Beyond Pink and Blue Walls

Parents, beware of the gender stereotypes embedded in your thinking.

A. Richard Allen

We’ve heard it so many times: Girls are good at reading, and boys excel at math.

Over and over, articles in the popular press tell us that girls and boys have entirely different brains, interests and learning styles. And so we believe that girls and boys should be parented differently, educated differently and trained for different careers.

The research I did for a book Caryl Rivers and I wrote, “The Truth About Girls and Boys” (Columbia University Press, 2011), shows clearly how deeply flawed this thinking is. There’s no scientific evidence that boys are better than girls at math — none at all.

In fact, the gender stereotypes that pervade our society ignore two critical points that do have a solid foundation in scientific research. First, enormous variation exists within gender. Not all girls are alike; not all boys are alike. Gender does not determine interests, preferences, strengths or weaknesses. Parents discover this firsthand. One son turns out to be sports-crazy, and the other is a bookworm. One daughter is a tomboy, while her sister prefers to play word games.

Second, there’s a lot of overlap between the genders, especially when you look at the so-called hard-wired cognitive abilities. Knowing a child’s gender tells you almost nothing about what her scores in math or verbal aptitude might be. Conversely, knowing a child’s math or verbal score does not help you guess that child’s gender.

When you measure the cognitive abilities of boys and girls, the actual difference between the genders is trivial compared to the enormous overlap they share. In other words, although the average boy’s math aptitude may be a tiny bit higher than the average girl’s, many girls score higher in math than many boys.

Nevertheless, research tells us, parents-to-be start to engage in the kind of thinking that puts children into pink or blue boxes as soon as they learn the sex of their expected baby. Caryl and I talked with a kindergarten teacher who said one mother told her, “Oh, my daughter isn’t good at math.” The little girl was 5! How could anyone know whether she was good at math?

Growing up, children see mostly men working as police officers, firefighters and truck drivers, and mostly women working as nannies, teachers and nurses. So, in their eyes, the male gender takes on such attributes as “brave,” “strong” and “adventurous,” while the female gender is “gentle,” “caring” and “emotional.”

Simplistic gender stereotypes like these get embedded early on — studies show children as young as 2 have already absorbed them — and are highly resistant to change. They affect us in powerful ways throughout our lives. Infants exhibit no gender difference in emotional responsiveness. But, over time, children receive powerful messages that tell them that emotions are for girls, that boys should damp their emotions down.

We all know girls and boys who do not fit the stereotypes. These children may be teased by their peers and urged, in one way or another, to conform to what’s expected. All too often, they think of themselves as “different,” a belief that can lower their self-esteem and self-confidence. Many of us know men and women who, rather than following their own authentic preferences, have made career or lifestyle choices on the basis of society’s ideas about appropriate male or female behavior.

Marketers play a large role in codifying stereotypes. At the toy store, there is a girls’ aisle and a boys’ aisle, and never the twain shall meet. Today, most women work, and they work in all sorts of fields: medicine, science, athletics, the arts. Yet the toys in the girls’ aisle are all about make-believe and housekeeping — you see fairy and witch costumes, baby dolls, pretend kitchen appliances. Boys’ toys are all about power and action. Boys are the doers. Girls are the passive bystanders.

Adults unwittingly absorb this culture, too. So our first job as parents is to recognize that we are complicit in propagating gender stereotypes, even if we consciously reject them. For our children to grow up free from the constraints of gender straitjackets, we have to do our own homework first, carefully monitoring our words and watching our behaviors.

If we send the right messages, we can help children stretch the rigid boundaries of gender categories. Let your daughter know that being a girl does not preclude her liking a whole range of “boy” activities. Remind her that she is a girl who likes science, math and rugged sports. Similarly, remind your son that he is a boy who likes helping other children, reading, caring for the pet dog and cooking.

Parents should recognize their children’s individual strengths and nurture them, regardless of the gender expectations that try to limit who we are and what we do.

Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center. Her latest book is “The New Soft War on Women” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013).