Do Gender Stereotypes Really Affect Early Childhood Development?

A new study suggests that gender stereotypes put children at increased risk for chronic disease and even suicide. The study looked at data from 15 countries to suggest that gender stereotypes could increase risk of HIV/AIDS and depression in girls for as young as 10 and could increase risk for drug abuse and suicide in boys.

Apparently, children all over the world—in both liberal and conservative cultures—can internalize the damaging beliefs that boys must be aggressive troublemakers while girls are vulnerable and need protection all the time, at a much younger age than researchers had previously thought.

According to Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute director, Robert Blum, “Before this study, there was a general belief that at 10 or 11 years of age, [adolescents] were not clued into any issues around gender norms and values.”

He goes on to say, “Young adolescents do not live in the world of childhood…they live in a transitional era where they’re acutely aware of what’s going on.”

Blum also adds, “The myth that girls are weak and boys are strong, that girls are vulnerable and boys are aggressive, was so globally pervasive we saw it play out over and over again in 15 countries and across five continents.”

As you could probably guess, these gender roles are first learned in the home from parents and other role models and then are reinforced in society by the increasing social circle of siblings, guardians, relatives, classmates, clergy, and coaches.  In almost every society studied, Blum notes that boys were taught to be aggressive, even in romantic and sexual relationships. And these norms, he said, had set in and were already solidified by the time the boys reach adulthood and that leads to more girls dropping out of school or sticking around to experience more sexual and physical violence, more instances of childhood marriage or pregnancy, and higher risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

Wake Forest University psychology professor Deborah Best comments, “Girls get the message they should not be in leadership roles and boys get message they need to be more assertive and aggressive.”

She also notes, “Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old. Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programs that don’t kick in until they are 15 and by then it’s probably too late to make a big difference.”