Researchers Weren’t Looking For Gender Stereotyping By Parents — They Just Found It

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gender stereotypingCognitive psychologist Alicia Chang wasn’t looking to uncover gender stereotypes with regards to parenting. In her original study, she hoped to study differences in cross-cultural parenting that could account for disparities in math performance levels. After studying the preliminary results of audio conversations between parents and children however, Alicia found herself confronted with an astounding trend that strayed from her original point of interest:  mothers of young children were presenting their sons with mathematical concepts early — and not their daughters. She posits that this unconscious sexism prevents girls from becoming as confident in using numbers in the classroom as boys due to a lack of early encouragement. But more importantly, Alicia’s findings also demonstrate that even if you aren’t looking for gender stereotypes, they’re often there. [tagbox tag=”gender stereotypes”]

The research indicated that this was specifically a demographic of parents who, you assumed, would be aware of gender stereotyping and sexism. Yet, the numbers reveal that mothers presented their sons with more opportunities to think about mathematics and numbers. How do you account for this?

The total amount of speech did not differ between sons and daughters, so it’s definitely striking that the percentage of time spent on numbers with boys was much higher than with girls. We concluded that preexisting stereotypes about male dominance in mathematics might be so pervasive that these culturally prescribed gender roles could be unintentionally reinforced to very young children.

We write often about how toys and media condition children in terms of gendered expectations, but these findings suggest that parents are just as susceptible. What do you advise parents to do?

When it comes to talking about numbers and math with children, I think that simple things like counting objects and comparing quantities can be easily added to everyday activities with all kids, regardless of gender. It’s my hope that we can raise awareness about deeply ingrained stereotypes and use this knowledge in a positive way. It would be great if somehow this could contribute, even the slightest bit, to more gender equality, whether it be in the home talking to your kids, or on a much broader scale, in the makeup of the future workforce.

Your research indicates that “familiarity breeds liking.” So, by not exposing your daughter to numbers and basic mathematical concepts, are you costing her the confidence to pursue such interests later in life?

There has been a lot of previous research done about career choice. People are likely to choose to pursue domains in which they expect to succeed. And by elementary school, boys rate their perceived competence in math higher than girls, even though achievement scores do not differ significantly between genders. Your daughter might be performing well in math, but her confidence might be low. One factor that may have contributed to this is the idea that numbers and math concepts were not emphasized from an early age as being important to her, so she might be less likely to pursue a math-related area as a major or career.

What variables, if any, were there in this study? Any holes you’d like to explore further with other research?

A lot of people have asked about the role of fathers in this study. I’d like to clarify that we did not intentionally choose mothers (there were not enough fathers in the original sample for a separate comparison), and certainly do not discount the role of fathers in children’s mathematical development. We matched the children by age and by the total amount of speech in the transcript of the session, so we could compare across more or less equivalent groups of boys and girls. I would love to see if gender differences are pervasive with older children, and ideally, it would be interesting to see how the kids fare on tests of numeric and mathematical ability, and what they end up doing in their adult lives!

(photo: Shutterstock)