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Is power masculine or feminine according to young children?

Generally, power is more highly associated with men in social representations. But what do these representations look like in children? The present study aimed to identify the emergence of these representations in preschoolers around the world. Do young children attribute more power to men or women? Here’s what they found out.

The researchers at the Institute for Cognitive Sciences - Marc Jeannerod (CNRS/Claude Bernard University Lyon 1) in collaboration with the Universities of Oslo (Norway), Lausanne and Neuchatel (Switzerland) conducted three experiments.

In the first, they showed an image of two non-gendered figures to over 400 children (ages 4 to 6) in France, Lebanon, and Norway. One figure adopted a physical posture of dominance while the other showed subordination. First, the experimenters asked the young participants to guess which person had power over the other. Then, the children had to say which figure was the boy and which was the girl. The results indicate that, starting at age 4, a large majority of children strongly associated power with the masculine character. This association was observed equally in both boys and girls, in all the countries mentioned above.

In the second experiment, 4-5 year old children (n = 160; this time all in France), had to picture themselves in the image and imagine that the other character was a boy or a girl. In the first case, where the young participants had to imagine their power relationship with someone of the same sex, both boys and girls tended to identify with the dominant figure. But, in the opposite scenario, where both genders were represented, while the boys didn't change positions (continuing to embody the dominant figure), the girls were significantly less likely to do so. In fact, they were just as likely to identify with the subordinate character as the dominant one.

In the final experiment, carried out on 213 children (4-5 years old) in France and Lebanon, the scientists presented the subjects with a series of scenes with two puppets: one representing a girl, and the other a boy. The puppets were shown to the children before being hidden behind a board. A single speaker manipulated them, using the same voices for both puppets. In one scene, the puppets were getting ready to play together, and the children heard one puppet impose their choices on the other. In another scene, one of the characters had more money than the other for ice cream. Here’s an example of the dialogue:
Look, there are two children:
One child says: “You must do everything I say!" “Do whatever I want!”
And the other is saying: "OK! I’ll do what you want.”
Which one is the girl? Which one is the boy?

The results show that boys tended to think that the puppet who made the decisions and had the most money was male. As seen previously, girls in both countries did not show a strong preference for one scenario over the other.

Thus, even at an early age, children are sensitive to gender hierarchy, though in some situations girls, unlike boys, do not associate power with masculinity.
Source: Rawan Charafeddine, Imac Maria Zambrana, Benoît Triniol, Hugo Mercier, Laurence Kaufmann, Anne Reboul, Francisco Pons, Jean-Baptiste Van der Henst “How Preschoolers Associate Power with Gender in Male-Female Interactions: A Cross-Cultural Investigation.”, in Sex Roles, January 2020 // CNRS website: “Les enfants, dès 4 ans, envisagent plus le pouvoir au masculin qu’au féminin” -


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