From the time we are born, humans must learn a phenomenal amount of information to survive and thrive in the complexities of human society. Starting at a young age, children look to experts to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Research suggests that by the age of four, a child preferd someone who knows how to fix their broken toy over someone who only knows the name of the tool needed to fix it. This ability to identify important information is a foundation in the concept of social learning. Social learning is described as the ability for a child to gain knowledge from others without engaging in the activity directly. As far as children’s interpretation of gender stereotypes, young children seem to develop a preference to play with others of the same gender as them. Children often exhibit a strong sense of gender identity that starts in preschool. and articulate rigid expectations in how they and their peers should behave, otherwise known as stereotype (e.g. ‘Pink is a girl’s colour’, and ‘Boys play with trucks, not dolls’).
To test the extent of how children’s view of gender affects the ability to recognize experts, Boseovski, Hughes, and Miller looked at the influence of opposite gender stereotype on children’s ability to identify the correct expert, likability, and learning preference. To test this, they used forty-eight 5-6 year olds, and forty-eight 6-8 year olds. The children perform tasks that included stories that involved boy and girl characters of the same age, that were either experts or novices in an activity. Half of the characters of both genders, were experts in stereotypical activities. Boys being experts in football or construction and girls being experts in sewing and ballet. The other half of the characters were counter gender-stereotypical experts: boys who knew a lot about ballet or sewing and girls who knew a lot about construction and football.
When children were presented a story with a choice between experts who looked like a stereotype of their gender and a novice, results showed all but three children identified the correct expert from the novice. The boys rated boy experts significantly higher on the likability scale than girl stereotypical experts. The girls rated girl stereotypical experts higher than boys, but not significantly so.
However, results were a little different when children were presented stories with a choice between a gender typical novice and an expert who looked like the opposite of their gender, otherwise known as gender counter-stereotypical. When looking at the children’s responses to correctly identify the counter-stereotypical expert, the results showed younger boys and girls picked the experts the same amount. As expected, the older children were more likely to pick the gender counter-stereotypical experts as correct than younger children. However, it is interesting that authors specifically noted boys in both age groups were at chance levels for identifying girl experts as correct. Meaning the boys were more likely to identify the boy expert as correct, but not so much for the girl experts when the experts were gender counter-stereotypical. As for likability ratings, older children gave higher likability scores for counter gender-stereotypical experts than younger children, no matter the gender of the expert. Interestingly, the authors found younger and older boys liked boy experts more than girl experts in this group. When it came to the learning preferences for the children, younger children wanted to learn more from experts of the same gender, no matter the stereotype. Keeping in line with other research, younger boys were more likely to prefer learning from boy experts, and younger girls were more likely to prefer learning from girl experts. But, older boys and girls did not have a learning preference for same gender experts.
The authors specifically mentioned the older and younger boys’ performance as interesting. They also confirmed the results were consistent with other research that indicated boys were less likely than girls to acknowledge girls as gender counter stereotypical experts in activities like athletics. Boseovski, Hughes, and Miller point out that as girls age they are heavily discouraged from taking part in physical sports. However, it is important to note that the authors are cautious in drawing conclusions from their results and do not draw cause and effect relationships from their results.
Why is this important? We want to make sure our children have every opportunity and advantage to learn new information and blossom into smart, inquisitive adults. Part of that includes helping children recognize when experts have useful information. Another part of why it’s important to understand the influence of gender on children’s knowledge acquisition is because we want to reduce stigma surrounding rigid gender stereotypes. Ultimately we want everyone’s expertise to be recognized and taken seriously. This is not a simple topic research, nor is it an easy problem to fix. But I am hopeful that future research will help us minimize negative effects of rigid gender expectations.
Author: Melissa Elfers
Boseovski, J. J., Hughes, C., & Miller, S. E. (2016). Expertise in unexpected places: Children’s acceptance of information from gender counter-stereotypical experts. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 141, 161–176. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.09.002