Enforcing gender roles on kids has consequences, but education can help

New studies show how, across the globe, kids are being forced to conform to gender roles.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
CREDIT: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

A collection of new studies published in next month’s Journal of Adolescent Health takes a deep dive to explore the impact of gender norms on adolescents across the globe. It turns out that even though gender norms might vary in small ways from country to country, there are consistent themes, and adolescents suffer real consequences when they’re enforced.

Some of the studies’ findings aren’t surprising. Girls are taught to feel vulnerable and that boys are predators, and boys are conditioned to be strong and independent. What it looks like when these norms are violated looks somewhat different across cultures, like boys not playing sports in Baltimore or Ghent, or helping their moms with household chores in Delhi, or employing female gestures in Shanghai. But there were also some very consistent behaviors that were nearly universally seen as violating gender norms: boys wearing nail polish, girls playing football/soccer, and any kid wearing clothes stereotypically worn by the other gender.

Moreover, the studies found that gender norms lead to consequences for all children, both in the immediate and long-term. Children who violate gender norms, especially transgender and gender nonconforming youth, are often bullied and harassed by their peers, and they may be corrected by their parents in shaming ways as well. And conforming to the norms isn’t much better, as the researchers explain:

Gender norms and beliefs have significant implications for both girls and boys. The consequences for girls in many parts of the world include child marriage, early school leaving, pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infection risk, violence exposure, and depression. But despite popular perceptions boys are not unscathed. As a result of these hegemonic norms, they engage in and are the victims of physical violence to a much greater extent than girls; they die more frequently from unintentional injuries, are more prone to substance abuse and suicide; and as adults their life expectancy is shorter than that of women.

Despite the seeming universality of these norms, they are not determined biologically, the researchers say, but socially. Children can be taught that they don’t have to conform to those norms and that they don’t have to pressure each other into doing so. Such changes “have the potential to improve the well-being of adolescent boys and adolescent girls in the short and long terms.”

Nicole Cushman, executive director of the sex ed advocacy organization Answer, told ThinkProgress that sex ed can be an effective vehicle for discussing these issues. “What we would consider truly comprehensive high-quality sex ed goes far beyond the plumbing lesson,” she said. Not only can it address gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientation, it can equip young people with “language skills, thinking skills, and tools to state their boundaries and respect others’ boundaries,” addressing issues like consent and sexual assault.

As a result, young people learn to be more accepting of their peers. “At its core, what sex ed can do is really shift some of our cultural norms about sexuality and gender,” Cushman explained, “because it’s fundamentally about how we relate to one another.”

“If we do the work of creating safe and inclusive places where it’s safe for young people try on different roles and challenge those norms, [non-binary and transgender] kids might feel more comfortable coming out and getting the support they need if they want to transition.”

The studies found that, though the ideas of gender norms start in early childhood, they are solidified far more rigidly upon the onset of puberty, because the goal becomes preventing the adolescents from having sex. But both because of the increased signaling and the physiological effects of puberty itself, “these issues are on the top of the mind for adolescents,” Cushman noted. She thinks it’s important for parents and teachers “to listen to young people and let them bring their voices into the conversation and help guide what it is they want to talk about.”

Some might not see the problem with gender norms, particularly given how common they are. “We have cultural and social norms about a lot of things, and that in and of itself is not inherently a bad thing,” Cushman said. But the problem with these norms is that “society has created this set of expectations that are not necessarily helpful.” They’re “not grounded in a biological basis,” they create “unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about people’s gender,” and they are “really rooted in sexism.”

Starting to unpack these norms has the potential to make society safer and more inclusive not only for LGBTQ youth, but for everybody.