Researchers interviewed 450 children (along with their parents or guardians) in 15 countries across five continents. Cultural differences may abound, but they don't have an impact on the rigid gender stereotypes placed upon children: The study found that boys are taught to be strong and independent while girls are taught to be vulnerable and nurturing.
"The myth that girls are weak and boys are strong was so globally pervasive we saw it play out over and over again in 15 countries and across five continents," said Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study based at Johns Hopkins University.
Blum said that gender roles are initially learned at home and then reinforced by siblings, classmates, relatives, clergy, and coaches. In nearly every country, adolescent boys were taught to be the aggressors in sexual and romantic relationships. Girls were more likely to be victims of physical or sexual violence and they dropped out of school and were diagnosed with HIV and STIs at higher rates than their male peers.
But girls aren't the only ones harmed by gender stereotypes. The study found that boys who failed to conform to stereotypical masculine roles were at an increased risk of experiencing violence.
"Boys also sustain a lot of negative consequences — they are more likely to drink alcohol, engage in interpersonal violence, and smoke cigarettes," Blum said. "It hurts everybody."
Although Blum's study was titled "It Begins at Ten: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World," other researchers have found that gender stereotypes affect children as young as five.
"Girls get the message they should not be in leadership roles and boys get message they need to be more assertive and aggressive," said Deborah Best, a Wake Forest University psychology professor who studies gender stereotypes. Research published earlier this year suggested that girls as young as six believe that boys are "smarter."
These rigid stereotypes cause damage that lasts well into adulthood. They contribute to the wage gap, interpersonal violence, and mental health problems. Best urges parents to actively raise their children with as few "gender norms" as possible.
Kristin Mmari, associate professor and lead researcher for the qualitative research at the Global Early Adolescent Study, also emphasized that gender education needs to begin at a younger age.
"Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old," Mmari said. "Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programs that don’t kick in until they are 15 and by then it’s probably too late to make a big difference."