Through the eyes of children: Beware of gender stereotype

Gender is considered one of the most salient social categories and therefore can have a strong influence on how children see the world and themselves. Research shows that children from early ages immediately and implicitly classify unknown individuals by their gender even in situations in which the gender is not relevant. 

Compared to awareness about other social categories, the awareness of gender and gender affiliation appears the earliest, around the third year of life. Already at the age of 30 months, children label themselves and others as boys or girls. Soon after they learn to categorize others based on gender, children begin to associate different characteristics and attitudes with different genders. In other words, they begin to build gender stereotypes – socially widespread beliefs about a particular social group. Gender stereotypes contain those characteristics that are commonly associated with men and women, which are not only physical characteristics, but also psychological characteristics, abilities, preferences, interests, and social roles.

A specific set of beliefs is related to academic and career domains. Boys are believed to be independent, rational, and problem-oriented, and to have an innate talent for science and mathematics. On the other hand, stereotypical beliefs about girls are that they are conscientious, obedient, passive and dependent, and talented for social and language subjects. In addition to these more specific stereotypical contents, there are also stereotypical beliefs about general cognitive abilities. It is assumed that high-level cognitive abilities are more frequent in men than in women, so boys’ success should be attributed to their abilities, while girls’ success should be attributed to hard work and commitment. 

When these beliefs are fixed in long-term memory, they can even automatically activate and influence behaviour, directing girls and boys towards different roles and activities. So, in addition to informing which characteristics are typical for each gender, which is called the descriptive function of stereotypes, they also have a prescriptive function, as they prescribe what men and women/boys or girls should be and what behaviors are appropriate for which gender.

It is thus believed that stereotypes through their prescriptive, rather than descriptive function, contribute to the maintenance of the gender gap in society and to deepening gender inequality.

So, how early do gender stereotypes become relevant for academic and career domains? The belief that “brilliance = men” is endorsed as early as at the age of six.  Moreover, the stereotypical belief that mathematics is typically the domain of boys/men is found already at the primary school age. What is even more striking is that these stereotypes occur even before differences in achievements, suggesting they might have an effect on achievements.  

Gender stereotypes that highlight women’s incompetence in mathematics can have a significant negative impact on their achievement and interests for mathematics. Competence in mathematics is considered to be a critical filter for entering STEM fields, so the reduction of the gender gap in mathematics achievement and interest is closely related to the reduction of gender disparity in these domains. 

Given that stereotypes play a role in highlighting perceived boundaries between genders and could provide basis for symbolic and social implications of gender for inclusion in different roles and domains, it is of great importance to understand their origins and ways in which they shape children’s interests and visions of the future, to prevent them from narrowing the range of careers they will one day choose.

Additional reading materials:

  • Baron, A. S., Schmader, T., Cvencek, D., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2014). The gendered self-concept: How implicit gender stereotypes and attitudes shape self-definition. In P. J. Leman & H. R. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Gender and development (pp. 109–132). East Sussex, England: Psychology Press.
  • Bennett, M., Sani, F., Hopkins, N., Agostini, L., & Malucchi, L. (2000). Children’s gender categorization: An investigation of automatic processing. British Journal of Developmental Psychology18(1), 97-102.
  • Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391.
  • Case, Federica: Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotypes
  • Chetcuti, D. (2009). Identifying a gender‐inclusive pedagogy from Maltese teachers’ personal practical knowledge. International Journal of Science Education31, 81-99.
  • Cvencek, D., Meltzoff, A. N., & Greenwald, A. G. (2011). Math–gender stereotypes in elementary school children. Child development, 82, 766-779.
  • Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D. M., & Gerhardstein, R. (2002). Consuming images: How television commercials that elicit stereotype threat can restrain women academically and professionally. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin28(12), 1615-1628.
  • Deaux, K., & Major, B. (1987). Putting gender into context: An interactive model of gender-related behavior. Psychological review, 94, 369-389.
  • Elwood, J. (2005). Gender and achievement: What have exams got to do with it?. Oxford Review of Education, 31(3), 373-393.
  • Fagot, B. I., & Leinbach, M. D. (1989). The young child’s gender schema: Environmental input, internal organization. Child development, 663-672.
  • Herbert, J., & Stipek, D. (2005). The emergence of gender differences in children’s perceptions of their academic competence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 276-295.
  • Kiefer, A. K., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2007). Implicit stereotypes, gender identification, and math-related outcomes: A prospective study of female college students. Psychological Science18, 13-18. 
  • McGarty, C., Yzerbyt, V. Y., & Spears, R. (2002). Social, cultural, and cognitive factors in stereotype formation. In C. McGarty, V. Y. Yzerbyt, & R. Spears (Eds.), Stereotypes as explanations: The formation of meaningful beliefs about social groups (pp. 1-15). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., & Greenwald, A. G. (2009). National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 10593-10597.
  • Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of social issues57, 743-762.
  • Sells, L. W. (1973). High School Math as the Critical Filter in the Job Market.
  • Steffens, M. C., Jelenec, P., & Noack, P. (2010). On the leaky math pipeline: Comparing implicit math-gender stereotypes and math withdrawal in female and male children and adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology102, 947-996.
  • The World Economic Forum. (2018). The global gender gap report. Retrieved from 
  • The World Economic Forum. (2021). The global gender gap report. Retrieved from, S., & Friedman, L. F. (2012). Where are all the female geniuses?. Scientific American Mind, 23(5), 63-65.

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