Children as young as four already associate power with masculinity


As early as 4 years old, children associate power and masculinity, even in countries considered to be more egalitarian like Norway.

This is what scientists at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1) report, in collaboration with the Universities of Oslo (Norway), Lausanne and Neuchâtel (Switzerland), in a study published on 7 January 2020 in Sex Roles. They also show that in some situations the power-masculinity association does not manifest in girls.

We know little about how representations of power interact with gender in early childhood. Researchers at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1), in collaboration with the Universities of Oslo (Norway), Lausanne and Neuchâtel (Switzerland) wanted to know whether children aged 3 to 6 years old in France, Lebanon, and Norway attribute more power to masculine figures than feminine figures.

In a first experiment, they showed the children a picture with two non-gendered individuals.

One of them adopted a dominant physical posture and the other a subordinate posture (See figure).

First the children had to guess which of these two individuals was exerting power over the other. Next they had to assign a gender to each individual (Who is the girl? Who is the boy?).

The results reveal that from 4 years old, a large majority of children consider the dominant individual to be a boy.

The power-masculinity association was observed in both boys and girls, and just as much in Lebanon as in France and Norway. However it was not significant in 3-year old children.

In a second experiment, this time in children aged 4 and 5 years old all in school in France, had to imagine themselves in the picture and imagine the other person as a boy or a girl.

When the children had to consider their power relation with a person of the same gender as themselves, the girls and boys both largely identified with the dominant character.

But when they had to consider their power relation with a person of the opposite gender, boys identified more often with the dominant character whereas girls did not significantly identify more with one or other of the characters.

Finally, in a third experiment, children aged 4 and 5 years old in Lebanon and France watched a series of exchanges between two puppets, one representing a girl and the other a boy, behind a board1.

In one case, the puppets were getting ready to play a game together and the child heard one impose their choices on the other. In the other case, one puppet had more money than the other to buy ice cream.

In France and Lebanon, most of the boys thought that the puppet that imposed their choices or that had more money was the male puppet. However, the girls in both countries did not attribute the dominant position preferably to one or other gender.

These results show that children have early sensitivity to a gender hierarchy, though in some situations girls do not associate power and masculinity.

These results show that children have early sensitivity to a gender hierarchy, though in some situations girls do not associate power and masculinity.

The scientists now hope to find out what power forms they attribute to feminine figures and whether they legitimise the expression of gendered power.


1 The puppets, which were shown to the children before being hidden behind the board, were manipulated by the same speaker and “spoke” with the same voice, working as in a cartoon. So, behind the board, it was not to possible to differentiate them by their voice.

There is no question that a great deal of progress has been made toward gender equality, and this progress is particularly evident in the workplace. There also is no question that the goal of full gender equality has not yet been achieved – not in pay (AAUW, 2016) or position level (Catalyst, 2016).

In a recent interview study with female managers the majority of barriers for women’s advancement that were identified were consequences of gender stereotypes (Peus et al., 2015). There is a long history of research in psychology that corroborates this finding (for reviews see Eagly and Sczesny, 2009Heilman, 2012).

These investigations support the idea that gender stereotypes can be impediments to women’s career advancement, promoting both gender bias in employment decisions and women’s self-limiting behavior (Heilman, 1983).

This study is designed to investigate the current state of gender stereotypes about men and women using a multi-dimensional framework. Much of the original research on the content of gender stereotypes was conducted several decades ago (e.g., Rosenkrantz et al., 1968), and more recent research findings are inconsistent, some suggesting that there has been a change in traditional gender stereotypes (e.g., Duehr and Bono, 2006) and others suggesting there has not (e.g., Haines et al., 2016).

Measures of stereotyping in these studies tend to differ, all operationalizing the constructs of agency and communality, the two defining features of gender stereotypes (Abele et al., 2008), but in different ways.

We propose that the conflict in findings may derive in part from the focus on different facets of these constructs in different studies. Thus, we seek to obtain a more complete picture of the specific content of today’s gender stereotypes by treating agency and communality, as multi-dimensioned constructs.

