Children Internalize Gender Stereotypes as Early as Age Ten

A 15-country study examines how gender stereotypes affect the sexual, reproductive, and mental health of young people.

Girls are vulnerable and boys are stronger. Boys should have the courage to ask a girl out. If a boy gets his nails done, there’s definitely something feminine about him. Girls should prepare to become wives and mothers, and boys should focus on their careers.

In countries across the world, regardless of economic status, gender stereotypes are thriving. For sure, cultural variations exist, but a new global study of adolescents published in the US-based Journal of Adolescent Health suggests stereotypes begin seeping into the mindset of children early — as early as age 10.

Internalizing unequal gender norms has both immediate and long-term consequences on sexual, reproductive, and mental health, including risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, complications associated with early pregnancy, substance and alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide. These health concerns, according to the study, begin during adolescence and can carry over into adulthood.

“We found children at a very early age — from the most conservative to the most liberal societies — quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins University and director of the Global Early Adolescent Study said in a press release accompanying publication of the study.

The research was a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Health Organization.

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Researchers across 15 countries, including the United States, China, Kenya, Belgium, Nigeria, India, South Africa, and Scotland, among others, interviewed over 400 children aged 10 to 14, along with their parents.

Perception of distinct, gendered roles takes root in a child’s mindset between the age of 10 and 14, according to the report. And while the impact of these stereotypes is not surprising, “the fact that they are so common across cultures and economic status and ingrained in children at such a relatively young age, is unexpected,” Kristin Mmari, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and lead researcher on study, told Seeker.

A 12-year-old girl participating in the study from Delhi recalled one of her female classmates being scolded by a teacher for wearing short skirts and playing with boys. “After the school got over, she was sitting alone when a boy went inside the school and raped her as she wearing short skirt,” the girl is quoted as saying in the study.

The report also highlights progress in challenging gender norms.

In Belgium, girls’ participation in sports was celebrated. “Girls are [one] hundred percent [as involved as] boys in football,” a 13-year-old boy is quoted saying. “[Today] there are more girls playing football than boys.”

In China, however, an 11-year-old boy said girls must display certain male traits like strength, fearlessness, and indifference to pain, before successfully participating in the sport.

A message of strength and virility being passed onto boys across cultures is equally threatening to their development, the study suggests. In China, India, Belgium, and the United States, researchers saw that girls are pushing the boundaries of gender norms more than boys. But boys exploring stereotypically female behavior were seen as socially inferior. As a result, they suffer and tend to be more self-harming, said the researchers.

Mmari says stereotypes can be deconstructed and reformed and are amenable to change. “But do I think it will happen quickly? No,” she said.

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Researchers across the board agree interventions aimed at challenging stereotypes need to look beyond targeting individual children. The messages, after all, are introduced and reinforced by a broader system that includes siblings, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy, and coaches.

“We need to work on the parents, the elders,” said Rajib Acharya, a researcher who contributed to the reports work in India. “The programs should target them and that’s a very difficult job, especially in a country like India.”

But Mmari remains optimistic. “Let’s start with being sensitized to how young these children are when they are learning these gender mythologies and how dangerous it can be for generations to follow,” she said.

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