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Gender Role And How We Gain It

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Youth’s Attitudes About Women’s Roles Influenced By Many Family Factors

Carol A. Cassell, Ph.D., Director, Institute of Sexuality Education and Equity, writes:Each of us develops general beliefs about males and females, including assumptions about appropriate attitudes and behavior for each gender. Our concepts of masculine and feminine gender roles profoundly affect our sexuality and our relationships.”

By the time they are adults, men and women have distinctive attitudes about the roles women should play in society, but little is known about how these views develop. A Penn State study tracked youth’s attitudes for most of the school age and adolescent years and found varying patterns of change according to gender, birth order, parent’s influences and other factors.

“We charted the course of gender attitudes over time, and studied characteristics of families and family members that helped to shape the way youth’s attitudes changed over time,” says Dr. Ann Crouter, Penn State professor of human development and family studies and lead author of the study which is published in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

“Several different patterns of change emerged, suggesting that there is no single course of gender attitude development from middle childhood through adolescence. Instead, change patterns were different for girls versus boys, for firstborns versus secondborns, for youth with a sister versus a brother, and for youth with parents who had more versus less traditional attitudes,” added Crouter, also director, Social Science Research Institute and of the Children, Youth, and Families Consortium, both at Penn State.

Other authors are Shawn D. Whiteman, assistant professor, child development and family studies, Purdue University; and Susan McHale, professor of human development and family studies, and D. Wayne Osgood, professor of crime, law justice and sociology, both at Penn State.

This study was the first longitudinal study to track youth’s gender attitudes over a long period of time, specifically from about ages 7 to 19. The research focused on a sample of 201 two-parent, predominantly White, working and middle class families who were first interviewed when the firstborn child in the family was about 10 years old and the secondborn child was about 7 and a half years old. Two siblings and their mothers and fathers were interviewed at home every year for 9 years, until firstborns were about 19 and secondborns were about 16.5 years old.

During each home interview, family members rated the traditionality of their gender attitudes, describing how much they agreed with statements like: “Sons in a family should be given more help to go to college than daughters;” or “In general, the father should have greater authority than the mother in making decisions about raising children.”

Most youth became less traditional over time, but the attitudes of firstborn boys with brothers and traditional parent were the most traditional to begin with, and became more traditional over time, the researchers write. Similarly, girls and secondborn boys who had parents with more traditional attitudes and brothers did not become as nontraditional over time as other offspring, suggesting that having traditional parents and a brother is a potent combination that supports the development of traditionality in gender role attitudes.

“Patterns for firstborns and secondborns were somewhat different, with secondborns tending to become less traditional in middle childhood but endorsing more traditional attitudes again beginning at about age 15,” Crouter notes. “We speculated that peers may be an important influence on secondborns.”

In society at large, attitudes about gender roles are gradually becoming less traditional and more egalitarian, but the researchers found that even in the face of this widespread shift, there are individuals who are staunchly conservative about the roles of women and men. The findings suggest that gender attitudes take shape across childhood and adolescence, and that the cues youth take about attitudes come, at least in part, from experiences with parents and siblings.


Next to family factors, the mass media, include the various forms of mass communication-television, newspapers, magazines, radio, and motion pictures, are not to be neglected when it comes to shaping of gender roles. Television plays a particularly large role in shaping a person’s values, attitudes, and behavior. Many children spend long hours watching television.

Evidence indicates that people-especially young people-pattern their behavior after what they see or hear in the mass media. A style of clothing or hairstyle that becomes trendy on television or in motion pictures quickly becomes trendy at school.

Until the 1980’s, television traditionally portrayed mostly stereotypical gender roles. Characters who appeared in nontraditional gender roles were frequently portrayed as silly or ineffective. For example, a male character who took care of a baby or a female character who attempted to fix an automobile might fail miserably at these tasks. Such portrayals of nonstereotypical roles reinforced ideas about how a male or female was “supposed” to act.

Luckily enough, television has increasingly portrayed women and men in nonstereotypical roles. Many female characters now are shown as assertive and independent with nontraditional careers, such as surgeons, military officers, or police officers. In addition, many male characters are shown as caring, nurturing husbands and parents.

Child Development
Volume 78 Issue 3 Page 911 – May/June 2007

Ann C. Crouter, Shawn D. Whiteman, Susan M. McHale, D. Wayne Osgood (2007)
Development of Gender Attitude Traditionality Across Middle Childhood and Adolescence
Child Development 78 (3), 911–926.

The development of gender attitudes in 402 youth (201 firstborn and 201 secondborn siblings) in 201 European American families was examined using data collected on seven occasions across 9 years. Pooling across siblings and using multilevel modeling, we examined gender attitude development from ages 7 to 19. Consistent with an ecological perspective, the combined effects of individual (i.e., sex, age, birth order) and contextual (i.e., parents’ gender attitudes, sibling sex) characteristics predicted patterns of change. Although most youth declined in traditionality, the attitudes of firstborn boys with brothers and traditional parents became more traditional over time. No one longitudinal pattern captured the development of gender attitudes; trajectories varied as a function of contextual and personal characteristics.


Written by huehueteotl

May 21, 2007 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Arts, Psychology, Science

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks so much for this post. It’s extremely educational!


    June 4, 2007 at 9:45 am

  2. […] Objectify This OBJECTIFY THIS: some thoughts about the objectification of women « Keep Your Socks On, I’m Cumming: Sex Positivity, Female Orgasm, Scientific Bias Pass the Gender Role, Bro: How We Form and Perpetuate Stereotypes June 4th, 2007 Thanks to Huehueteotl for this awesome post on intellectual vanities, “Gender Role and How We Gain It.” […]

  3. The intro is double posted. Needs to be fixed.


    June 6, 2007 at 6:49 am

  4. […] Gender Role And How We Gain It […]

  5. […] Thanks to Huehueteotl for this awesome post on intellectual vanities, “Gender Role and How We Gain It.” […]

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