Gendered messages affect child development, future outcomes

Annie L. Zhang

Children receive gendered messages even before they are born, a phenomenon that affects their development in childhood and their future. Amber Kreischer, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, discussed the implications of gender expectations at her talk on Wednesday titled “Beyond Pink and Blue.”

“When you talk about gender stereotypes, a lot of people just think about colors — pink for girls and blue for boys — but we want to think more about that,” Kreischer said. “What kind of differences and impact does it make on children’s lives, and what happens when people don’t conform to those stereotypes?”

Kreischer said that many aspects of life are “gendered,” meaning that certain things, such as toys, grooming, hobbies and even occupations, are presented differently to a female or male audience.

“There are some things we see and use to instantaneously assume gender — the color blue, dinosaur toys and short hair are all stereotypically ‘male,’” Kreischer said. “Even if we don’t tell that explicitly to a kid, if we see a child and then call them ‘he’ based off of those assumptions, they’ll get that message.”

According to Kreischer, all categories of life can be gendered, even if it’s not on purpose.

“Some really don’t make any sense at all,” Kreischer said. “I’ve had people say when cooking is indoors, it’s for girls, but when you take it outside, like a grill, that’s for men. Gendered messages are everywhere.”

In a recent study cited by Kreischer, researchers showed the same pictures of babies to two different groups. One group was told that the baby was female, and the other that it was male.

Girls were more often labeled as “scared, small and pleasant,” while boys were described as “strong, powerful and angry.” Kreischer said that these perceptions based on the child’s gender influence how adults treat the child.

“If you think a child is afraid, you give them comfort,” Kreischer said. “If you think they’re angry, you’re more likely to respond with hostility too. These differences change how we treat them, and then they grow up into some of these stereotypes, because we’ve been treating them as such.”

For human development and family sciences sophomore Miriha Meghani, who attended the talk, this research has significant ramifications for adults.

“A lot of people don’t realize the influence they have on children so early on, and if we can be aware of this from the very start, we can be part of the change that needs to be seen,” Meghani said. “We should give children the resources to pursue whatever interests them rather than confine them to anything.”

Kreischer said that gender conformity is stronger for males, because masculinity is viewed as powerful and prized.

These expectations of gender conformity are presented to children through media, books, entertainment and various other aspects of society. Kreischer said progress has been made, but not significantly.

“The portrayal of gender-neutral people often focuses specifically on things like ‘a boy who likes to wear dresses’ rather than ‘a boy who goes about life who just happens to be wearing dresses sometimes,’” Kreischer said. “We’re still not normalizing it.”

Kreischer and audience members, including English senior Chris Smith, discussed possible ways to encourage gender-neutrality among children and to teach them to pursue their own interests, especially in academia.

“We need to stop gendering subjects and thoughts, so it’s important to have representation and examples of diversity in academia,” Smith said. “You have to see someone else like you in that position before you can see that reality for yourself.”