These Are The Surprising Effects Of Gender Stereotyping

by JR Thorpe

How early do we learn harmful gender stereotypes? According to new research, boys and girls across the world are feel their effects as early as the age of 10 — and are already experiencing difficulties because of them at that age. The research comes from the Global Early Adolescent Study, which began back in 2011 in partnership with the World Health Organization. It looked at adolescents across the world to see how gender roles and expectations affect their lives, particularly their sexual health. They've just released the findings from the first phase of their research, involving 15 countries, and it makes for startling and upsetting reading for anybody who's ever wondered whether gender stereotypes are just an adult thing — spoiler alert, they're not.

The study involved children in 15 cities across five continents worldwide. The researchers interviewed 450 young boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 14, plus a parent or guardian, and outlined the many beliefs and ideas about gender that they found, and the possible sexual, societal, and medical consequences of prevalent gender stereotyping among young teens. From the limiting female perspectives, to telling them they're "weak," to setting them up for sexual health risks, the consequences of gender stereotyping are seriously appalling.

Boys & Girls Worldwide Absorb Gender Myths Young, And Face Trouble When Challenging Them

The results of the study found that gender norms and ideas about differences between men and women percolate among children at a very young age. 10-year-olds often had strongly defined ideas about boys, girls and non-conforming gender behavior, and what they had to say wasn't often charming hearing. Interestingly (and depressingly), the researchers often found a marked similarity between beliefs about gender, even across vastly different cultures and countries. They were most commonly reinforced, the researchers found, by parents and by other teens. When the children tried to challenge them, they experienced a lot of trouble.

"We were very surprised to see such universality of the myth that boys are strong, confident and leaders, while girls are weak and incompetent, who should be quiet and follow," lead author Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins University, told the press in a statement. The research itself notes, "Across all study sites, boys are encouraged to be tough, strong, and brave and to demonstrate heterosexual prowess. Girls are taught to be nice, polite, and submissive, and to accentuate their physical beauty while maintaining their modesty. Norms dictating appropriate dress codes for girls are common across all settings, reflecting beliefs about modesty for girls." From Kenya to Belgium, young women are being taught to be quiet and pretty, which has lasting consequences into adulthood.

The researchers identified several notable gender beliefs that cropped up across the world in young kids and their parents. One was the "hegemonic myth" about female vulnerability versus male strength, which disadvantages both men and women by limiting one gender and refusing to support the other. Another was the idea that girls in the early ages of puberty are 'victims' of male sexuality, while boys are predators, an idea that often leads to binary segregation throughout the teenage years, and to huge restrictions on girls' mobility and interactions with boys. Though they'd played together as children, the emergence of sexuality shifts the boundaries between girls and boys around the world, and this change benefits neither boys, nor girls, nor people of other genders.

There are big costs to challenging these ideas — particularly for boys. "Boys face more punitive social consequences [than girls] when they do challenge unequal gender norms," the researchers write. "For example, boys in Baltimore, Shanghai, and Ghent reported being teased by peers as [gay] when they challenged masculine expectations." While girls in some areas are more allowed to do "masculine" things like play sports, boys' masculine roles are seen as very inflexible and those who challenge them face violence and ostracization.

The Consequences Of Teenage Gender Stereotyping

The researchers don't hold back on what they believe to be the consequences of serious gender stereotyping among young adolescents. These ideas, they say, are a "gender straitjacket," and they have big consequences for the lives and health of both genders:

"For girls, HIV/AIDS, complications associated with early pregnancy, childbearing and unsafe abortions, infectious diseases, unintentional injuries, and suicide account for significant mortality. Girls are also more likely than boys to be subjected to harmful traditional practices such as child marriage that have long-standing consequences for their health. Girls are less likely to complete secondary school or have secure employment and are more likely to be exposed to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse."

They also point out that expectations about masculinity are deeply harmful for adolescent boys, too. "For adolescent boys," they write, "top causes of mortality include unintentional injuries from road injuries and interpersonal violence, HIV/AIDS, suicide, and drowning." The emphasis on toxic status-seeking behavior, violence, lack of emotional openness and risky sexual behaviors for young boys can create serious issues for them as they grow. And the option for acting out isn't viable: if boys try to challenge masculine mores, they're punished.

It's a harsh lesson to learn for people who might believe that gender-equal ideas are becoming dominant worldwide. While women are gaining more power and education around the world, these interviews show that for a new generation of adolescents in urban centers, old-school ideas about gender are still hugely prevalent — and they're still holding us all back.

So how can we challenge these ideas young? The researchers have some ideas. Get young teens to talk about and challenge gender norms, they say; look to parents to influence their children positively; use educational institutions, mobile phones, technology and the media; and do more studies. They're setting up to enter phase II of their study, which will focus in-depth on kids from fewer cities over three years and look at everything from the influence of the media to how gender stereotypes affect adolescent ideas of sex and sexuality. For the rest of us, it's a reminder to sit down with our young kids, siblings, cousins, students, or whoever to hash out their gender ideas; to support young boys who gravitate towards stereotypically "feminine" behaviors; and to challenge the gender stereotypes we know all too well.