Senior’s Thesis Indicates Sex Stereotypes Prevail Among Children

by Mali Peruma Davidson

Sex-role stereotypes still dominate the career ambitions of young children, according to the senior thesis research of recent Scripps graduate Cynthia Allison.

Interviews with 141 kindergarten students-ranging in age from four to six and about evenly divided between girls and boys-revealed that most of them favored occupations that are considered traditional for the individual’s gender. The children were selected at random from three elementary schools in Claremont.

“My findings confirm some other recent studies showing that today’s young children are extremely traditional, with evidence of stereotypical behavior ranging from occupational choice to preference for toys. And this behavior seems to prevail without regard to sex, income or parental absence or presence.”

Allison’s study, however, produced evidence of some non-traditional attitudes among little girls.

“Though the children in general chose traditional occupations, females gave more non-traditional occupational choices than did males.

“Whereas few boys chose occupations dominated by women, a somewhat higher number of girls chose careers that are considered male-dominated. Of course, this may reflect the fact that children of both sexes are aware of the relative power and prestige levels of male-dominated occupations.”

Allison, who graduated from Scripps last spring with a degree in psychology; says she “came up with the idea for my study two years ago as a way to combine projects for classes I was then taking in ‘Personality and Motivation’ and ‘Psychology of Women.'” She’s been continuing the effort ever since.

“The purpose of this research was to discover children’s perceptions of their gender and their preferences of occupation. Occupations identified by the children in the study were determined to be traditionally male or female by comparing the gender concentration within the chosen field according to the 1980 Census of the Population [published by the U.S. Bureau of the Census].”

Allison says she chose the “open-ended interview” as the most effective way to determine each child’s perceptions and preferences.

Three perception questions-“How old are you?,” “Are you a boy or a girl?”, and “How do you know you are a boy/ girl?”–preceded the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What the children think [in her Southern California study] might be very different from what the children of rural Nebraska or inner-city New York think.

“Moreover, it would be interesting to determine if there are any differences in the responses of the children as a function of the familiarity with, or sex of the interviewer. Two possible adjustments in my study would be to have the child interviewed by someone with whom they are familiar and/or by having them interviewed by researchers of both sexes.

“Also, the occupations of the parents should be considered. What effect might this have on the child’s choice, and what might be the nature of that effect? A related factor might be that of other close family members or friends who might be in the child’s chosen occupation.

“Another approach would be to research the perceptions that a child has of occupational stereotypes in general. How does the child fit women and men into the work force? What is the impact on children of the recent increase in the number of women in the work force?”

The 21-year-old Allison-the oldest of the three children of Patricia Allison, a data entry operator for Allison’s alma mater, Watsonville High School, and Gail Allison, an estimating engineer for the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.-confides that her earliest recalled career choice was that of astronaut.

“I guess I developed that ambition when I was about six. I remember that when the astronauts first started going up, our teachers had us watch the spectacle on television. So I decided that being an astronaut would be very exciting.

“As I grew up, I changed my career goal to pediatrician, then to registered nurse.

“Now, I’m preparing for a career as an elementary school teacher. I’ve gotten some experience here in Claremont as a teaching assistant at Mary B. Eyre Children’s School and as a pre-intern at Sycamore Elementary School. And, for this fall, I’ve applied for admission to Claremont Graduate School to qualify myself further with a master’s degree in education.”

By choosing a career that is “traditional” for her gender, does she feel she is surrendering in any way to the influence of stereotyping?

“On the contrary. My choice is based on what I want rather than on any concern about what might be expected of me as either a supporter or opponent of tradition. Nobody should choose a career because of pressure from either side. I chose a career in elementary education because I like to be around children and I want to be involved in the childhood growing process-professionally as well as personally as a wife and mother.”

“I believe that will be my self-fulfillment. And I hope my senior thesis research has shed some light on basic questions relating to the self-fulfillment of others.


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