GN or deviation from gender norms is often associated with mental health risks, of which poor peer relations may be a key contributing factor. Both adults and children hold biases against people who break gender norms, but prior studies offer limited information regarding the ways such biases are expressed. Also, little is known about whether such biases would show in samples outside developed North American and European cultures. More importantly, no effective intervention has been developed to target specifically biases against GN, especially those in children. Coupled with a worldwide increase in the incidences of GN and gender dysphoria, it is particularly timely to investigate the developmental origin of gender-based biases in childhood, the challenges faced by children who do not conform to gender norms, and potential ways to alleviate peer discrimination against GN.
Describing and intervening in children’s bias against GN using multiple measures of assessment
The research involved a total of 315 Chinese children in Hong Kong between the ages of four to nine years in two studies. Their appraisals of peers were assessed using multiple measures. These included verbal responses to questions such as how much they would like to be friends with certain peers, a behavioural task in which they had to decide how generously they wanted to share with certain peers, and ranking peers from most to least favourite. Before assessing their appraisals, the children viewed vignettes of hypothetical boy and girl peers who are gender conforming or gender nonconforming in play, appearance, playmate preferences, and activities. In a second portion of the study, the researchers investigated the effectiveness of an intervention. The eight to nine year old children were randomly assigned to view either exemplars of gender nonconforming peers who displayed socially desirable characteristics (e.g., having lots of friends) as well as some gender conforming characteristics that made them similar to the majority of children, or view pictures of zoo animals as a control condition. Their appraisals of gender conforming and gender nonconforming peers were then assessed.
Children’s biased appraisals of gender nonconforming peers exist in multiple forms but it is possible to intervene
The first of its kind in the world, the study demonstrated that children, including those as young as four to five years of age, gave less positive appraisals of and also shared less generously with peers who did not conform to stereotypical gender expressions. They were especially less positive if that peer was a boy, and the older children aged eight to nine years of age tended to be less positive toward gender nonconforming target peers than did the younger children. While prior studies also showed that children show biases against GN, this study showed how pervasive these biases are. Less positive evaluations were consistent, ranging from whether they would like to be friends with those peers to whether they think those peers are popular and how much they share with them.
The study also broke new ground by showing that the eight to nine year old children could be influenced to be more positive towards the GN peers. By simply viewing gender nonconforming peers with a diverse range of traits (both conforming and nonconforming, and traits that would be considered positive such as performing well in school), children were more positive towards gender nonconforming peers.
Implications for wellbeing and diversity
These findings on the developmental pattern of children’s appraisals of other children who are gender nonconforming are valuable, especially given the latter constitute a substantial minority in the population, the increasing prevalence of gender dysphoria, and the link between GN and wellbeing.
Professor WONG Wang Ivy, Assistant Professor, Gender Studies Progrmme and Department of Psychology (by courtesy), CUHK, and Head of the Gender Development Laboratory, said, “The findings show that discrimination against GN may have an early origin. Also, the older children were not less, but more, biased than the younger children, at least in the age range studied. However, the success of the intervention opened up a gateway to build a more tolerant future generation.”
Despite reports of increased psycho-social challenges faced by gender nonconforming children and adults, the child participants thought gender nonconforming peers were as happy as gender conforming peers, possibly meaning that children are not fully aware of the difficulties faced by their gender nonconforming peers. Highlighting positive attributes of individuals and qualities that gender conforming and gender nonconforming children share more broadly (such as how they both share in the identity of “student” at school) could be helpful. For example, having teachers create opportunities for gender conforming and gender nonconforming children to learn about how each person excels as an individual and ways that they are potentially similar would be worthwhile. The researchers are conducting ongoing studies on other intervention strategies and GN biases in other cultures.
About the CUHK Gender Development Laboratory
Dedicated to rigorous evidence-based research with an international outlook, the Gender Development Laboratory (the “Laboratory”) of CUHK Faculty of Social Science specialises in research on gender and sexuality across the lifespan, studying children and adolescents, as well as adults. Taking an eclectic framework that considers social, cognitive as well as biological theories of psychology, the Laboratory is committed to investigating how gender and sexuality are expressed and developed, their impact, and interventions. Apart from gender and sexuality, general social and cognitive phenomena pertinent to the human psyche also fall within the gamut of the Laboratory. For details, please visit: https://psycgen.wixsite.com/pagelab