Stereotypes Lead Boys to Prefer Drums to Violins

In the first of several studies, children were shown videotapes of the instruments as they were played by eight male and eight female high school students. The children were separated into three groups. One group saw the "male" instruments played by boys, and the "female" instruments played by girls. The second saw that situation reversed, with boys playing the violin, for example, and girls playing the drums. The third group heard the music, but never saw who was playing.

The first group had no trouble picking the "appropriate" instrument for their gender. The girls picked up the violins and the flutes, and the guys really loved those drums.

But when children were subjected to "counter-stereotype" examples, in which boys were seen playing the girls' instruments, and vice versa, it had a major effect on the girls, but not the boys. About 70 percent of the girls picked the masculine instruments, Repacholi says, while only about 25 percent of the boys were willing to opt for the female instruments.

She thinks that change was likely temporary, and probably disappeared within a day or so, but she regards it as an indication that girls are more likely to abandon gender-based biases than boys.

Other parts of the study suggest that the stereotyping tends to diminish with age. Kindergarten girls, for example, were far less likely to select a male instrument than were fourth graders.

So what does it all mean?

Subtle Influences

Repacholi says it means that children are still being molded in such a way as to produce and nurture gender-based stereotypes. Some of it comes from their peers, she says, but much of it undoubtedly comes from their parents. And in many cases it's probably very subtle.

A mother, she suggests, may not even know that when she thrusts a violin into the hands of her daughter she is making a statement about gender. She may simply think she is trying to avoid a set of drums.

But a violin is no more "female" than a drum is "male." We only see it as such because our view of the world is so influenced by gender. After all, it's one of the first things we notice.

The study indicates that with a little effort, sexual stereotyping can be overcome. People like Itzhak Perlman have proved it. Aren't you glad he had the courage to pick up that violin instead of a set of drums?

My guess is it's been a long, long time since anyone called him a sissy.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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