Gender Stereotypes Harm Girls as Young as Three Months Old

According to recent research, gender stereotypes are an issue when babies are just three months old, and it's really hurting girls.

Girl and Boy Babies Looking Startled Veronika Galkina/Shutterstock
Gendered thinking originates from so many different places and manifests itself in so many different ways—and according to a new study, preconceived ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl can start affecting children well before they celebrate their first birthdays.

The paper, which comes from researchers from the University of Sussex, the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne and Hunter City College in New York, indicates that infants as young as three months old are subjected to gender stereotypes.

More: Why Unisex Baby Names Are on the Rise

What's in a cry?

Before we get into the ways these stereotypes manifest themselves, let's make one thing clear: there are no actual differences in the voices of boys and girls before puberty. But that doesn't always seem to register: According to the study, adults tend to assume that babies with higher-pitched cries are female and those with lower-pitches cries are male. To take things a step further, the study also found that adults tend to make assumptions about the masculinity or femininity about babies based on the pitch of their cries. This is crazy—are we really imposing complicated concepts like masculinity and femininity on infants?

There's more to the research: Adults also tend to assume that higher-pitched cries indicated that babies were in greater distress. When male adults were told that a baby's cries belonged to a boy, they tended to percieve greater discomfort based on the sound of the baby's cries. Researchers believe this may be linked to a stereotype that boy babies should have lower-pitched cries than they do.

"It is intriguing that gender stereotyping can start as young as three months, with adults attributing degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies solely based on the pitch of their cries. Adults who are told, or already know, that a baby with a high-pitched cry is a boy said they thought he was less masculine than average. And baby girls with low-pitched voices are perceived as less feminine. There is already widespread evidence that gender stereotypes influence parental behaviour but this is the first time we have seen it occur in relation to babies' cries. We now plan to investigate if such stereotypical attributions affect the way babies are treated, and whether parents inadvertently choose different clothes, toys and activities based on the pitch of their babies' cries," David Reby, Ph.D., said in the study's release.

More: Clues and Cures for Your Baby's Crying

The problem for girls

The researchers recorded 15 male and 13 female infants while they were spontaneously crying in order to perform this research. The babies were four months old on average and researchers did synthetically alter the pitches of their cries while leaving all other charactertistics of the cries the same.

"The finding that men assume that boy babies are in more discomfort than girl babies with the same pitched cry may indicate that this sort of gender stereotyping is more ingrained in men. It may even have direct implications for babies' immediate welfare: if a baby girl is in intense discomfort and her cry is high-pitched, her needs might be more easily overlooked when compared with a boy crying at the same pitch. While such effects are obviously hypothetical, parents and care-givers should be made aware of how these biases can affect how they assess the level of discomfort based on the pitch of the cry alone," Nicolas Mathevon, a professor at the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne and Hunter College CUNY, said.

More: How to Keep Your Baby Happy and Healthy