These gender-based choices seem to be so embedded that researchers have now shown that children as young as 5 exhibit stereotypical preferences when it comes to musical instruments.
Reporting in the current issue of the journal Sex Roles, University of Washington researcher Betty Repacholi said these gender-based preferences are considerably more fixed among boys than they are in girls. Even when some of the children in the study were exposed to an intervention, boys were far more resistant to change their gender-based choices.
"Girls become more flexible as they get older, but boys mostly pick masculine instruments. They just cannot pick a feminine instrument. It is so hard for them that it just astounds me," she said.
How these stereotypes develop is unknown. It could be based on the size or shape of an instrument or the sound it makes, Repacholi said.
"What makes a flute a feminine instrument - its high-pitched sound and delicate look? And is a trumpet masculine because it sounds deeper and louder? Making gender-based choices can restrict what children, all people, do in life."
Repacholi, who is a research associate with the UW's Center for Mind, Brain & Learning, and co-author Samantha Pickering, now a doctoral student at the University of Sydney in Australia, knew that in the 1970s childhood instrument preferences had been noted among third and fourth graders. After nearly three decades of increasingly equal opportunities for women in many countries, the researchers wondered if these gender-based stereotypes still existed, if they occurred in younger children and if they could be modified.
To explore these questions, the researchers recruited more than 600 kindergarten and fourth-grade Australian school children to participate in two studies. Both studies used eight instruments that adults in the United States, England and Australia had previously classified by gender - flute, violin, clarinet and cello as feminine and drums, saxophone, trumpet and trombone as masculine.
In the first study, the researchers made videotapes of eight male and eight female high school students playing one of the eight instruments. The elementary school children were randomly put into three groups and shown three-minute videos of the high school instrumentalists playing the same piece of music. In the stereotype group, the children saw males playing the masculine instruments and females playing the feminine ones. Children in a counter-stereotype group saw males playing the feminine instruments and females playing the masculine instruments. The third, or control, group viewed a video of the music but without seeing the soloists. Instead the instruments were displayed against a plain background.
Repacholi and Pickering found that the kindergartners and fourth graders in the counter-stereotype groups were less likely to pick a gender-based instrument than the children in the other two groups.
"The really young children, those in kindergarten, may have thought that these stereotypes were rules, not social conventions," said Repacholi. "But they were willing to change their beliefs when shown counter examples."
The researchers also found that boys were less influenced by exposure to the counter-stereotype examples, a not-unexpected finding since boys experience stronger social pressure to engage in gender-stereotyped activities than do girls, according to Repacholi. Girls, meanwhile, were more flexible. About 70 percent of the fourth-grade girls in the counter-stereotype group picked masculine instruments.
"This is consistent with what we know," said Repacholi. "Girls experience less pressure and are allowed to be tomboys. They see that males have more power and status in our society and, with increasing age, girls start to adopt more masculine attributes." This was illustrated in the control group where only 27 percent of the kindergarten girls selected a masculine instrument, but 50 percent of the girls in the fourth grade did so.
"At the same time, there is more pressure on boys to be masculine. There can be extreme pressure, particularly from their peers. A boy does not want to do anything that appears to be feminine," she said.
In the second study, the researchers simplified their presentations by replacing the videotapes with black-and-white drawings. The drawings depicted the eight instruments as being played by elementary school-age children. Before being asked to pick the instrument they would like to play, there was a discussion about each of the instruments so the children could distinguish among them. The findings in the second study were not only consistent with those in the initial study, but also demonstrated that even a simple presentation - such as a drawing that could be found in a children's picture book - could be used to change children's musical instrument preferences, said Repacholi.
"These kinds of choices and stereotypes can affect what you learn and what you do later in life," she said. "We know these stereotypes affect all kinds of leisure activities, the sports people play and career choices. Even at age 5 children believe doctors are males and nurses are female. When it comes to music, a little boy may be the next Yo-Yo Ma but is not encouraged to play the cello. So he picks the drums, is terrible and winds up not playing any musical instrument. Or a girl who wants to play the trombone is advised not to and that stops her from pursuing a career playing that instrument.
"Our studies show these stereotypes can be modified. But I would emphasize that the changes we showed are short-term. Three-minute videos or drawings are not going to create permanent change. We also wouldn't advocate using counter-stereotypes by themselves because we would simply be creating new stereotypes. We need to present both males and females playing a full range of instruments to show that anyone can play them. Gender should not be relevant," she said.
For more information, contact Repacholi at (206) 543-8141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: The study is being published in April although the cover of the journal says November. Publication was delayed because of a change in the journal's editors.