Gender stereotypes often are internalized by men and women, and we therefore focus both on how men and women are seen by others and how they see themselves with respect to stereotyped attributes.

We also plan to compare and contrast charcterizations of men or women as a group with charcterizations of self, something not typically possible because these two types of characterizations are rarely measured in the same study.

In sum, we have multiple objectives: We aim to develop a multi-dimensional framework for assessing current conceptions of men’s and women’s characteristics and then use it to consider how men and women are seen by male and female others, how men and women see themselves, and how these perceptions of self and others in their gender group coincide or differ. In doing so, we hope to demonstrate the benefits of viewing agency and communality as multidimensional constructs in the study of gender stereotypes.

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are generalizations about what men and women are like, and there typically is a great deal of consensus about them. According to social role theory, gender stereotypes derive from the discrepant distribution of men and women into social roles both in the home and at work (Eagly, 19871997Koenig and Eagly, 2014).

There has long been a gendered division of labor, and it has existed both in foraging societies and in more socioeconomically complex societies (Wood and Eagly, 2012). In the domestic sphere women have performed the majority of routine domestic work and played the major caretaker role.

In the workplace, women have tended to be employed in people-oriented, service occupations rather than things-oriented, competitive occupations, which have traditionally been occupied by men (e.g., Lippa et al., 2014).

This contrasting distribution of men and women into social roles, and the inferences it prompts about what women and men are like, give rise to gender stereotypical conceptions (Koenig and Eagly, 2014).

Accordingly, men are characterized as more agentic than women, taking charge and being in control, and women are characterized as more communal than men, being attuned to others and building relationships (e.g., Broverman et al., 1972Eagly and Steffen, 1984).

These two concepts were first introduced by Bakan (1966) as fundamental motivators of human behavior. During the last decades, agency (also referred to as “masculinity,” “instrumentality” or “competence”) and communality (also referred to as “communion,” “femininity,” “expressiveness,” or “warmth”) have consistently been the focus of research (e.g., Spence and Buckner, 2000Fiske et al., 2007Cuddy et al., 2008Abele and Wojciszke, 2014). These dual tenets of social perception have been considered fundamental to gender stereotypes.

Stereotypes can serve an adaptive function allowing people to categorize and simplify what they observe and to make predictions about others (e.g., Devine and Sharp, 2009Fiske and Taylor, 2013).

However, stereotypes also can induce faulty assessments of people – i.e., assessments based on generalization from beliefs about a group that do not correspond to a person’s unique qualities.

These faulty assessments can negatively or positively affect expectations about performance, and bias consequent decisions that impact opportunities and work outcomes for both men and women (e.g., Heilman, 2012Heilman et al., 2015Hentschel et al., 2018).

Stereotypes about gender are especially influential because gender is an aspect of a person that is readily noticed and remembered (Fiske et al., 1991). In other words, gender is a commonly occurring cue for stereotypic thinking (Blair and Banaji, 1996).

Gender stereotypes are used not only to characterize others but also to characterize oneself (Bem, 1974).

The process of self-stereotyping can influence people’s identities in stereotype-congruent directions. Stereotyped characteristics can thereby be internalized and become part of a person’s gender identity – a critical aspect of the self-concept (Ruble and Martin, 1998Wood and Eagly, 2015).

Young boys and girls learn about gender stereotypes from their immediate environment and the media, and they learn how to behave in gender-appropriate ways (Deaux and LaFrance, 1998).

These socialization experiences no doubt continue to exert influence later in life and, indeed, research has shown that men’s and women’s self-characterizations differ in ways that are stereotype-consistent (Bem, 1974Spence and Buckner, 2000).

