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Teachers' Subtle Sexism

child development, gender roles

Good morning girls and kids who are good at math!

“Good morning boys and girls!” Harmless when the preschool teacher greets her class this way right?

Wrong.

Thanks to Double X‘s Emily Bazelon for pointing us towards this report on new research in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development. A study found that even young, young preschoolers pick up on gender stereotypes when their teachers call attention to gender in even very subtle ways.

The study looked at 57 kids in several different preschool classes, half of which used the gender-specific morning greeting and also hung artwork on bulletin boards divided by gender. The other class didn’t use the gender-specific language and kept the genders together in all things.

After just two weeks, children in the “good morning, boys and girls classes” demonstrated a greater likelihood of saying girls play with dolls and boys play with tools. They were also more likely to say boys grew up to become firefighters and girls dancers.

The gender-neutral classes showed a greater incidence of girls and boys playing together (in the other class, it was mostly separate).

This kind of study helps to drill down and answer the chicken-and-egg question of being boy-like and girl-like. While some (many? most!) say, “oh, they’re such boys! That’s why they’re playing together,” the study suggests subtle cues are encouraging them to do so.

And since children tend to learn how to be “boy-like” and “girl-like” through socializing with their peers, the less that kids play with children of the other sex, the more gender differences are likely to be exaggerated as their peer groups become more segregated.

This kind of study is great information for educators and how to organize a classroom to be fair to all children. It’s also a knock against single-sex education, which could go far in reinforcing — rather than circumventing — gender-stereotypes in education.

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Photo: steelturman.typepad.com

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