In almost every society, from Baltimore to Beijing, boys are told from a young age to go outside and have adventures, while young girls are encouraged to stay home and do chores. In most cultures, girls are warned off taking the initiative in any relationship and by 10 years old, already have the distinct impression that their key asset is their physical appearance.
These are the findings of a new six-year study of gender expectations around the world, which gathered data on 10- to 14-year-olds from 15 different countries of varying degrees of wealth and development. The research teams interviewed 450 adolescents and their parents. And they found a surprising—and somewhat depressing—uniformity of attitudes about what it takes to be a boy or a girl.
“We found children at a very early age—from the most conservative to the most liberal societies—quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” says Robert Blum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the Global Early Adolescent Study.
While there’s nothing wrong with protecting young girls or encouraging boys to be brave, absent any balancing messages, these expectations become restrictive “gender straitjackets” that can have negative consequences, say the researchers, particularly for girls. What starts as “protection” can become an expectation that girls should accede to the demands of others rather than making their own choices or taking risks.
It has long been suggested that during adolescence, the world expands for boys and shrinks for girls, but the new study, which looked at kids in Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa and the U.S., emphasizes how global that phenomenon is and how young it sets in.
In fact, the researchers suggest that some programs aimed at redressing gender imbalance that are targeted at 15-year-olds might actually be more useful for a younger age group. Getting preteen kids to rethink why they believe males and females should behave a certain way may even be protective of their physical health.
“Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are ten or 11 years old,” says another of the Johns Hopkins researchers, Kristin Mmari, an associate professor in the department of public health. For example, boys may try to build their social status as risk-takers with such unhealthy behaviors as fighting, taking drugs or smoking.
And no matter where they are, girls’ bodies, and others’ attitudes to them, are psychologically burdensome. “In New Delhi, the girls talked about their bodies as a big risk that needs to be covered up,” said Mmari, “while in Baltimore girls told us their primary asset was their bodies and they need to look appealing—but not too appealing.”