Measurement of Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes, and their defining features of agency and communality, have been measured in a variety of ways (Kite et al., 2008). Researchers have investigated people’s stereotypical assumptions about how men and women differ in terms of, for example, ascribed traits (e.g., Williams and Best, 1990), role behaviors (e.g., Haines et al., 2016), occupations (e.g., Deaux and Lewis, 1984), or emotions (e.g., Plant et al., 2000). Researchers also have distinguished personality, physical, and cognitive components of gender stereotypes (Diekman and Eagly, 2000). In addition, they have investigated how men’ and women’s self-characterizations differ in stereotype-consistent ways (Spence and Buckner, 2000).

Today, the most common measures of gender stereotypes involve traits and attributes. Explicit measures of stereotyping entail responses to questionnaires asking for descriptions of men or women using Likert or bi-polar adjective scales (e.g., Kite et al., 2008Haines et al., 2016), or asking for beliefs about the percentage of men and women possessing certain traits and attributes (e.g., McCauley and Stitt, 1978).

Gender stereotypes have also been studied using implicit measures, using reaction time to measure associations between a gender group and a stereotyped trait or attribute (e.g., Greenwald and Banaji, 1995). Although implicit measures are used widely in some areas of research, our focus in the research reported here builds on the longstanding tradition of measuring gender stereotypes directly through the use of explicit measures.

Contemporary Gender Stereotypes

Researchers often argue that stereotypes are tenacious; they tend to have a self-perpetuating quality that is sustained by cognitive distortion (Hilton and von Hippel, 1996Heilman, 2012). However, stereotype maintenance is not only a product of the inflexibility of people’s beliefs but also a consequence of the societal roles women and men enact (Eagly and Steffen, 1984Koenig and Eagly, 2014).

Therefore, the persistence of traditional gender stereotypes is fueled by skewed gender distribution into social roles. If there have been recent advances toward gender equality in workforce participation and the rigid representation of women and men in long-established gender roles has eased, then might the content of gender stereotypes have evolved to reflect this change?

The answer to this question is not straightforward; the degree to which there has been a true shift in social roles is unclear. On the one hand, there are more women in the workforce than ever before. In 1967, 36% of U.S. households with married couples were made up of a male provider working outside the home and a female caregiver working inside the home, but now only 19% of U.S. households concur with this division (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017).

Moreover, women increasingly pursue traditionally male careers, and there are more women in roles of power and authority. For example, today women hold almost 40% of management positions in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017).

In addition, more men are taking on a family’s main caretaker role (Ladge et al., 2015). Though families with only the mother working are still rare (5% in 2016 compared to 2% in 1970), the average number of hours fathers spent on child care per week increased from 2.5 to 8 h in the last 40 years (Pew Research Center, 2018). In addition, the majority of fathers perceive parenting as extremely important to their identity (Pew Research Center, 2018).

On the other hand, role segregation, while somewhat abated, has by no means been eliminated. Despite their increased numbers in the labor force, women still are concentrated in occupations that are perceived to require communal, but not agentic attributes.

For example, the three most common occupations for women in the U.S. involve care for others (elementary and middle school teacher, registered nurse, and secretary and administrative assistant; U.S. Department of Labor, 2015), while men more than women tend to work in occupations requiring agentic attributes (e.g., senior management positions, construction, or engineering; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016b).

Sociological research shows that women are underrepresented in occupations that are highly competitive, inflexible, and require high levels of physical skill, while they are overrepresented in occupations that place emphasis on social contributions and require interpersonal skills (Cortes and Pan, 2017).

Moreover, though men’s home and family responsibilities have increased, women continue to perform a disproportionate amount of domestic work (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016a), have greater childcare responsibilities (Craig and Mullan, 2010Kan et al., 2011), and continue to be expected to do so (Park et al., 2008).

Thus, there is reason both to expect traditional gender stereotypes to dominate current conceptions of women and men, and to expect them to not. Relevant research findings are conflicting. For example, a large investigation found that over time managers have come to perceive women as more agentic (Duehr and Bono, 2006).

However, other investigations have found gender stereotypes to have changed little over time (Heilman et al., 1989) or even to have intensified (Lueptow et al., 2001). A recent study replicating work done more than 30 years ago found minimal change, with men and women still described very differently from one another and in line with traditional stereotyped conceptions (Haines et al., 2016).

