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Children as Young as 4 Associate Power and Money With Men: Study

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Feb 4, 2020

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Children as young as 4 start associating power and money with men, a study published in the journal Sex Roles has found. The tendency to do so is higher among boys and holds true even of children from countries considered to be more egalitarian, such as Norway and France.

The findings are in tandem with previous research that has also shown the effect of gendered childhood conditioning — for example, that children internalize the myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong, and this belief shows in their behavior and expectations as they grow up. These beliefs can last a lifetime because, “… this message is being constantly reinforced at almost every turn, by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches,” Robert Blum, Ph.D., director, Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the Global Early Adolescent Study, one of the most comprehensive analyses of how adolescent children perceive growing up, said in a press release. Therefore, not only do these sources need to be aware of their attempts at conditioning child behavior and stereotypes they might be reinforcing, but interventions to change these biases need to start at a much earlier age, Blum says. “By the age of 10, it can be too late,” he adds.

Researchers of the new study reached their conclusions after carrying out a set of three experiments with 3- to 6-year-old children. In the first experiment, they showed children a photograph of two non-gendered people in which one had a dominant physical posture — e.g. they purposefully posed to take up more physical space, or attempted to look bigger — and the other had a subordinate posture — for instance, they purposefully tried to appear smaller. On seeing the photograph, children had to first guess which of the two was exercising power over the other. Then, they had to assign a gender to each person. From the results of the first experiment, researchers gathered that from as young as 4 years old, a majority of the children were already biased to consider the person with a dominant posture to be a man. Both boys and girls associated masculinity and power with men, the study found.

In the second experiment, children aged 4 and 5 had to imagine themselves as one of the characters from the same photo shown in the first experiment. When with another child of the same gender, children in the experiment identified themselves with the powerful figure. But when the same children had to identify themselves in front of a child of the opposite gender, boys ended up identifying with the more dominant person, while girls identified equally with both figures. Conditioning child behavior along gender lines from a young age could perhaps be the cause of such associations within the participants.


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In the third experiment, children aged 4 and 5 listened to a conversation between two hidden puppets. One represented a boy and the other, a girl. In the first scenario, the puppets were talking about getting ready to play a game together. In this conversation, the children heard one puppet impose its choice on the other. In the other scenario, one puppet had more money to buy ice cream. On hearing these scenarios, most boys thought that the puppet that imposed their choice, or that had more money, was the male puppet; girls attributed the dominant personality equally to both genders.

“These results show that children have early sensitivity to a gender hierarchy, though in some situations girls do not associate power and masculinity,” the study stated.  

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Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.

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