Our Watch

Skip to content

Gender stereotypes that children absorb can shape attitudes and expectations into adulthood

June 19, 2017 / Natasha Stott-Despoja, Our Watch Chair

What many of us suspected - or possibly hoped for - has now been backed up by compelling evidence: the majority of Australian parents want their kids to be treated as equals, especially in their younger years.

The latest research by Our Watch – a national body dedicated to ending violence against women and children – shows just this. It reveals parents of 0-3-year-olds are worried about restrictive gender stereotypes.

The Power of Parents survey shows 79 per cent of parents of 0-3 year olds want their children to be able to explore their interests free from limiting gender stereotypes.

These parents from across Australia – from a range of backgrounds and circumstances, including single parents, same-sex parents, regional and urban environments – want their children to pursue their own interests in a way that reflects their personalities.

Popular culture, marketing and long-held assumptions about the place of men, women, boys and girls in our society, create stereotypes that ‘‘box in’’ our children. These are reinforced subtly from very early in their development.

We might tell our sons that “boys don’t cry” when they express emotions, or call our daughters “bossy” when they assert themselves. These might seem like small examples but we know – and child development experts tell us – how we talk to children matters.

These, and other expressions of gender stereotypes that children absorb, can shape attitudes and expectations into adulthood.

Such stereotypes, for instance, can reinforce the idea that men naturally make better leaders and should hold positions of power, because they are more rational and less emotional – a view that is supported by one in five Australians.

Challenging these stereotypes can be as simple as sharing the caregiving and housework equally.

It can mean ensuring our children see a diverse range of role models, as well as championing both female and male leaders in books, television, movies, arts and sport. We can’t be what we can’t see!

Challenging pervasive gender stereotypes could see a future with more girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), more men feeling comfortable about being stay-at-home dads and authority figures being drawn from a more diverse pool.

No need to panic: no one is taking away dolls or trucks from our kids, but we could be less prescriptive about who might choose to play with what.

The issue of gender stereotyping was put in the spotlight in recent days when scientist Katie Hinds put a post on social media which went viral after she admitted moving NASA themed T-shirts from the boys’ apparel section to the girls’ section in a US department store.

Despite a mostly positive response on social media, Hinds was still subject to vitriolic comments because of her perceived social engineering.

Why does the idea of equal opportunities for children in clothing, toys or anything else prompt such a strong response?

Last week, TV Morning Show hosts Sonia Kruger and David Campbell – both parents of young daughters – quizzed author Margie Warrell about unconscious sexism.

It was a realistic and sensible discussion. No mania about toys being banned or fairytales being censored. The conversation reflected what we know most parents want: children treated as equals.

This article was first published by The Advertiser

Media contact

Laurelle Keough (laurelle.keough@ourwatch.org.au or 0448 844 930)

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000”

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Change.