There also have been conflicting findings concerning self-charcterizations, especially in women’s self-views of their agency. Findings by Abele (2003) suggest that self-perceived agency increases with career success. Indeed, there has been indication that women’s self-perceived deficit in agency has abated over time (Twenge, 1997) or that it has abated in some respects but not others (Spence and Buckner, 2000).

However, a recent meta-analysis has found that whereas women’s self-perceptions of communality have decreased over time, their self-perceptions of agency have remained stable since the 1990s (Donnelly and Twenge, 2017). Yet another study found almost no change in men’s and women’s self-characterizations of their agency and communality since the 1970s (Powell and Butterfield, 2015).

There are many possible explanations for these conflicting results. A compelling one concerns the conceptualization of the agency and communality constructs and the resulting difference in the traits and behaviors used to measure them. In much of the gender stereotypes literature, agency and communality have been loosely used to denote a set of varied attributes, and different studies have operationalized agency and communality in different ways. We propose that agency and communality are not unitary constructs but rather are comprised of multiple dimensions, each distinguishable from one another. We also propose that considering these dimensions separately will enhance the clarity of our understanding of current differences in the characterization of women and men, and provide a more definitive picture of gender stereotypes today.

Dimensions of Communality and Agency

There has been great variety in how the agency construct has been operationalized, and the specific terms used to measure agency often differ from study to study (e.g., McAdams et al., 1996Rudman and Glick, 2001Abele et al., 2008Schaumberg and Flynn, 2017). Furthermore, distinctions between elements of agency have been identified:

In a number of studies competence has been shown to be distinct from agency as a separate factor (Carrier et al., 2014Koenig and Eagly, 2014Abele et al., 2016Rosette et al., 2016), and in others, the agency construct has been subdivided into self-reliance and dominance (Schaumberg and Flynn, 2017).

There also has been great variety in how the communality construct has been operationalized (Hoffman and Hurst, 1990Fiske et al., 2007Abele et al., 2008Brosi et al., 2016Hentschel et al., 2018). Although there have been few efforts to pinpoint specific components of communality, recent work focused on self-judgments in cross-cultural contexts has subdivided it into facets of warmth and morality (Abele et al., 2016).

The multiplicity of items used to represent agency and communality in research studies involving stereotyping is highly suggestive that agentic and communal content can be decomposed into different facets.

In this research we seek to distinguish dimensions underlying both the agency and the communality constructs. Our aim is to lend further credence to the idea that the fundamental constructs of agency and communality are multifaceted, and to supply researchers with dimensions of each that may be useful for study of stereotype evaluation and change.

While we are proposing that agency and communality can be broken down into components, we are not claiming that the use of these overarching constructs in earlier research has been an error. In the vast majority of studies in which communality or agency has been measured the scale reliabilities have been high and the items highly correlated.

However, internal consistency does not necessarily indicate that the individual items included are unidimensional (Schmitt, 1996Sijtsma, 2008), or that the entirety of the construct is being captured in a particular measure.

Moreover, there are multiple meanings included in these constructs as they have been discussed and operationalized in gender research. Therefore, we propose that breaking them down into separate dimensions will provide finer distinctions about contemporary characterizations of men and women.

Perceiver Sex

Findings often demonstrate that male and female raters are equally likely to characterize women and men in stereotypic terms (Heilman, 20012012). This suggests that stereotypes outweigh the effects of evaluators’ gender identities and, because men and women live in the same world, they see the world similarly. However, the steady shift of women’s societal roles and its different implications for men and women may affect the degree to which men and women adhere to traditional gender stereotypes.

On the face of it, one would expect women to hold traditional gender stereotypes less than men. The increase of women in the workforce generally, and particularly in domains typically reserved for men, is likely to be very salient to women.

Such changes have distinct implications for them – implications that can impact their expectations, aspirations, and actual experiences. As a result, women may be more attentive than men to shifts in workplace and domestic roles, and more accepting of these roles as the new status quo. They consequently may be more amenable to incorporating updated gender roles into their understanding of the world, diminishing stereotypic beliefs.

