The Effect of Gender Labels on Exploration Preferences and Performance Exploration

The three studies that have examined the effects of gender stereotypes on children's exploration have found that children are more likely to approach same-sex labeled toys when compared to opposite-sex labeled toys (Bradbard & Endsley, 1983; Bradbard, Martin, Endsley, & Halverson, 1986; Masters, Ford, Arend, Grotevant, & Clark, 1979). For example, Bradbard et al. (1986) measured the amount of time 4 to 9-year-old children tactually explored novel objects after they were provided with same-sex, opposite-sex, and neutral labels. Although differential touching as a function of label was significant for the older children only, Bradford and Endsley (1983) found the same significant results for a sample of preschoolers when using almost the same procedure. Masters et al. (1979) found similar effects for preschoolers even when the labels were applied to more familiar toys (i.e., 2 balloons, 2 xylophones). Specifically, they found that children spent 75% of their time playing with same-sex labeled toys and 25% of their time playing with opposite-sex labeled toys. Overall, the results of these studies demonstrate that children's initial interest and contact with toys is affected by what they believe adults think is sex-appropriate.


The research that has examined the effects of gender labels on verbal preferences has been less consistent than the exploration studies. This may be due to developmental changes in the ways children respond to gender labels. For example, all of the preference studies that assessed children under the age of 6 found significant gender labeling effects (Martin, Eisenbud, & Rose, 1995; Masters et al., 1979; Thompson, 1975). One of these studies is especially noteworthy because it is one of the only labeling studies that manipulated attractiveness for the toys and accounted for possible pressure to conform effects (Martin et al., 1995, study 3). Martin and colleagues showed children, between the ages of 4 to almost 6, novel toys that varied in attractiveness and that were labeled either for boys, for girls, or were given no label. One experimenter provided the labels and a second experimenter assessed the children's preferences and, at the end of the session, examined their memory for the gender labels. Not surprisingly, only children who remembered at least most of the labels (i.e., high recall children) showed the gender labeling effect. Moreover, the children who remembered the labels significantly liked attractive toys more than unattractive toys only when attractiveness comparisons were made within the same-sex and unlabeled toys.

The results from the studies that assessed the preferences of children 6 and older are less consistent in their findings when compared to the early childhood research. While half of the studies found a significant gender labeling effect (Liebert, McCall, & Hanratty, 1971;10 Montemayor, 1974; White, 1978),11 there were two studies that did not find any differences in preferences between conditions (Etaugh & Ropp, 1976; Herzog, Enright, Luria, & Rubin, 1982), and one study that found a preference effect for boys only (Stein, Pohly, & Mueller, 1971). It is interesting that the two studies that did not find any gender label influences were at least partly designed to replicate the frequently cited Montemayor (1974) study. In the Montemayor (1974) study, children 6 to 8 years old played a novel game ("Mr.

Munchie") that involved throwing as many plastic marbles as possible into a clown's body within a set time frame. Before playing the game, the children were either told that the game was "for boys, like basketball," "for girls, like jacks," or "for children your age" (i.e., neutral condition). Children in the same-sex and neutral conditions liked the game significantly more when compared to the children in the other-sex condition.

A review of the later Mr. Munchie studies offer some possibilities for why these findings were not replicated (Etaugh & Ropp, 1976; Herzog et al., 1982). First, even though Herzog et al. (1982) sought to replicate the original Mr. Munchie study, they may have altered the instructions in significant ways. Instead of telling children that the game was "for boys" or "for girls," they stated, "The people who made Munchie feel that girls (boys) can do much better than boys (girls) in the Munchie game." This finding, therefore, suggests that children 6 to 8 may be less likely to internalize gender stereotypes when they convey ability comparisons. In these situations, young children may ignore the external labels and rely on more comfortable modes of assessment such as toy attractiveness and self-oriented standards. Herzog's study lends some support for this idea in that they found that less than a quarter of the children accepted or agreed with the label provided by the experimenter (study 2).

The Etaugh and Ropp (1976) study differed from Herzog's in two ways that are relevant to this discussion. First, their sample consisted of third and fifth graders and, second, they employed labeling instructions that were almost identical to the original Munchie study. It is possible then that older children may be less likely to internalize general category labels ("for girls/boys") when they are confronted with a novel situation. Unfortunately, the manipulation check employed in this study was too limited to accurately test this hypothesis. Mainly, they did not include a "both girls and boys" option in their scale. Most of the children in Herzog et al. (1982) chose this option despite the labels, which raises the question of whether a significant number of Etaugh and Ropp's sample would have described Munchie as gender neutral if given the opportunity.


