It doesn't matter where in the world you live. Lessons about gender start early, and they have lifelong consequences.
A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found many norms around gender, what's expected of boys and girls, become entrenched in adolescence and have negative impacts that carry into adulthood.
We knew some of this already. Existing research shows gender roles can harm both sexes. But the Global Early Adolescent Study — which looked at girls and boys between 10-14 years old in 15 countries with varying income levels — found many of these stereotypes are universal, and they become entrenched before 10 years old.
"We were actually anticipating more differences than similarities, and one of the big findings is that there are still very consistent forms of patriarchy around the world," said Kristin Mmari, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the lead qualitative researcher on the study.
The ideas girls and boys have about gender, the study found, form earlier in adolescence than had previously been measured, Mmari said.
"There seems to be a shift as soon as girls and boys enter this stage, where their attitudes and beliefs about the opposite sex change dramatically," she said. "And they talked about how this was not so in childhood. That they could have these friends — opposite sex friends — and they were given equal amounts of freedom. They were treated the same, they thought. But once they began puberty, and their bodies developed, their worlds changed."
The biggest myth perpetuated about gender, researchers found, is that once girls hit puberty, they are vulnerable and in need of protection to preserve their sexual and reproductive health, while boys are seen as strong and independent. It's this myth, Mmari said, that changes how the world sees both sexes during adolescence, and how it continues to treat them throughout their lives.
"How you perceive girls and boys is socially driven," Mmari said. "It's not biologically driven."
Consequences when girls conform to gender stereotypes:
- Child marriage
- Leaving school early
- Exposure to violence
Consequences when boys conform to gender stereotypes:
- Engaging in physical violence to a much greater extent than girls
- Dying more frequently from unintentional injuries
- Being more prone to substance abuse and suicide
- Having a shorter life expectancy than women
Mmari said one of the major takeaways from the study is that it's important to challenge gender stereotypes when children are young.
"You can look at it as a window of opportunity to really address these attitudes and beliefs before they become cemented later on," she said.
The next phase of the study, which Mmari said will take about four or five years, will measure how gender norms change over time, what factors influence those changes and how they relate to health-outcomes for boys and girls.
"We need to view gender as more of a system," Mmari said. "One of the problems ... is we typically look at things on an individual level. So we feel like if we just empower girls, make them feel good, then we'll change. But the problem is they go back to their homes where they're given messages from their parents that are contradictory. They go to the schools where they're given messages from their teachers that are contradictory. They look at the media — it's a whole system out there that's transmitting these inequitable norms, and so we have to think of it more on that level."