Unlike women, who may be likely to embrace recent societal changes, men may be prone to reject or dismiss them. The same societal changes that present new opportunities for women can present threats to men, who may see themselves as losing their rightful place in the social order (see also Sidanius and Pratto, 1999Knowles and Lowery, 2012).

Thus, men may be less willing to accept modern-day changes in social roles or to see these changes as definitive. There may be little impetus for them to relinquish stereotypic beliefs and much impetus for them to retain these beliefs. If this is the case, then men would be expected to adhere more vigorously to traditional gender stereotypes than women.

Self-Stereotyping Versus Stereotyping of One’s Gender Group

Although gender stereotypes impact charcterizations of both self and others, there may be a difference in the degree to which stereotypes dominate in self- and other-characterizations. That is, women may see themselves differently than they see women in general and men may see themselves differently than they see men in general; although they hold stereotypes about their gender groups, they may not apply them to themselves. Indeed, attribution theory (Jones and Nisbett, 1987), which suggests that people are more prone to attribute behavior to stable personality traits when viewing someone else than when viewing oneself, gives reason to argue that stereotypes are more likely to be used when characterizing others in one’s gender group than when characterizing oneself.

A similar case can be made for construal level theory (Trope and Liberman, 2010), which suggests that psychological distance promotes abstraction rather than attention to individuating information. Moreover, the impact of societal changes that affect adherence to gender stereotypes is apt to have greater immediacy and personal impact for self, and therefore be more reflected in self-characterizations than in characterizations of others.

Some studies have compared the use of stereotypes in characterizing self and others. In an early study (Rosenkrantz et al., 1968), each participating student was asked to rate men, women, and self on a number of characteristics. The researchers found that self-characterizations of men and women showed less evidence of stereotypes than characterizations of others. Similar results were found in studies on accuracy of stereotyping (Martin, 1987Allen, 1995). Using instrumenal (i.e., agentic) and expressive (i.e., communal) attributes from the BSRI and PAQ scales, Spence and Buckner (2000) found very little relation between stereotypes about others and self-characterizations.

There is reason to think that some dimensions of gender stereotypes are more likely than others to be differentially subscribed to when characterizing self than when characterizing others.

For example, there is a tendency to boost self-esteem and adopt descriptors that are self-enhancing when describing oneself (Swann, 1990), and this may have conseqences whether these descriptors are consistent or inconsistent with gender stereotypes.

If this is so, gender may be an important factor; there are likely particular aspects of gender stereotypes that are more (or less) acceptable to women and men, affecting the degree to which they are reflected in men’s and women’s self-descriptions as compared to their description of their gender group.

However, there also is reason to believe that individuals will embrace positive stereotypes and reject negative stereotypes as descriptive not only of themselves but also of their close in-groups (Biernat et al., 1996), suggesting that there will be little difference between characterizations of oneself and one’s gender group.

Therefore, to obtain a full picture of the current state of gender stereotypes and their impact on perceptions, we believe it important to compare self-characterizations and characterizations of one’s gender group on specific dimensions of gender stereotypes.

Overview of the Research

In this study, we develop a multidimensional framework for measuring different elements of agency and communality to provide an assessment of contemporary gender stereotypes and their impact on charcterizations about others and self. Using the multidimensional framework, we sought to determine

(1) if men and women differ in their gender stereotypes;

(2) if men and women differ in their self-characterizations; and (

3) if men’s and women’s self-characterizations differ from their characterizations of their gender groups.

In each instance we compare the results using the traditional unidimensional framework for measuring agency and communality with the results using the newly formulated multidimensional framework.

Media Contacts:
Alexiane Agullo – CNRS
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“How Preschoolers Associate Power with Gender in Male-Female Interactions: A Cross-Cultural Investigation”. Rawan Charafeddine et al.
Sex Roles doi:10.1007/s11199-019-01116-x.


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