Setting Straight the Sex Role Myths

I was dropping my son off at his pre-school when one of the mothers asked me what I was hoping for–a boy or a girl. I was six months pregnant at the time. She was surprised to hear I didn’t have my heart set on a girl. “Why would you want another boy–they just get into trouble and leave you at sixteen for a girl. A little girl you can dress up and she’ll be with you for life.” Agree or disagree? I bet if you started thinking about it, you’d come up with as many exceptions as followers to this mom’s belief.

Myths develop and last over time because we tend to remember what we want to remember. The examples which stick in our minds are those that confirm our beliefs. For example, you may see two boys fighting, but overlook the third girl who’s just as tough as they are. “Boys are always more aggressive than girls” you think to yourself.

If you think sex role stereotypes are a thing of the past in today’s society, think again. Although women are finally in the league of traditionally male higher-status professions, most high school students in the year 1988 still believed a women’s place was in the home while men should go out and make the money. Girls typically are encouraged to take on the expressive role, being kind, nurturing, cooperative, and sensitive to the needs of others. These traits prepare girls to be a wife and mother, to bring up children and keep the family together. Boys, on the other hand, are expected to be dominant, assertive, independent, and competitive. They are destined to provide for and protect their families.

There is also a tendency for females to undervalue their own accomplishments. A female might say, “Oh, it was just luck,” when asked how she drove her golf ball onto the green on her first try; whereas a male would be more inclined to say, “Move over Arnie Palmer, I’m here!” People also believe that women must try harder to do the same things as men.

Sex stereotypes are formed at an early age. Even pre-schoolers point to boys when asked who is “smart.” As well, first-grade boys are seen as more competent at unfamiliar tasks and more worthy of leadership roles. And first-grade girls think boys are better at concept-formation tasks and arithmetic, even though the girls’ grades were higher. What’s more, fourth- and fifth-graders in England, Ireland, and the United States described women as being more weak, emotional, soft-hearted, sophisticated, and affectionate, while men were ambitious, assertive, aggressive, dominating, and cruel.

Where do these sexist attitudes come from?


It seems many parents have different expectations for their children, which rub off on their kids. They expect boys to do better in math. Judy’s “A” in math is more likely attributed to her hard work, while Paul’s “A” is seen as a reflection of his intellect.


Teachers also respond differently to the successes and failures of boys and girls. Mrs. Smith might say to Paul, “You must have a lot of brains in your head to get all your arithmetic questions right,” or “I don’t think you tried your hardest this time,” if his marks are poor. Judy’s top marks, on the other hand might be credited to her neatness and hard work, while her bad marks are taken as, “Judy is not very smart.” This gives girls the impression they aren’t born as smart as boys, and have to try harder to be as good as boys.


For the most part, children’s storybooks and television follow the typical stereotypes of males and females. The tides however are changing. I see cartoons with females as police officers, flying planes, and saving boys in trouble.

Here is the truth about some of our most common sex role misguided beliefs:

1. Girls are more social than boys.
Boys are just as good as girls at picking up social cues from models, responding to social reinforcement, and getting along with other people. In fact, at certain ages, boys spend more time than girls playing with their friends.

2. Girls are more suggestible.
Boys can be just as easily persuaded as girls. Sometimes boys are even more likely than girls to drop their own values, just so they can be one of the gang.

3. Girls are not as motivated to achieve as boys.
Actually girls tend to try harder than boys. When boys are challenged or in a competition their achievement motivation rises to the level of girls.

4. Girls have lower self-esteem.
Boys do not have more self-confidence than girls. However it is true that girls rate greater self-confidence socially, while boys see themselves as more dominant.

5. Girls are better at simple repetitive tasks, whereas boys excel at tasks requiring a higher level of brain power.
Girls and boys do equally well at rote learning, probability learning, and concept formation.

6. Boys are more analytic.
There is no difference in the analytic or logical reasoning abilities of boys and girls.

As you can see males and females are more the same than they are different–psychologically speaking anyway. Few of the traditional sex-role stereotypes are accurate and many qualify as cultural myths with no basis in fact. There are however some differences between the sexes which are true:

1. Girls have better verbal abilities (i.e. vocabulary, general information, and general comprehension).

2. Boys do better than girls on visual/spatial tests such as puzzles, arranging blocks, and mazes.

3. Starting around adolescence, boys show small but consistent advantages over girls in arithmetic reasoning.

4. As early as two years-of-age boys are more aggressive than girls–both physically and verbally.

5. From the day they’re born boys are more physically active than girls.

6. Girls report being more fearful or timid in uncertain situations than boys. Girls also are more cautious and take fewer risks.

7. Females have a lower mortality rate and are less susceptible to diseases both at birth and for the rest of their lives. Boys are more likely to get a number of developmental disorders such as reading disabilities, speech defects, attention deficit disorder, emotional disturbance, and mental retardation.

8. Throughout most of their lives males typically are stronger and larger than females, and have a better developed musculature.

9. From about age four females seem more interested and responsive to infants than boys and men, and they rate themselves higher in nurturance and empathy (although not the case in real life). Females also think their emotions run deeper than males, and they feel more comfortable openly displaying them.

10. Throughout childhood girls seem more compliant than boys to their parent’s and teacher’s demands; however they’re not more likely to follow the requests of their peers. In getting what they want girls are more inclined to use polite suggestions, cooperation, and verbal negotiation rather than the forceful, demanding strategies of boys.

It is important to keep in mind that these differences are based on group averages. In other words, don’t get worried if your child doesn’t fit in exactly. For example, gender accounts for only 5% of the variation in children’s aggressive behavior. What about the remaining 95%? As well, sex differences are not evident in all cultures. Cognitive abilities are the same for boys and girls raised on a kibbutz. This suggests that children are not born with, but raised to have gender differences.