Gender Roles and Adolescents

“When did doing something like a girl become an insult?” ask the creators of the famed Super Bowl commercial “Like a Girl”, brought to you by Always.

A girl’s confidence plummets during puberty. But it doesn’t have to.

Alice Eagly, in her 1987 book Sex Roles in Social Behavior: A Social-Role Interpretation, explores social role theory–that historical and cultural expectations dictate behaviors, gender roles, and characteristics of men and women. For instance, women have historically taken subservient occupational roles, and are thus socialized to attain characteristics and patterns of communication, such as friendliness, empathy, and compromise, that help women continue to thrive in these roles. Men develop characteristics of independent, competence, and aggressiveness to help perpetuate expectations of agency and ownership. Eagly, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern, joins the young women in the commercial, feminist theorists, businesswomen, and a host of other voices in attempting to unburden women from the rigid expectations of the narratives of their gender.

How do we, as therapists, perpetuate these stereotypes for young women and men?

Dr. Marleen De Bolle of the University of Ghent (Belgium) recently published a fascinating paper in January’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with dozens of other social psychologists: “The Emergence of Sex Differences in Personality Traits in Early Adolescence: A Cross-Sectional, Cross-Cultural Study.” De Bolle and her colleagues gave the NEO-Personality Inventory-3 to teenagers in fifty different countries. Approximately 2500 teenage boys and 2500 teenage girls were evaluated along the Five-Factor Model of personality theory:

Neuroticism (Anxiety, Angry/Hostility, Depression, Self-consciousness, Impulsiveness, and Vulnerability)
Extraversion (Warmth, Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Activity, Excitement-Seeking, Positive Emotions)
Openness (Fantasy, Aesthetics, Feelings, Actions, Ideas, Values)
Agreeableness (Trust, Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Order, Modesty, and Tender-Mindedness)
Conscientiousness (Competence, Order, Dutifulness, Achievement Striving, Self-Discipline, Deliberation)
The researchers discovered that girls tend to display gender-stereotypical traits at earlier ages than boys, perhaps (as the article suggests) due to the fact that girls undergo quicker development of cerebral and executive functioning throughout childhood and early adolescence. Teenage boys and girls have similar levels of anxiety, vulnerability, and positive emotions as they leave elementary school but quite different levels (girls score higher in all three) as they graduate high school. The study also found that teenage boys and girls have vastly different levels of assertiveness, aesthetic, and desire for achievement levels (again, girls score higher in all three), but these differences level out through adolescence.

Girls tend to score higher in levels of gregariousness and warmth, while boys tend to score higher on excitement-seeking, something that may not come as a surprise. Interestingly, girls tend to score higher than boys in levels of assertiveness, a trend that flips by the time teenagers become adults. Although there are exceptions (for instance, Argentine boys scored far higher on Compliance than Argentine girls and Thai boys scored higher in Feelings than Thai girls), De Bolle and her colleagues found these differences in traits amongst genders to be universal across multiple cultures.

One can use a study from personality psychology or neurology to further extend gender stereotypes, saying boys are more likely than girls to do/be x.

Here’s the problem: The only trait that teenage boys and teenage girls scored significantly different (more than one-half of one standard deviation) from each other was openness to aesthetics, a trait that’s perhaps easiest to associate with the influence of media and society. Every other trait had small differences. The traits of Ideas, Fantasy, Values, Straightforwardness, Modesty, and Self-Consciousness hardly had any.

As therapists, we can perpetuate gender stereotypes by assuming and telling our families and collaborators that girls and boys have differing levels of accessibility to traits and emotions because of their sex. The research of De Bolle and her colleagues remind us that often, our characterizations and classifications, particularly when they involve comparisons (as most gender-driven conversations do), are factually incorrect. Teenage girls are drawn to activity and achievement in similar ways that teenage boys are. Anger isn’t something that’s strictly a male thing; women have and express anger too. Teenage boys are just as altruistic as teenage girls.

A girl’s confidence plummets during puberty. Perhaps it stops plummeting when we (as therapists, parents, educators, and adults) quit relying on cultural stereotypes to define, and as a by-product, limit, the narratives of young women.