Study Shows Gender Norms Are Arbitrarily Created and Easily Manipulated

Arbitrary or not — they still hurt girls.

We spend a lot of time examining how rigid gender norms hurt the development of both girls and boys. A common refrain that we hear from critics is that we are not allowing “girls to be girls,” and “boys to be boys.” That these gender norms are simply the natural order of things and that challenging them is both morally wrong and ultimately futile.

But recent study in the journal Sex Roles sheds light on just how arbitrary gender labels really are — and how easily they can be manipulated.

“We wanted to test whether otherwise gender-neutral colours can become gender-typed by children just by applying arbitrary gender labels to the colours. This would give us insight into the possible ways in which pink and blue have become the respective colours for girls and boys,” researcher Wang Ivy Wong of the University of Hong Kong said in an interview with PsyPost.

The study of 129 Chinese children found that girls tended  to chose yellow toys when told that yellow was a “girls’ color. And boys showed a preference for green toys after being told that green was a “boy color.” Children who were not told that the colors were associated with a specific gender showed no preference one way or the other.

“It is possible to create a gender difference in young children by simply labelling, arbitrarily, something as for boys and something else as for girls,” Wong continued.

But an even more interesting discovery was that gender labelling — either by explicit gender terms or by color — not only affected children’s’ preferences but also their performance.

The children were asked to complete a simple geometric puzzle. Some of the puzzles were green and others yellow. The children were also told that the puzzles were either “designed for a boy” or “designed for a girl.” The arbitrary gender labels actually improved the boys performance —  but not the girls’. Assigning children the “wrong” gender-specific color did not make much of a difference in the children’s ability to put the puzzle together one way or the other.

So social scientists can artificially create gender norms in children, just by telling them they exist. Those arbitrary gender norms then affect both the children’s preferences — and in some cases their ability and performance.

If the green-yellow divide was artificially created and completely arbitrary, what does that say about the divide between blue and pink?