That's a Pretty Tough Baby! A Study of Gender Stereotypes in Children
AbstractHave you ever seen a baby in the park and wondered if it was a boy or a girl? Maybe once you found out the gender, you thought how sweet, mischievous, or cute the baby was. But wait…do you think that the words you used to describe the baby might be based on your own gender stereotypes? A gender stereotype is when you expect someone to act a certain way simply because he or she is a boy or a girl. In this human behavior science project, you will investigate whether young children use gender stereotypes.
Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies
This science project is based on the following Science Buddies Clever Scientist Award winning project:
Barca-Hall, Tristan. (2010.) Pretty Tough Baby.
To investigate the use of gender stereotypes in grade-school-aged children.
What is it about babies that attract even the grouchiest people? The big eyes, button nose, and mouth draw us in and stir our most tender feelings. Often, when a parent brings his or her baby to a park, other park goers will stop and comment on the baby. They might make statements like, "Oh, what a sweet little thing!", "Look at him moving his fists, he's a real slugger!", or "What a cutie pie!". Is the word sweet used more often when the baby is a girl? Is the word slugger used when the baby is a boy? What about the word cute?
Before we examine why people use certain words with certain babies, let's first discuss what prompts people to use those words. Perhaps it is because they can tell the gender (male or female) of the baby and then, either knowingly or unknowingly, use different words. But how can people tell the gender of the baby? Is it because of the way the baby is dressed? In Santa Cruz, California, a student noticed that adult passersby would treat his baby niece differently, depending on how the baby was dressed. If she was dressed in overalls, then people would say how tough she looked. If she wore a dress, then people would mention how sweet she was. Sometimes, there was no way to tell the gender based on her clothes, and then people used neutral words. These comments got this student thinking about gender stereotypes and how we adjust what we say and think based on how someone looks. Stereotypes can be positive or negative, but they rarely communicate accurate information. This Santa Cruz student wondered if children have gender stereotypes, and if certain descriptive words (adjectives) are classified as feminine, masculine, or neutral. He decided to test groups of children to figure this out. To do this, he first compiled three lists of adjectives: a list of passive (feminine) adjectives, a list of aggressive (masculine) adjectives, and list of neutral adjectives. He then compiled a list that was made up of adjectives from each of the three lists and passed out the list to children in three different 5th-grade classes, along with a picture of a baby. The gender of the baby was not clear. He told one class that the baby was a boy and that they should pick words from the list that best described the baby. He told the second class that the baby was a girl and that they should pick words from the list that best described the baby. Finally, he didn't share the gender of the baby with the third class, but asked them to pick words from the list that best described the baby. His final results were very interesting.
In this human behavior science project, you, too, will investigate whether children in your area have gender stereotypes and whether certain words are considered to be passive, aggressive, or neutral. Sound interesting? Well, get ready to delve into the human mind and learn how we view each other.
Terms and Concepts
- What are other kinds of stereotypes?
- Why do people make and use stereotypes?
- What are the possible effects of using stereotypes?
- Kubik, M. and Kubik, J. (n.d.). Stereotypes: Relevance. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved May 10, 2010.
Materials and Equipment
- Test subjects (60–90, 4th or 5th graders). Ask your school principal and teachers if you can test the students at your school. If you need another group of children to reach your test subject number, ask at different schools in your area. Notes: Make sure you work with children from the same grade for the whole experiment and that they can all read without assistance.
- Paper for photocopies
- Picture of a baby
- File folders (3)
- Lab notebook
- Optional: Graph paper
Working with Human Test Subjects
There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. Fairs affiliated with Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) often require an Informed Consent Form (permission sheet) for every participant who is questioned. Consult the rules and regulations of the science fair that you are entering, prior to performing experiments or surveys. Please refer to the Science Buddies documents Projects Involving Human Subjects and Scientific Review Committee for additional important requirements. If you are working with minors, you must get advance permission from the children's parents or guardians (and teachers if you are performing the test while they are in school) to make sure that it is all right for the children to participate in the science fair project. Here are suggested guidelines for obtaining permission for working with minors:
- Write a clear description of your science fair project, what you are studying, and what you hope to learn. Include how the child will be tested. Include a paragraph where you get a parent's or guardian's and/or teacher's signature.
- Print out as many copies as you need for each child you will be surveying.
- Pass out the permission sheet to the children or to the teachers of the children to give to the parents. You must have permission for all the children in order to be able to use them as test subjects.
Preparing for Testing
While you are waiting for permission to work with the test subjects, make three lists of passive, aggressive, and neutral adjectives. Try to get 10 adjectives for each list. Ask your parents, family, and teachers for ideas. You can also use a dictionary and a thesaurus as sources for appropriate adjectives. The table shows some examples of passive, aggressive, and neutral adjectives.
