Published Online: August 5, 2011

Commentary

Confronting Gender Anxiety

As their children head back to school, the question of gender is on the minds of many parents. Why? Recent—and widely circulated—news stories have focused on individuals and schools grappling with the question of gender stereotypes.

This past spring, a Toronto couple trying to raise a “genderless” child became a media sensation. Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, refused to reveal whether their 4-month-old baby, Storm, is male or female. They say they want their child to avoid society’s rigid gender norms.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the Egalia preschool has banished the words “girl” and “boy,” and the 33 kids are addressed as “friends.” In the same spirit, the school forgoes the words “him” and “her”—”han” or “hon” in Swedish—replacing them with a newly minted Swedish word, the genderless “hen.”

One can sympathize with the motives of the parents in the first case, without endorsing such a radical step. The crucial distinction, overlooked by these parents, is that biological sex, a genetic given, is not the same as gender, a flexible social construct. Today, girls play rugby, and boys wear earrings. Increasingly, knowing a child’s sex does not tell you whether that child is going to do well in athletics, excel in math, or be the class president.

The Egalia school’s strategy may also be shortsighted. The school is legitimately concerned about the pervasive tendency to fit children into restrictive female or male “boxes.” Although the school is trying to minimize this process, its approach is unlikely to have real long-term effects. After all, children are in school only a relatively few hours a day, but they’re exposed to gendered messages all day, every day.

Indeed, stereotypes exert considerable force.

Like it or not, we all carry false gender stereotypes inside our heads, probably unconsciously. For example, from very early on, mothers may discourage girls from taking risks by routinely underestimating their daughters’ abilities. In the study “Gender Bias in Mothers’ Expectations About Infant Crawling” published in 2000, 11-month-old babies were allowed to crawl down a carpeted slope that had adjustable angles.

Mothers thought that their daughters would avoid the steep slopes, while their sons would be fearless. But they were wrong. Boys and girls didn’t differ much. In fact, the girl babies tended to be a bit more daring.

We’ve known for a long time that stereotypes have staying power. Indeed, there’s solid scientific evidence that gender stereotypes can put children in cognitive and emotional straitjackets. In 1980, stories about a male “math gene” were rampant in the news media. A study of highly gifted math students in a special program found that boys outperformed girls.

"Parents should realize that when they fall prey to gender stereotypes, they are actually shaping what kind of brains their children will eventually have."

Since both sexes shared the same classrooms, it was suggested that girls’ poorer scores must be due to their genetic makeup, not to cultural factors. But critics pointed out that boys and girls did not share the same experiences. Parents of talented boys bought their sons special toys and books to heighten their math skills and encouraged them to pursue the field. Parents of talented girls, on the other hand, did not take such actions.

The “math gene” faded from scientific view. But a longitudinal study, “Gender Differences in Math Ability: The Impact of Media Reports on Parents,” published by University of Michigan researchers five years later, in 1985, found that the math gene notion had “legs.”

Mothers who knew about the media stories lowered their expectations of their daughters’ math capabilities. This study was important because it linked a specific media narrative to mothers’ actual attitudes toward their daughters.

It’s not only girls who suffer from stereotypes. Harvard psychologist William Pollack, the author of the classic and important book Real Boys, points out that as early as 2nd grade, a stifling “boy culture” can erode the “interpersonal” skills that come naturally to boys. Pollack reports in his book that boy babies are actually more expressive and vocal than girl babies. “We now have executives paying $10,000 a week to learn emotional intelligence. These [sessions] actually target skills boys were born with.”

However, parents don’t have to raise a “genderless” child to counter stereotypes. In recent years, we have broadened what’s possible for girls and boys, and parents can point their kids to many models in their everyday life.

One example of parent power comes from “Female Teachers' Math Anxiety Impacts Girls’ Math Achievement,” a revealing study from the University of Chicago, published in 2009, of 1st and 2nd graders. It found that female elementary school teachers who lack confidence in their own math skills may pass their anxiety along to the girls they teach.

The more anxious teachers were about their own math skills, the more likely their female students were to score low in math achievement.

But there is a silver lining in this story for parents. Even if your daughter has a teacher with high math anxiety, it’s not inevitable that she’s going to have problems with math. Teachers’ anxiety alone didn’t do the damage. Only if girls already had a belief that “girls aren’t good at math” did their achievement suffer.

However, girls who didn’t buy into the stereotype didn’t tumble into an achievement gulf. It turns out that parents (or others) can “vaccinate” girls against stereotypes.

Parents should realize that when they fall prey to gender stereotypes, they are actually shaping what kind of brains their children will eventually have. Boys who are told they are naturally nonverbal will read less, and their verbal abilities may indeed be stunted. Girls who believe they can’t do math will shy away from math and science—even if they in fact do well in these areas.

The brain is a constantly changing organ. Rebecca Jordan-Young, a women’s studies professor at Barnard College, says that people who cling to gender stereotypes misunderstand the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of the ways the brain grows and is influenced. In her recent book Brain Storm, she notes: “Brains develop only in interaction; input from the external world ... is as critical to the development of [the] brain as food and water are to the entire organism.”

The Toronto couple and the Egalia school were right to start thinking about gender issues early in children’s lives. We know that by age 2, kids already have ideas about “gender appropriate” behavior.

Given how pervasive gender stereotypes are, it’s not realistic to think that parents or teachers can totally isolate children from them. A better strategy may be to fortify kids against these messages by arming them with the self-confidence to make whatever choices they want, regardless of their biological sex.

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