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  • Katica Roy

Gender Equity and Kids: When is the Right Time to Start the Conversation?

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

I am the mother of a daughter and a son. The gender equity gap matters to me as much for my son as for my daughter. Why? Because this is the internal dialog of our boys.

You see, gender bias doesn’t start in the workplace — that’s where it grows and has a direct impact on economic opportunity. It starts in childhood, around the age of 6 or 7. It starts when boys are taught not to cry, to “be a man” and when girls are complimented more for their looks than their brains (which happens before age 6) and those patterns are then wired into our children’s brains.

When Does Bias Start?

Studies show girls as young as 6 can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women. In one particular study, girls and boys were told a story of a non-gendered individual, who is described as “really, really smart.” They are then shown pictures of men and women and asked to identify who they think the person in the story is. At age 5, boys and girls chose their own gender.

Within two years, though, they were more likely to choose men over women. However, the girls did not choose men when asked to pick people who look like they do well in school, meaning that they don’t think men necessarily perform better academically.

Then, the children were introduced to new board games, one described as for children who “are really, really smart” and one described as for children who “try really, really hard.” The boys were more likely to play the first, while the girls were more likely to choose the second, displaying how their new biases impact their behavior and choices.

Where is the Bias Coming From?

While there is no doubt the majority of teachers and parents strive to treat children equally and have good intentions, unconscious bias is still an issue.

One study found that, on name-blind math tests, girls score higher than boys; on the same tests with recognizable boy and girl names, boys score higher than girls. Teachers are also found to spend up to two-thirds of their time talking to male students; they’re also more likely to interrupt girl students but allow boys to talk over them. When teachers ask open-ended questions, they look to boys more often than girls, for answers.

Likewise, parents are found to perpetuate the wage gap, by paying boys aged 5 to 7 50-percent more in weekly allowance than girls of the same age, with boys making $13.80 per week on average, and girls making $6.71. However, girls are found to save about the same amount per month, regardless of the disparity, and also donate more money per month.

The Results of Bias at a Young Age

These instances of unconscious bias can have serious consequences. In the name-blind math test study referenced above, the researchers followed the pupils through high school and found that the boys who were given encouragement performed better later on and were more likely to take advanced courses in mathematics, unlike the girls.

Girls aren’t the only ones avoiding certain subjects and career paths, though. Boys are less likely to take stereotypically girls’ subjects, like English Literature.

In their teenage years, both girls and boys have developed biases against females in leadership and power, with only 8 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys preferring female political leaders over men. Likewise, the same study found only 6 percent of boys preferred female business leaders.

Thus, simple bias in the classroom and at home can heavily impact a child’s choices, from grades to subject matter choices, career paths to voting patterns.

How to Have the Conversation

While it would be difficult to remove all aspects of unconscious bias from your child’s life, you can acknowledge with them that the bias exists and then do something about it in your own home.

Talking about gender stereotypes — and why they’re incorrect — is a good first step in combating bias and removing some of the societal pressures from your child to prescribe to a certain role. It doesn’t have to be difficult, and should engage your child in a conversation that is accepting and educational.

It’s also equally vital to monitor your own behavior and eliminate unconscious biases in your household — the one environment for your child that you can control. The Anti-Defamation League recommends, among other steps:

  • Avoid responding more quickly to children of one gender than another.

  • Use gender-neutral language.

  • Provide alternative toys and imagery that show genders in a variety of roles.

  • Establish non-gendered routines and experiences for your child (whether through activities you do together or assigned chores).

Make gender equity a quantifiable, data-driven, economic opportunity rather than a confusing and controversial social issue.

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The Long-term Benefits

Eliminating unconscious bias from our children’s lives is just one way to strive toward gender equity. Let’s give them the awareness, compassion and intelligence needed to move our world toward gender parity faster. Not only will this ensure a better future for our children, but a better economic future for our country, as eliminating unconscious bias helps close the gender gap, and increases the economic pie for all.

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