Youths' attitudes about women's roles influenced by many family factor

May 16, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- By the time they are adults, men and women have distinctive attitudes about the roles women should play in society, but little is known about how these views develop. A Penn State study tracked youths' attitudes for most of the school age and adolescent years and found varying patterns of change according to gender, birth order, parents' influences and other factors.

"We charted the course of gender attitudes over time, and studied characteristics of families and family members that helped to shape the way youths' attitudes changed over time," says Ann Crouter, Penn State professor of human development and family studies and lead author of the study, which is published in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

"Several different patterns of change emerged, suggesting that there is no single course of gender attitude development from middle childhood through adolescence. Instead, change patterns were different for girls versus boys, for firstborns versus secondborns, for youth with a sister versus a brother, and for youth with parents who had more versus less traditional attitudes," added Crouter, also director of the Social Science Research Institute and the Children, Youth and Families Consortium, both at Penn State.

Other authors are Shawn D. Whiteman, assistant professor, child development and family studies, Purdue University; and Susan McHale, professor of human development and family studies, and D. Wayne Osgood, professor of crime, law justice and sociology, both at Penn State.

This study was the first longitudinal study to track youths' gender attitudes over a long period of time, specifically from about ages 7 to 19. The research focused on a sample of 201 two-parent, predominantly white, working- and middle-class families who were first interviewed when the firstborn child in the family was about 10 years old and the secondborn child was about 7.5 years old. Two siblings and their mothers and fathers were interviewed at home every year for 9 years, until firstborns were about 19 and secondborns were about 16.5 years old.

During each home interview, family members rated the traditionality of their gender attitudes, describing how much they agreed with statements like "Sons in a family should be given more help to go to college than daughters," or "In general, the father should have greater authority than the mother in making decisions about raising children."

Most youths became less traditional over time, but the attitudes of firstborn boys with brothers and traditional parents were the most traditional to begin with, and became more traditional over time, the researchers write. Similarly, girls and secondborn boys who had parents with more traditional attitudes and brothers did not become as nontraditional over time as other offspring, suggesting that having traditional parents and a brother is a potent combination that supports the development of traditionality in gender role attitudes.

"Patterns for firstborns and secondborns were somewhat different, with secondborns tending to become less traditional in middle childhood but endorsing more traditional attitudes again beginning at about age 15," Crouter notes. "We speculated that peers may be an important influence on secondborns."

In society at large, attitudes about gender roles are gradually becoming less traditional and more egalitarian, but the researchers found that even in the face of this widespread shift, there are individuals who are staunchly conservative about the roles of women and men. The findings suggest that gender attitudes take shape across childhood and adolescence, and that the cues youth take about attitudes come, at least in part, from experiences with parents and siblings.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

Last Updated July 28, 2017