The Heroes and the Helpless: The Development of Benevolent Sexism in Children

Abstract

Gender-stereotypical attitudes that males should be the protectors and that females need special care as the more delicate gender may reflect foundational components of benevolent sexism; however, children’s attitudes regarding these roles have yet to be explored. The current study interviewed 113 U.S. children ages 3–11 years-old, presenting scenarios asking who should come to the rescue and who should receive special care (e.g., when tired or hurt). Results indicated that boys, across ages, believed that boys should be the heroes. Girls and boys selected their own gender to receive special care for physical needs, although these biases decreased with age. These findings suggest that stereotypical attitudes regarding roles for one’s own gender may be present in early childhood, but attitudes regarding roles for the other gender may develop later. Benevolent sexist attitudes related to protective paternalism may emerge younger than previously thought. We discuss possible implications for later help-seeking behaviors, dependency, and support for gender equality.

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Acknowledgements

The present research was supported by a Myra Sadker Student Award to Maria Arredondo and a Cota-Robles Fellowship to Brenda C. Gutierrez, and it was based on the fourth author’s honors thesis, California State University, Long Beach. This work was also supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers UL1GM118979, TL4GM118980, and RL5GM118978. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. We thank our research assistants, particularly Sarah Mercado, Miguel Portillo and Tania Rodriguez, as well as the children who participated in our research.

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Gutierrez, B.C., Halim, M.L.D., Martinez, M.A. et al. The Heroes and the Helpless: The Development of Benevolent Sexism in Children. Sex Roles 82, 558–569 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01074-4

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Keywords

  • Gender roles
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Heroism
  • Pedestal
  • Benevolent sexism
  • Protective paternalism