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Gender Stereotypes: the World According to Pre-schoolers…

September 15, 2017

Children today are born into a world saturated by media and advertising like never before. Everything from toothbrushes to t-shirts has become an opportunity for branding, every purchase has become an invitation to make a statement about one’s favourite movie character. And given the saturation of gendered marketing – every choice children make has also become about affirming one’s gender.

Psychology Professor Laura Zimmermann’s current academic interests focus on the development of young children, gender, media, bio-psychology, and the role of culture in shaping behaviour and thought. Some of Prof. Zimmermann’s latest research examines how pre-schoolers perceive the gender stereotypes presented to them in advertisements for children’s toys.  

Prof. Zimmermann’s team interviewed 60 pre-school aged children, asking them about gender classifications and which toys they preferred.  We spoke with her recently  about what the research revealed.

TH:  Can you tell us a little about your research and the findings?

LZ:  Despite the fact traditional stereotypes continue to be pervasive in toy commercials aired around the world, we know very little about how children actually perceive these advertisements. Based on my interviews, I found that, on the plus side, most children were flexible in terms of who they felt the toy commercials were meant for. Many answered “both” when asked about ads for traditionally stereotyped toys and a majority liked at least one of the cross-gender ads. Unfortunately, this flexibility was limited. When I looked at the children’s emotional responses to the ads and their personal preferences, the influence of traditional gender stereotypes was clear. Both boys and girls showed less positive emotion when viewing ads targeted to the other gender. And when asked to choose a favorite, most went with a toy stereo-typically associated with their own gender. Responses from boys became even more stereotyped with age.

TH:  In your paper you state that ‘children’s television tends to present a stereotypical and binary system of gender that can shape children’s perceptions of what is normal’ noting ‘the stereotypes portrayed have been found to impact attitudes and behaviours in young children’. How does the impact manifest in pre-school age children? 

LZ:  Children learn about what is “normal” by observing the world around them. At this age, they actively seek clues from their environment about what different genders should and should not do. The gendered messages they get from families, peers, media, and other daily experiences shape their views on what gender is. The information gathered influences personal preferences, attitudes, and behavior as well as judgments related to others’ interests and gender roles. For this reason, it is crucial that children see diverse models of gender in the media and know that it is okay to be who they are. We as a society should want our children to be true to themselves and accepting of others.

“You don’t need stereotypes to sell toys. And the stereotypes currently portrayed in ads have been found to impact attitudes and behaviors in young children that can limit options in terms of educational and occupational goals, academic ability, and social development. Market quality toys and let children make their own choices.”

TH:  Your research observed gender rigidity was more prominent in boys, a behaviour which increased with their age, can you explain this a little? Any thoughts on why this might be the case? 

LZ:  The gender messages our society sends differ for boys and girls. For example, parents tend to display more flexibility in play with girls than boys and there continues to be more pressure for boys to avoid stereo-typically inappropriate activities. Our society as a whole is more accepting of girls engaging in male-typical behaviors than of boys engaging in female-typical ones. The increasing rigidity found for boys’ responses to gendered advertising likely resulted from the accumulation of this societal pressure over time.

TH:  Is there anything about the findings of your research that you think is particularly concerning?

LZ:  What concerns me the most is that children’s emotional reactions and preferences for gendered commercials continue to be heavily impacted by binary stereotypes. Children’s advertising shapes and reinforces these responses. It is not the only influence, of course, but given the amount of media children are exposed to, it is a powerful one. And because commercials are tied to the products they sell, their messages are reinforced off-screen as well.

“What concerns me the most is that children’s emotional reactions and preferences for gendered commercials continue to be heavily impacted by binary stereotypes…. It is not the only influence, of course, but given the amount of media children are exposed to, it is a powerful one.”

TH:  If you could send a message to advertisers using gendered marketing as a strategy for selling goods to children, what would it be?

LZ:  Experience makes a difference. Research has shown that media messages can shift children’s views in a non-stereotypical direction as easily as a stereotypical one. You don’t need stereotypes to sell toys. And the stereotypes currently portrayed in ads have been found to impact attitudes and behaviors in young children that can limit options in terms of educational and occupational goals, academic ability, and social development. Market quality toys and let children make their own choices.

TH:  I couldn’t agree more Laura, let’s hope we see more retailers move away from gendered marketing. Children deserve so much more.

 

Laura K. Zimmermann is a professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. She has a Ph.D in Developmental Psychology and teaches classes on many topics including Children’s Thinking, Children and the Media, Biopsychology, Psychology, Gender and Culture. She has published academic articles in many journals including Journal of Children and Media, Chronobiology International, Child Psychiatry and Human Development and Mind, Brain and Education along with others. Laura has also published nonfiction stories for children in AppleSeeds, Ask, Muse, Nature Friend and Odyssey Magazines.

Post By Thea Hughes (18 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.

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