Students and Gender Norms

By Megan Fariel, Hartford High School Alum

Guest Youth Writer and former Intern at WISE

In high school, I have noticed more gender-based traditions than in elementary and middle school. Prom, football culture, and dating in high school all seem to have some pretty clear gender expectations: The guy has to ask the girl to prom, girls wear their boyfriend’s jerseys, and so on.

Why doesn’t this happen before middle school?  While there surely is a biological change associated with puberty and development, I think a lot if it must be due to environment. Students may not realize that media consumption, role models, and exposure to new ideas can shape how they think. For example, a younger student might be more inclined to the views of his or her parents than an older student, because the younger student has not been exposed to new ideas yet.

Last fall, I decided to test this idea out with a survey of students in my school district to see how gender norms may affect us differently as we get older. I surveyed fourth, seventh, and tenth graders, for a total of ninety-five usable surveys. I asked questions that were not explicitly about gender in order to see when gender comes into play, and I asked students for their answers rather than giving a written survey in order to get reactive answers.

In the results, as well as in the demographics, I used cisnormative binary categories of boys and girls.  It is important to note that not everyone identifies with these categories. For simplicity, I used them in this survey, but ideally, you would ask students how they may identify.

I asked students to talk about their favorite color, to picture a person baking and to describe them, to list their strengths and weaknesses, and so on. Most of the questions did not reveal a big difference in the results of boys and girls, but some showed minor differences. Here, I will focus on two questions that yielded interesting results.

On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you crying in public?

            Numerically, there was no difference in responses between boys and girls, as I had predicted there would be. However, the reasoning of middle school students was very interesting. Seventh grade girls talked about how they were more comfortable crying in front of their friends, because they would be supportive. More boys talked about how they especially did not want to cry in front of their friends because they did not want to get teased. The difference in perception in how boys and girls should express emotion was quite clear.

In all grades, numbers were quite low on the scale- people largely don’t enjoy crying in front of people, because it could be embarrassing or awkward. However, these comments show how stereotypes can affect us. Even if your friends might actually be supportive when you are upset, if you buy into the stereotype you can never find out.

If Jack and Emma, two friends, go out for pizza together, who should pay for the pizza?

            This question adds another layer because it deals with how boys and girls interact with each other. In elementary school, students were fairly evenly split in their responses. About half of boys thought Jack should pay, and half thought the two should split the price. In middle school, the numbers changed. 72% of boys thought Jack should pay, and 82% of girls thought they should split the bill. In high school, the responses changed once again, with 62% of boys and 83% of girls saying the two should split the bill. None of the students responded that Emma should pay for the pizza in this situation.

These numbers show a transition in students’ thinking as they get older. From these results, it seems that young students think whatever they have heard from an older sibling or maybe what seems fair to them. In middle school, a time of change, pressure, and perhaps more insecurity, students want to do the “right” thing that is gentlemanly, or feminist, or however they want to fit in. In high school, more students have been on dates or are making their own money. Maybe by that point, they understand there is more gray area to who should pay, but that splitting it is often a convenient way to go for both parties.

With my survey, I wanted to start a discussion about where our views come from. When we discuss to make the invisible visible, we take away its power, and that is a great place to start with stereotypes. I want these results to help people recognize their own bias and to show that no one is immune from culture. One student asked at if the survey was about gender, and when I said yes, he said, “Wow, that must have sounded really sexist”.  His response wasn’t sexist, but our responses can be affected by stereotypes and it’s really good to realize that.

Stereotypes are more important than just being a nuisance, too. At my internship at WISE, I have been learning a lot about how stereotypes reinforce a culture of violence. If stereotypically, men can only show anger as an emotion when they are upset, and stereotypically, women should be passive, that contributes to bigger societal issues. Stereotypes limit boys and girls from being their true individual selves, not to mention non-conforming individuals that are completely left out of the conversation. As a culture, I hope we move toward an inclusive environment where no one is defined or confined by their gender identity or the stereotypes associated with it.

Other Interesting Resources:

Teens, Violence, and Stereotypes

Gender Norms and Health Risks