While girls’ gender stereotyping begins to decline around the age of seven-years-old the study found that boys’ preconceived ideas around gender actually increases at that age.
Psychologists at the university tapped into children’s unconscious stereotypes by asking them to speak in the voices of people with different occupations.
This approach was taken instead of asking participants what they think about men and women doing different jobs, because there are concerns that this can mask people’s true beliefs owing to their desire to confirm.
The research found that for stereotypically male jobs, both sexes spontaneously masculinised their voices, by lowering pitch and resonance, and they also feminised their voices for stereotypically female occupations, by raising their pitch and resonance.
Boys also used an overtly masculine voice even when imitating workers in gender-neutral roles, the study found.
The researchers are advising teachers, parents and practitioners working with young children to be vigilant around the voices they give to characters when interacting with children. They are also advising authors and TV writers to be careful about associating job roles too strongly with a specific gender. They refer to the voice as an ‘untapped resource to monitor and potentially challenge implicit stereotypes in children’.
Dr Valentina Cartei, research fellow at the University of Sussex’s School of Psychology, said, ‘Our study found that boys were especially likely to accentuate the vocal masculinity or femininity of people doing different jobs.
‘This pattern suggests that children have differential evaluations of males and females engaging in stereotypical and counter-stereotypical occupations.’
For the study, children aged between and five- and 10-years-old took part in a voice production task where they were provided with descriptions of traditionally male, female and gender neutral professions and asked to give voices to people in each of those jobs. Researchers also asked them to complete a questionnaire which asked them directly about men and women carrying out particular job roles.
The researchers have created an ‘Index of Stereotypicality’ which they believe could be used to quantify implicit occupational stereotyping in children. Used alongside software that can extract pitch from the recording of children’s voices, they think the index could be a useful tool for teachers and practitioners interested in challenging stereotypes.
Jane Oakhill, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, believes the research suggests that children continue to entertain gender stereotypes even if they are not prepared to say so explicitly.
‘If we are to successfully challenge these occupational stereotypes, then as well as having depictions of both male and female nurses, we need occupational role models who vary in vocal masculinity and femininity, such as male nurses with both low and high vocal pitch,’ she said.
‘Unconscious bias training should also include voice cues to help teachers and parents become aware of and challenge biases about gender stereotypes in relation to particular jobs.’