How We Teach Kids to be Sexist (Accidentally)

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Many years ago I was on a science podcast with a bunch of older men who had kids, and (on and off mic) we started talking about gender stereotypes. They insisted that they knew gender stereotypes were built in, because their own children adhered to gender stereotypes despite them receiving no explicit instruction that said, for instance, girls like princesses and baby dolls and boys like trucks and guns.

I argued that, well, we live in a society, and kids are much better at picking up on things than we give them credit for. Our culture, which includes constantly changing stereotypes about men, women, different races, different hairstyles, different ages, all of that is the sea we swim in every day. We don’t notice it, but children are severely impacted by it.

This argument was dismissed, of course, because I do not have children and therefore cannot possibly understand. Ah well.

Anyway today we’re going to talk about a study I discovered randomly and decided to talk about. No reason why, really. Certainly not because it just so happens to back up everything I used to say ten years ago. Just cuz.

The study is called “The unintended consequences of the things we say: What generics communicate to children about unmentioned categories,” in which the researchers quizzed both children (aged 4 to 6) and adults (via Mechanical Turk) about stereotypes. Not gender stereotypes, but stereotypes about “zarpies” and “gorps.” You know zarpies, those smelly bastards. Disgusting. Nothing like strong, minty fresh gorps.

They chose zarpies and gorps to avoid existing biases clouding up the results — none of the subjects had preexisting stereotypes about these made-up groups, so the researchers could watch those stereotypes form in real time. They did that by telling the subjects eight generic statements about these two groups of people, who were completely diverse in terms of race and sex but who wore either green or yellow depending on if they were zarpies or gorps. The statements were things like “Zarpies are good at baking pizzas,” even though everyone knows that zarpies put pineapple and corn on their pizza like monsters that don’t belong in polite society.

The researchers found that children as young as 4 didn’t just learn from that statement that zarpies are good at baking pizza — they also extrapolated the idea to the unmentioned group. If someone tells them zarpies are good at baking pizza, then they assume that means that gorps are bad at baking pizza. This was more common the younger the participant. 

They also ran tests where instead of saying generically “zarpies are good at baking pizzas,” they chose a specific zarpie and said “THIS zarpie is good at baking pizza.” The effect wasn’t as strong when they did that but it was still there.

So what do zarpies and gorps have to do with real life? Well, you’ve probably already guessed but the unfortunate news is that children don’t just listen to what you say and take it on its face — they listen to what you aren’t saying and make inferences on that. So if you happen to say “Boys are good at math,” many of them will extrapolate that to understand and internalize “girls are not good at math.” If you even say “This boy is good at math,” many of them will infer “boys are good at math” and “girls are not good at math.”

Think of all the times adults will casually make generic statements around kids and you may start to see how big of an impact this could have on kids. How about “boys don’t cry?” The researchers suggest that the effect is probably strongest when there’s a clear binary like “boy/girl” but of course it can also apply to a whole host of racial and ethnic stereotypes, even “positive” ones like “Asians are good at math.” “Positive” discrimination can be harmful to marginalized groups anyway but this research shows that additionally you will be subconsciously feeding into a clearly negative stereotype as well, like “Americans are not good at math.”

Humans evolved these big brains that children are expected to fill with knowledge very, very quickly, and because of that there are all these shortcuts that in most cases are helpful but in many situations prove to be limiting. Hearing that prey animals are not dangerous and assuming that predators are dangerous gets you twice the knowledge just as fast, but it’s not always going to be true. And unfortunately when we learn this stuff at such an early age, it can be difficult to tease it out later and correct for biases that we’ve had for literal decades.

That’s why the scientific method is so important to the advancement of humanity, and clearly this is something I haven’t done the best job of conveying. A few weeks back I made a video about a study showing that men who are insecure in their masculinity are more likely to respond with aggression when their masculinity is threatened, which could explain why so many men react with violence when asked to wash their hands or wear a mask during a pandemic, considering how we’ve coded basic hygiene as “feminine” in western culture.

One man on Twitter replied, “Actually, the majority of people I’ve seen act this way have been women.” This is derailing at its finest, considering that the study I was discussing wasn’t about women and whether or not they act aggressively may have nothing to do with the reason why men act aggressively. But still, he was wrong — the research is unambiguous in the conclusion that men are significantly less likely to comply with basic hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19. When I pointed that out, he simply continued to rely on his anecdotal evidence. He refused to believe that his experience is biased.

Here’s something everyone, everywhere needs to know: your experience is, by definition, biased. So is my experience! Everyone’s is. In this particular case it could be that he’s only remembered the times he’s seen women throw fits, or because he’s including videos he watches online which may be more likely to gain traction because our culture loves to bash a “Karen” more than they love to bash a “Kyle,” or he actually has seen more women throwing fits in person because that’s the law of averages. Women make up more than half the population. It’s possible for one man to see more women aggressively pushing back on pandemic mitigation efforts while someone else notices more men, and someone else also notices more men, but someone else notices more dogs. 

There’s a common joke in skeptic circles that goes “the plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘evidence,’” but that’s actually wrong. Anecdotes are evidence, they’re just not our best evidence. So we need to use the scientific method to examine all these anecdotes and see if they hold up. I grew up knowing that boys don’t cry, and my anecdotal evidence supported it, and if it weren’t for people doing good science I may still assume that there’s just something hard-wired in men that means their only emotion should be aggression. I corrected my biases. 

Keep that in mind the next time there’s a little kid listening to what you say — you may be teaching them more than you think, and that may not always be a good thing.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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