., 2002). These studies, however, are based on the reverse assumption than the one that guided the Serbin et al. (2001) study. Instead of expecting children to look longer at the matched pictures, children who have knowledge of gender stereotypes are expected to look longer at the mismatched picture because it is seen as novel or surprising. For example, Serbin et al. (2002) showed 24-month-olds paired pictures of men and women engaging in identical activities that were either masculine (e.g., hammering, taking out the garbage), feminine (e.g., putting on make-up, feeding a baby) or neutral (e.g., reading, turning on a light). The results indicated that the children paid significantly more attention to the gender-inconsistent picture when the activities were feminine (e.g., man putting on make-up), but paid almost equal attention to the two pictures when the adults were performing a masculine activity. The stronger "mismatching" effect for feminine activities was consistent with the parents' report regarding the role division in the home. The report indicated that mothers were more likely to perform the feminine activities; however, the masculine activities were typically performed by either both parents or mostly mothers. In this case, the pictures of the women performing the masculine activities (e.g., woman taking out the garbage) was probably not seen as surprising or novel to the infants.

These results are somewhat inconsistent with another "surprise" study which found that 18- and 24-month olds were aware of the stereotypes associated with masculine stereotypes, but not feminine objects (Eichstedt et al., 2002). Like the earlier Serbin et al. (2001; Experiment 2) study, Eichstedt et al. (2002) used a sequential visual attention task, which involved presenting identical pictures of masculine (e.g., fire hat) or feminine (e.g., tiara) items accompanied by a gender-ambiguous voice saying, "This is the one I like. Can you look at me?" One male and one female adult face was shown after the objects and the only significant result found was that the children looked significantly longer at the female faces after the masculine items were presented. The authors suggest that the children displayed knowledge of masculine stereotypes, explaining the longer looking time at the female faces as evidence of "surprise." It is noteworthy though that this interpretation is the opposite of the assumption that was used to interpret the results in the Serbin et al. (2001) study. It is, therefore, unclear when "matched" or "mismatched" looking times should be used as evidence of gender stereotype knowledge. Until further research clarifies this confusion, the results from the infant paradigm studies should be interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, the results suggest that it is likely that children are developing at least some rudimentary knowledge of gender associations in the second year of life. Moreover, it is possible that girls may develop this knowledge quicker than boys (see also O'Brien et al., 2000) and that individual experiences may determine whether the initial learning of masculine and feminine stereotypes is acquired at different rates.

In addition to taking the target's sex into account when attempting to understand children's gender stereotype knowledge, it is also necessary to recognize that stereotypes are processed and activated within a situational context. This point was illustrated in a study of 6- and 7-year-old children in Scotland (Sani & Bennett, 2001). The researchers had children select cards to describe their own sex group (girls or boys) after they either performed the same procedure to describe opposite sex peers (girls or boys) or same-sex adults (women or men). Interestingly, the results revealed that the group of adjectives that were selected to describe the children's in-group depended on which out-group was used as a comparative reference. For example, when boys' comparative out-group was girls, their top two adjectives selected to describe boys were "strong" and "brave." In contrast, the most frequent adjectives selected when the reference group was men were "honest" and "happy." For girl participants, the top traits selected to describe their in-group were "friendly" and "happy" after they described boys and "kind" and "nice" after they described women. A similar study assessing 5- and 7-year old children also found that children's in-group descriptions depended on their frame of reference (Sani, Bennett, Mullally, & MacPherson, 2003). These studies provide some support for self-categorization theory, which asserts that the nature of stereotypes depends on the inter-group context. In this view, group stereotypes are considered to be highly flexible and variable rather than rigid and fixed. As discussed in the beginning of this chapter, these results highlight the need to consider levels of analysis beyond the individual when studying aspects of gender development.

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