Global gender gap starts taking hold as early as 10 years old, study finds

With a gender pay gap in the U.S. that has persisted for decades, deep-rooted expectations about whether men or women should be breadwinners or the caregivers, and evidence that women and men have different experiences on everything from negotiating salaries to ending up in the C-suite, the influence of gender in the workplace is everywhere.

Now, new research has found that the roots of that gender differential begins as early as the age of 10 — whether you’re a child growing up here in the United States, or in places as far as New Delhi.

Researchers who conducted a 15-country analysis from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Health Organization that found that gender stereotypes become ingrained even before adolescence, and have damaging repercussions for both men and women in their personal and professional lives.

The researchers found that young boys and girls in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Scotland, the U.S., and Vietnam get confined to a “gender straitjacket” of rules that say girls are damsels in distress in constant need of supervision, while boys are taught to be strong and independent. Those stereotypes are in place often regardless of culture or income, they found.

“We found children at a very early age — from the most conservative to the most liberal societies — quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study, said. “And this message is being constantly reinforced at almost every turn, by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches.”

Through 450 interviews with children ages 10 to 14 years old and their parents and guardians, researchers found that while boys in New Delhi and Shanghai get to explore the outside world unsupervised, girls in those cities are told to stay indoors and do chores. Overall, researchers found that parents focus on supervising daughters over sons and that these well-meaning acts of protection cause lasting, lifelong harm to girls who are taught to see themselves as subservient.

Study: Girls are taught they are weak and vulnerable

“Messages such as — do not sit like that, do not wear that, do not talk to him, boys will ruin your future — support the gender division of power,” the study’s authors wrote.

Girls who try to break with tradition are often physically or emotionally abused, researchers found. And girls across cultures are taught that their appearance and their sexuality are one of their most valuable assets, which can promote damaging ideas about identity and self-worth.

Once these myths take root, they’re hard to escape.

For girls, harsh attitudes about “proper” behavior and stringent sexual norms can result in them dropping out of school at higher rates and experiencing sexual violence at higher rates, researchers found.

Boys also harmed by cultural stereotypes, researchers find

For boys, being told you need to be an invulnerable macho man leads to higher risks of men engaging in risky behavior, tobacco and alcohol consumption and other forms of self-harm.

In addition, while women have made some progress in being allowed to buck certain cultural norms — being allowed to wear pants, in addition to skirts, being allowed to play sports and enter the workforce, which were taboo generations before — boys who want to dress in skirts or display more feminine stereotypes are harshly punished, researchers found.

“When researchers examined attitudes about gender roles among young adolescents in China, India, Belgium and the United States, they found a growing acceptance for girls pushing against certain gender boundaries, but almost zero tolerance for boys who do,” according to the press release accompanying the study.

Among the consequences that boys face for trying to act more stereotypically feminine include bullying and physical violence, researchers found.

What to do about it

“We know from research studies and programmatic experience that unequal gender norms can be changed, but this takes carefully planned and implemented interventions that target both young people and the environment they are growing and developing in,” V. Chandra Mouli, the co-director and scientist at the Adolescents and at-Risk Populations Team, Reproductive Health and Research Department for the World Health Organization, said in a statement.

For their study, the researchers suggest the answer for mitigating these risks is to start interventions at earlier ages. While many interventions aimed at adolescence are targeted to children in puberty, researchers warn that by then, it may be too late to change their mindsets.