By the time he's reached the ripe old age of 5, if you ask a boy to decide which musical instrument he would like to play, most likely he'll head straight for the drums. Ask a girl, and she's more likely to pick up a flute, or a violin.
Almost from the beginning, our sexual stereotypes have become so entrenched that they influence nearly everything we do, from the sports we play to the instruments we study to the careers we finally pick.
A recent study reaffirmed that young boys are far more likely to pick instruments generally considered "male," like drums, the trumpet or the saxophone, and girls will pick "feminine" instruments, like the violin, clarinet or flute. That's not particularly surprising, because other studies found similar results in the 1970s.
But what is a bit surprising is that despite advances in reducing sexism in society, the stereotypes we embrace as children are just about as strong today as they were decades ago.
Girl Roles Not As Rigid
"I was quite surprised to see that these stereotypes still existed," says Betty Repacholi, a research associate in the University of Washington's Center for Mind, Brain & Learning.
Repacholi and her former student, Samantha Pickering of the University of Sydney in Australia, reported their findings in the current issue of the journal Sex Roles.
The researchers, who studied more than 600 kindergarten and fourth-grade Australian children over the past couple of years, found that it's far easier for a little girl to break away from the stereotypes and pick a masculine instrument than it is for a little boy to pick up that violin.
Some boys do, of course, and many of the true masters of that instrument are men, perhaps indicating that gender is far less important as the inner muse takes over on the road to excellence. But in those early years, it can be really tough for a little guy to pick up his violin case instead of a football and head off to school. That's not what boys are supposed to do.
"The worst thing that's likely to happen [to a girl who wants to play the tuba] is she will be called a tomboy," Repacholi says. And having masculine traits might be considered an asset even by children because they probably notice that males, more often than not, rule the roost.
"But for boys," Repacholi says, "there's nothing positive associated with displaying feminine qualities."
In other words, it might not sting as much for a girl to be called a tomboy as it does for a boy to be called a sissy. So girls, the study suggests, make the break more easily than boys, at least in the short term.
Drums vs. Flutes
For their research, Repacholi and Pickering, who plays three so-called "feminine" instruments, set up a series of tests. Eight instruments that had previously been classified by gender were used in the study. Flute, violin, clarinet and cello are considered feminine, and drums, saxophone, trumpet and trombone are classified as male.
There are, of course, a whole range of instruments whose sexuality is less clear, but researchers tend to classify powerful, physically demanding instruments as male, and lighter, delicate instruments as female. Before going too far down that road, let's concede that we all have problems with some of those classifications, but the eight chosen for the study are widely accepted in the research community because of the numbers of persons from each sex who learn to play the instruments.