Passive Words Aggressive Words Neutral Words Pretty, shy, sweet Mischievous, strong, tough Cute, smart, adorable
- Once you have developed your lists, create one final list of descriptive adjectives. Pick six passive adjectives, six aggressive adjectives, and six neutral adjectives to create the new list. Mix the adjectives up so that the 18 words are not in any particular order. Include a set of instructions with your list. In your instructions, inform the test subjects that you are doing a human behavior science project that will take about 10 minutes. Then ask the test subjects to read through the list and circle the six adjectives that best describe the picture of the baby that is included with the list. You should also include a question that asks the test subject taking the test what his or her gender is.
- Once you know how many test subjects can participate, print out one list and set of instructions for each test subject.
- Find an image of a baby online, in a magazine, or in a book. The baby should have a happy face and should not be wearing any clothing that could indicate whether it is a boy or a girl. Figure 1 shows an appropriate picture of a happy baby.
- Print out the same number of pictures of the baby as the number of test subjects. Put together packets for testing each having a list, instructions, and a baby picture.
Figure 1. Smiling baby. This baby is not clearly a boy or a girl. (iStock.com, 2010.)
Testing the Subjects
- With the packets of your list, instructions, and baby picture ready, work with the school teachers to arrange a good time to visit the classrooms. Designate each classroom with a letter: classroom A, classroom B, classroom C.
- Go into classroom A and briefly inform the test subjects that you are doing a human behavior science project and explain what you want them to do. Review the instructions on the list and tell the test subjects in this group (A) that the baby is a boy. Give each test subject a packet. Tell the students that this is a silent activity and that they should not talk to their neighbors while working. Set the stopwatch for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, collect the papers and thank the test subjects and the teacher for their help. Put all of these papers into a file folder labeled A.
- Go into classroom B and briefly inform the test subjects that you are doing a human behavior science project and explain what you want them to do. Review the instructions on the list and tell the subjects in this group (B) that the baby is a girl. Give each test subject a packet. Tell the students that this is a silent activity and that they should not talk to their neighbors while working. Set the stopwatch for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, collect the papers and thank the test subjects and their teacher for their help. Put all of these papers into a file folder labeled B.
- Go into classroom C and briefly inform the test subjects that you are doing a human behavior science project and explain what you want them to do. Review the instructions on the list, but do not tell this group anything about the baby's gender. Give each test subject a packet. Tell the students that this is a silent activity and that they should not talk to their neighbors while working. Set the stopwatch for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, collect the papers and thank the test subjects and the teacher for their help. Put all of these papers into a file folder labeled C.
Analyzing Your Data
- Use the three lists of passive, aggressive, and neutral words.
- Start analyzing the data from folder A, which should be the responses from the test subjects who were told the baby was a boy. Count the number of times these test subjects used a passive word to describe the baby. Record this number in a data table in your lab notebook.
|Classroom||Comments||The Number of Times Classroom Used a Type of Word|
|A||Were told baby was boy|
|B||Were told baby was girl|
|C||Were not told baby's gender|
- Repeat step 2 for the aggressive words and for the neutral words.
- Repeat steps 2–3 for classroom B and for classroom C. Be sure to record all of the data in your lab notebook, including the corresponding classroom.
- Now count the number of times each word was used in classroom A. Record your data in a table, like the one shown.
|Classroom ____||Number of Test Subjects in Classroom __________|
|Word||Type||How Many Times Was Word Used?||How Many Times Males Used the Word?||How Many Times Females Used the Word?||Percentage of Times That Males Used the Word||Percentage of Time That Females Used the Word|
- Separate and count the number of times each word was used by the males in classroom A and the number of times each word was used by the females in the classroom A. Record the data in the data table in your lab notebook.
- For each word, calculate the percentage of times that males used the word and the percentage of times the females used the word. See Equation 1 to learn how to calculate percentages.
|Percentage of males (or females) that used the word =|| n |
- n = The number of males or females that used a word
- T = The total number of test subjects in the classroom
- Make a data table like the one shown above for classroom B and for classroom C and repeat steps 5–7 for each classroom. Record all data in your lab notebook.
- Now plot your data. You can make plots by hand using graph paper, or you can make your plots online using a website such as Create a Graph. On the first plot, use the data that you gathered in steps 2–4 and make a bar chart. Label the x-axis Type of Word (either passive, aggressive, or neutral) and the y-axis Number of Times Used. Plot the data for each classroom on this plot.
- Make a plot using the data that you gathered in step 5 showing how many times each word was used by classrooms A, B, and C. Label the x-axis Word and the y-axis Number of Times Word Was Used. Plot the data for all of the classrooms on the same plot.
- Make a plot using the data that you gathered in steps 6–8 showing how many times each word was used by males and females in classroom A. Label the x-axis Word and the y-axis Percentage. Plot the percentage of males that used the word on the y-axis and the percentage of females that used the word on the y-axis. Make a similar plot for classroom B and classroom C.
- What information do you get from the plots you made? Does knowing the gender of the baby affect the words that are used to describe it? Do males use certain words more than females do? Are neutral adjectives used more than passive or aggressive ones are?
Ask an Expert
- When do gender stereotypes form? Does age have an effect on the words used to describe the baby? Repeat your experiment with children from lower grades.
- Repeat your experiments with adults. How do adults compare with children? Do adults use more aggressive, passive, or neutral adjectives?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: