Children’s gender impositions

Devaluing women’s work starts early.

I previously wrote about gender devaluation, the process by which women’s work is assigned lesser value than men’s. It’s an important source of the gender wage gap, along with segregation in the hiring process, unequal application of reward systems, and blocked promotion opportunities for women.

I’ve been thinking about how children’s gender socialization — which starts immediately with different treatment by parents — is connected to perceptions of gender and jobs. With children, it’s hard to tell what comes first, job status or gender typing. Do they think airplane pilots are more prestigious than elementary school teachers because more pilots are men or because they are paid more? If gender and earnings go together, it’s a problem — but not too much of a problem for experimental psychologists.

I just read a neat piece of research by Lynn Liben and colleagues. They asked 65 middle-school children about the difficulty, pay and importance of jobs, after showing them pictures of men and women doing the same jobs. To get around the problem of gender and status going together, they made up fictional jobs. One was a “tenic,”: “a person who is in charge of creating handicapped parking places… like decid[ing] how many handicapped parking spaces there should be.” Half the children saw pictures of male tenics, half saw female tenics.

Children that were shown the male workers rated the jobs higher than those who saw the same jobs being done by women. Interestingly, a sample of 6-year-old children did not show the same effect (though maybe they didn’t understand the status questions). Somewhere in there, by age 11, they learned to impose value on jobs based only on the gender of the workers doing them — rather than anything else they knew about the job.

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