Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  MARQUETTE – Most research on gender development has focused on children 3 years of age or older, but theory suggests that awareness of one's own sex and the potential for developing gender stereotypes begins even earlier in life. The challenge has been validating the theory.

Infants and toddlers do not have the same level of verbal understanding or cooperation required in previous studies and recent attempts to establish age-appropriate measures have been thwarted by methodological problems or inconsistent results.

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  Maya Sen, a psychology professor at Northern Michigan University, will try to make advances in this emerging area of research. She has received a two-year, $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and pilot-test measures to analyze gender development in 6- to 30-month-old children.

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  "We will adapt methods used in other areas of research with very young populations with the goal of designing paradigms that are both age appropriate and engaging," she said. "Specifically, we will try to measure children's understanding of what sex they are; their knowledge of gender stereotypes; and gender salience, or the attention and importance they attach to gender. The main focus is determining whether the measures themselves are feasible, but hopefully we will also obtain some results for this age group in the process."

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  Sen said there are a variety of ways to measure stereotype knowledge in older children. One might be showing the subject a doll and asking whether a girl or boy is most likely to play with it. Another could be asking the subject to put a toy airplane into the hands of a female or male doll.

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  "These work okay, but they are not ideal activities for younger children," she added. "We will test kids 12-30 months old using six different measures. One is sequential touching – presenting them with a tray full of toys and observing how they play with them and associate the toys with each other. It's similar to testing category formation when kids play with related toys. There is some evidence that children know the doll and truck distinction at 12 months. They might have stereotype knowledge at that age, or it could be a case of innate differences or parents steering them away from other things. At 12 months girls and boys prefer dolls – at 18 they show gender stereotyped preferences."

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  Sen is the director of the gender studies minor at NMU. She said her interest in the field stems from her feminist upbringing. While parenting plays a role, she said even children raised in egalitarian households learn gender stereotypes. Sen is interested in when these first develop and whether they conceivably can be changed. She is also intrigued by children who don't conform to stereotypes even when there's so much societal pressure to do so.

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  "Reducing stereotypes is a goal, but not the primary one," she said. "We want to provide detail for what develops and when so that hopefully we can use these measures to develop longitudinal studies of gender development from birth through adulthood. Once a better theoretical explanation of gender development is in place, it might be used for interventions that will lead to cultural change."

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  Sen said the NMU dean of graduate studies office supported her attendance at a proposal writing institute, which helped her secure the NIH grant. She will receive help executing the study from four undergraduate students.

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  "The psychology department makes a conscious effort to involve students as much as possible in our research. They can read or talk about designing a study, but to actually see and experience the process is much more valuable and really boosts their resumes. Working with them also helps me write them solid recommendations for graduate school."

 Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚  Sen plans to begin testing young children in December or January.

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director