Do gender stereotypes influence children's actual performance on tasks? A review of this literature reveals that the effects seem to depend on age, type of label, and sex. In terms of age and type of label, the three Mr. Munchie studies (Etaugh & Ropp, 1976; Herzog et al., 1982; Montemayor, 1974) that were discussed with reference to the preference literature show the same issues regarding their findings on performance (i.e., number of successful tosses thrown into the toy). Namely, Montemayor (1974) found a significant gender labeling effect on children's performance, and the other two studies did not (Etaugh & Ropp, 1976; Herzog et al., 1982). Again, this is possibly due to developmental differences in the ways that children internalize and respond to alternative types of gender labels (i.e., older children may react more to ability labels while younger children may react more to category labels). Nonetheless, a study that assessed the problem-solving performance in children 3 to 5 showed that boys were affected by ability gender labels after the "...experimenter casually remarked that this was a task on which either boys or girls or both generally did well..." (Gold & Berger, 1978, p. 186). Given that this study had less than 10 boys in each condition and is the only ability labeling study that has been conducted with children younger than 6, caution needs to be used when drawing conclusions. This is especially important since the experimenters did not include a memory check in their design. This leaves open the possibility that the preschoolers did not even attend to or process the brief, casual label that was provided to the task.

In addition to considering the interaction of age and type of label, the gender labeling effects on performance also seem to depend on sex. Specifically, two performance studies found an effect for boys only (Gold & Berger, 1978; Stein et al., 1971). Interestingly, the Stein et al. (1971) study was different than each of the other performance studies described in that it examined indexes of motivation (i.e., time spent on each task) rather than actual performance. The analyses revealed that only boys spent significantly longer on the same-sex test when compared to the other tests (i.e., opposite-sex and neutral). An examination of sex-role preference scores though revealed that girls with high masculine preferences worked significantly longer on the masculine test than on the feminine test, whereas low-masculine preference girls worked an equal amount of time on each task. For boys, sex-role preference was not related to the time they spent on the tasks. These results suggest that gender identity factors may partially explain why some studies have found that boys are more affected by gender stereotype knowledge when compared to girls.

While the majority of gender labeling studies use direct stereotypes, a series of three studies found that the performance of both girls and boys is even affected by more subtle gender labels (Hargreaves et al., 1985; Davies, 1986, 1989). For example, Hargreaves et al. (1985) asked 10- and 11-year-olds to participate in a perceptual-motor steadiness task that involved passing a close-fitting metal ring around a 3 feet long bent wire without touching the wire. Children were either told "This is a test to see how good you would be at mechanics or at operating machinery" or "This is a test to see how good you would be at needlework—sewing and knitting." Both boys and girls made fewer errors on the task when it was labeled with a sex-appropriate stereotype than with a sex-inappropriate stereotype. Using an almost identical procedure, Davies (1986, 1989) confirmed these results in two studies that were conducted with 11-, 13-, and 16-year-old children. Overall, these studies illustrate that the performance of middle-elementary school children are influenced by subtle ability labels that imply gender stereotypes.

In summary, the experimental studies demonstrate that children's behavior is affected by their immediate knowledge of gender stereotypes. While there are clear effects for the exploration studies, the research has not shown completely consistent results when assessing preferences and performance. For example, consistent with the correlational studies, it seems that boys are more likely than girls to be influenced by gender labels. Further, developmental differences may affect whether boys and girls even attend to, accept, and process the different types of gender labels. Another issue is that other factors besides gender knowledge are likely to influence children's gender-typed behaviors. Stein et al. (1971) is one of the only experimental studies that assessed other factors and found that sex-role preference did, in fact, moderate the results. As raised when discussing the nonexperimental studies, this is an area that is lacking in the literature that addresses the relationship between gender stereotype knowledge and behavior. In terms of research design issues, these studies highlight the importance of examining children's memory and acceptance of gender labels. Moreover, attractiveness of specific toys appears to be an important influence on children's toy preferences. Thus, it is important in this research to use novel, equally interesting toys or to experimentally vary attractiveness in the design.

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