Posted: 07 September 2018

Traditional gender roles and stereotypes: How they can affect children and young people

Gender identity is an often-talked about topic. Through both traditional and social media, society is becoming more aware of new ideas about gender roles.

But how much do young people hold onto gender norms, and how does that feed into the picture of their well-being?

This year, our Good Childhood Report revealed what young people across the UK think about gender roles and stereotypes, and how it can affect their happiness.

To note: the study shows trends only in young people who identify as male or female. A small number of young people interviewed (0.3%) identified as trans or preferred not to say, which is too small to analyse separately. 

Tough boys and caring girls

To get an idea of the expectations that young people have of gender roles and stereotypes, our researchers asked children about the kind of attributes they thought their friends would say is the most important.

For both boys and girls, ‘being good-looking’ is the standout characteristic. For girls, this is particularly notable at a huge 44%, with ‘being caring’ the next most common at 30%.

When it comes to boys, ‘being good-looking’ gained 32% of selections, with ‘being funny’ a close second at 23%.

Almost 1 in 8 of the young people interviewed said that ‘being tough’ is important in boys, compared to just 3% in girls. 

What's the harm?

These findings show that many young people are living in highly gendered environments, and place emphasis on traditional male or female stereotypes in their everyday lives.

This is shown to have a clear impact on young people’s well-being as a whole. Children who chose ‘being tough’ as the most important trait for boys, or ‘having good clothes’ as the most important trait for girls, are shown to have the lowest wellbeing across the group.

In fact, across the whole study it was found that children whose friendship group emphasises traditional gender roles and stereotypes have lower well-being than others.

In contrast, children who chose the relatively gender-neutral trait, ‘working hard at school’, as the most important attribute have the highest well-being.

Perpetuating behaviours

The pressure of gender stereotypes is underlined by a child’s environment - in particular, the prevalence of comments about young people’s appearance at school.

95% of young people say they have heard jokes or comments being made about other people’s bodies or looks ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘all the time’.

This in turn has a negative effect particularly on girls’ well-being. There is a saddening trend that the more a girl is exposed to these kind of jokes or comments, the more unhappy they are with their appearance.

One secondary school-aged girl comments: ‘I feel judged all the time based on what I wear. It’s like girls are expected to fulfil certain ridiculous expectations.’

Another adds: ‘Girls get told to look a certain way and if you don’t you get told you are ugly, fat and flat chested and that makes you not feel good enough for anyone.’

Expectations and pressure

It’s clear that gender roles and stereotypes are engrained in children’s lives from a young age, but it’s also clear that young people are struggling to fit in with society’s expectations of them.

As this pressure mounts, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulties – and harm – this can present to the well-being of young men and women today and in the future.

To learn more about gender stereotypes and how it shapes the lives of boys and girls, read our 2018 The Good Childhood Report.

By Lucy
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