Confronting Gender Anxiety
By Caryl Rivers & Rosalind C. Barnett
As their children head back to school, the question of gender is on the minds of
many parents. Why? Recent—and widely circulated—news stories have focused
on individuals and schools grappling with the question of gender stereotypes. 33
This past spring, a Toronto couple trying to raise a “genderless” child became a
media sensation. Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, refused to reveal
whether their 4-month-old baby, Storm, is male or female. They say they want
their child to avoid society’s rigid gender norms.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, the Egalia preschool has banished the words “girl” and
“boy,” and the 33 kids are addressed as “friends.” In the same spirit, the school
forgoes the words “him” and “her”—”han” or “hon” in Swedish—replacing them
with a newly minted Swedish word, the genderless “hen.”
One can sympathize with the motives of the parents in the first case, without
endorsing such a radical step. The crucial distinction, overlooked by these
parents, is that biological sex, a genetic given, is not the same as gender, a
flexible social construct. Today, girls play rugby, and boys wear earrings.
Increasingly, knowing a child’s sex does not tell you whether that child is going to
do well in athletics, excel in math, or be the class president.
The Egalia school’s strategy may also be shortsighted. The school is legitimately
concerned about the pervasive tendency to fit children into restrictive female or
male “boxes.” Although the school is trying to minimize this process, its approach
is unlikely to have real long-term effects. After all, children are in school only a
relatively few hours a day, but they’re exposed to gendered messages all day,
Indeed, stereotypes exert considerable force. Like it or not, we all carry false
gender stereotypes inside our heads, probably unconsciously. For example, from
very early on, mothers may discourage girls from taking risks by routinely
underestimating their daughters’ abilities. In the study “Gender Bias in Mothers’
Expectations About Infant Crawling” published in 2000, 11-month-old babies
were allowed to crawl down a carpeted slope that had adjustable angles.
Mothers thought that their daughters would avoid the steep slopes, while their
sons would be fearless. But they were wrong. Boys and girls didn’t differ much. In
fact, the girl babies tended to be a bit more daring.
We’ve known for a long time that stereotypes have staying power. Indeed,
there’s solid scientific evidence that gender stereotypes can put children in
cognitive and emotional straitjackets. In 1980, stories about a male “math gene”
were rampant in the news media. A study of highly gifted math students in a
special program found that boys outperformed girls.
Since both sexes shared the same classrooms, it was suggested that girls’
poorer scores must be due to their genetic makeup, not to cultural factors. But
critics pointed out that boys and girls did not share the same experiences.
Parents of talented boys bought their sons special toys and books to heighten
their math skills and encouraged them to pursue the field. Parents of talented
girls, on the other hand, did not take such actions.
The “math gene” faded from scientific view. But a longitudinal study, “Gender
Differences in Math Ability: The Impact of Media Reports on Parents,”
published by University of Michigan researchers five years later, in 1985, found
that the math gene notion had “legs.”
Mothers who knew about the media stories lowered their expectations of their
daughters’ math capabilities. This study was important because it linked a
specific media narrative to mothers’ actual attitudes toward their daughters.
It’s not only girls who suffer from stereotypes. Harvard psychologist William
Pollack, the author of the classic and important book Real Boys, points out that
as early as 2nd grade, a stifling “boy culture” can erode the “interpersonal” skills
that come naturally to boys. Pollack reports in his book that boy babies are
actually more expressive and vocal than girl babies. “We now have executives
paying $10,000 a week to learn emotional intelligence. These [sessions] actually
target skills boys were born with.”
However, parents don’t have to raise a “genderless” child to counter stereotypes.
In recent years, we have broadened what’s possible for girls and boys, and parents can point their kids to many models in their everyday life.
One example of parent power comes from “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety
Impacts Girls’ Math Achievement,” a revealing study from the University of
Chicago, published in 2009, of 1st and 2nd graders. It found that female
elementary school teachers who lack confidence in their own math skills may
pass their anxiety along to the girls they teach. The more anxious teachers were
about their own math skills, the more likely their female students were to score
low in math achievement.
But there is a silver lining in this story for parents. Even if your daughter has a
teacher with high math anxiety, it’s not inevitable that she’s going to have
problems with math. Teachers’ anxiety alone didn’t do the damage. Only if girls
already had a belief that “girls aren’t good at math” did their achievement suffer.
However, girls who didn’t buy into the stereotype didn’t tumble into an
achievement gulf. It turns out that parents (or others) can “vaccinate” girls against
Parents should realize that when they fall prey to gender stereotypes, they are
actually shaping what kind of brains their children will eventually have. Boys who
are told they are naturally nonverbal will read less, and their verbal abilities may
indeed be stunted. Girls who believe they can’t do math will shy away from math
and science—even if they in fact do well in these areas.
The brain is a constantly changing organ. Rebecca Jordan-Young, a women’s
studies professor at Barnard College, says that people who cling to gender
stereotypes misunderstand the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of
the ways the brain grows and is influenced. In her recent book Brain Storm, she
notes: “Brains develop only in interaction; input from the external world … is as
critical to the development of [the] brain as food and water are to the entire
The Toronto couple and the Egalia school were right to start thinking about
gender issues early in children’s lives. We know that by age 2, kids already have
ideas about “gender appropriate” behavior. Given how pervasive gender
stereotypes are, it’s not realistic to think that parents or teachers can totally
isolate children from them. A better strategy may be to fortify kids against these
messages by arming them with the self-confidence to make whatever choices
they want, regardless of their biological sex.