International research probes sexist attitudes in children

Boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards women change as they age but the benevolent, patronising views of boys tend to linger, new international research suggests.

A study by psychology researchers Dr Matthew Hammond, of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, and Associate Professor Andrei Cimpian of New York University, concludes that while “hostile” sexist perceptions decline with age for both girls and boys, the patronising “benevolent” sexist ones diminish only for girls.

The National Science Foundation-funded research in the United States studied the attitudes of more than 200 children, aged 5 to 11, in New York City and in Urbana-Champaign in Illinois.

The children were asked if a variety of statements were “right” or wrong”, including benevolent views—“men need to protect women from danger”—and hostile ones—“women get more upset than men about small things”.

They found children gave statistically distinct patterns of responses to the statements. As well, they discovered that if a child agreed with a hostile statement, then he or she was also likely to agree with a benevolent one.

Their findings, just published in the journal Sex Roles, also revealed that children's hostile sexism decreased with age for both boys and girls. However, benevolent sexism decreased with age only for girls—and not for boys.

Associate Professor Cimpian says boys may be less likely to recognise benevolent attitudes as “patronising”.

“They may hold on to the belief that men ought to protect women because this view is in line with social norms and may be reinforced throughout their upbringing.”

Dr Hammond, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois with Associate Professor Cimpian.

He specialises in researching sexist attitudes, particularly sexism in the context of close relationships.

“This research arose from differences between theory on sexism in adults and theory on sexism in children,” Dr Hammond says.

“In adults, theory says that people either hold, or reject, two distinct forms of sexist attitudes —they are either hostile, or benevolent/patronising/idealising ones—but in children there was a focus just on hostile attitudes.

“Our study bridged those two areas by identifying that children’s sexist attitudes seem to have the same two-part structure as adults’. We showed that children who agree with hostile ideas such as ‘women are too emotional’ are more likely to also agree with benevolent ideas, such as ‘men need to protect women from danger’.

“This suggests we need to be cautious about seemingly protective beliefs that are gendered such as ‘boys should never hit girls’ because such beliefs may go hand-in-hand with views that girls are weaker or overly emotional.

“The egalitarian form of belief is that ‘people should never hit anyone’.”

Associate Professor Cimpian says it might seem cute “when a boy acts in chivalrous ways toward girls, or when a girl pretends to be a princess who’s waiting for a prince to rescue her”.

“Many times, this is just play, with no deeper meaning. But other times, these behaviours—even though they may seem inoffensive—might signal that children view women in a negative light, as weak, incompetent, and unable to survive or thrive without a man’s help.”

Dr Hammond is now starting on a Marsden Fund project studying sexism and violence in dating relationships.

“One connecting link across all of my recent studies is investigating when and why some people start believing in sexist ideas, and when and why others reject them in favour of egalitarian attitudes.”

In future research he aims to follow the young adults’ beliefs for two years to see how those beliefs change as they form or dissolve romantic relationships.