It doesn’t matter if you grow up in India or China or the United States ― when it comes to learning what it means to be a girl or a boy, a universal stereotype prevails: Girls are weak and boys are strong.
That’s the dispiriting finding of a comprehensive new study of children and their parents around the world, released Wednesday morning by the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Kids learn this “truth” about gender from their parents, friends and teachers at a very young age, conclude the researchers, who looked at kids ages 10 to 14, the period when they’re just entering adolescence.
“In every single place, girls are given the message that they are weak, that they are vulnerable. That their bodies are a target,” said Robert Blum, who chairs the department of population, family and reproductive health at Johns Hopkins and led the study. “They’re told ‘cover up and stay away from boys,’” and when they fail to do so, he added, the “sanctions they experience are pretty profound.”
Perhaps most damaging to girls: From about the time they enter puberty, they learn their primary asset is their body and that it must be kept safe. Failure to do so, girls learn, is their own fault.
Girls are taught from a very young age to be careful about how they dress and cover up their bodies essentially to keep themselves safe from sexual assault, Blum said.
“In every single place, girls are given the message that they are weak, that they are vulnerable. That their bodies are a target."”
This plays out in different ways around the world, he said. In the U.S. it means girls get sent home from school because their skirt is too short. “Boys aren’t sent home for their physical appearance,” Blum said.
It’s not surprising, then, that girls in the study were more likely to withdraw from their community and the outside world to protect themselves.
Boys and girls are also increasingly separated from each other as puberty sets in, and they’re taught that girls’ bodies are sexual objects. Friendships and play between girls and boys dropped significantly between the ages of 10 to 14 in all the countries studied.
“You’re not allowed to have normal healthy relationships with kids of the other sex,” Blum said. “If you’re a girl, you’re on guard. If you’re a boy you learn that you’re an aggressor. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
These kids then grow up to think men and women have certain set roles: Men have freedom and women are constrained. This plays out in all sorts of ways. In the criminal justice system, for example, it can show up when women who report sexual assault are asked what they were wearing during the time of the attack, as though they are to blame for being raped. In the business and political world it means ambitious women are viewed with skepticism, instead of embraced and rewarded for their efforts.
For this research, called the Global Early Adolescent Study, researchers conducted extensive interviews beginning in 2011 with boys and girls and their parents in 15 countries ― including the United States, Belgium, China, Egypt, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
They asked kids about their experiences growing up in their communities. Questions included: “Do you remember a situation where you realized you were no longer a child?” and “Can you tell me a story about when you did/talked about something with your friends today that you did not when you were a small child.” Parents were asked similar questions: “Can you tell me a story when you knew your child had become an adolescent?”
While there were cultural differences across the countries, and some Western nations had more progressive views on gender, researchers found that in every country studied, this so-called “hegemonic myth” prevailed: Girls are vulnerable and weak, while boys are strong and independent.
The stereotype held even in the U.S., where messages about “girl power” abound (at least in the marketing sphere).
The consequences of these stereotypes are profound. As they grow up, boys are more likely to engage in dangerous and deadly behavior ― drug abuse, smoking, reckless driving.
“Boys engage in and are the victims of physical violence to a much greater extent than girls,” Blum said. “They die more frequently from unintentional injuries, are more prone to substance abuse and suicide. As adults their life expectancy is shorter than that of women. Such differences are socially not biologically determined.”
Still, it’s arguable that girls are even more endangered by these myths. They’re twice as likely to experience depression by the age of 16. They’re much more likely to enter into marriage when they’re children. HIV rates for women are higher than for men.
“Girls pay a very high price,” Blum said.
Researchers were surprised at how entrenched these beliefs about gender were among children so young. They’re planning on a second phase of work that will search for ways to dislodge the damaging stereotypes from communities around the world.
While there are some who insist these differences are genetically proscribed, the researchers vehemently disagree. “This is social norms,” Blum said.
And these harmful stereotypes ultimately push women out of public life ― there are fewer women leaders in business and in politics. The ones who stick it out suffer discrimination and bias as they act in ways contrary to the stereotype. A leader, of course, must be strong and independent.
One of the more poignant interviews Blum pointed to was with an 11-year-old boy in Hanoi who talked about having to give up his best childhood friend, a girl. “Why can’t I play with her anymore?” he asked. “It’s not fair.”
A girl in Assiut, Egypt, was among the most “heart-wrenching,” Blum said. She told researchers, “Now I look at myself in the mirror and I say, ’Yeah, I’ve grown. I can’t go out anymore.”