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. The first longitudinal study to track young people's attitudes toward gender found that no single course of gender attitude development contributed to adult attitudes, but rather that attitudes develop as a result of such factors as gender, birth order, gender of sibling, and parents' influences.

The findings are published in the May/June 2007 issue of the journal Child Development. The study was conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University.

The researchers looked at 201 two-parent, predominantly white working and middle-class families with children ages 7 to 19. Two siblings and their mothers and fathers were interviewed at home every year for nine years. During the interviews, 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" and “In general, the father should have greater authority than the mother in making decisions about raising children."

Over time, the study charted the course of gender attitudes, focusing on the characteristics of families and family members that helped shape the way youth's attitudes changed over time. Several different patterns of change emerged, suggesting that there was no single course for the development of gender attitudes from middle childhood through adolescence. Instead, change patterns were different for girls versus boys, for young people who were born first versus those born second, for youths with a sister versus those with a brother, and for youths with parents with more versus less traditional attitudes.

Most young people became less traditional over time, but the attitudes of first-born boys with brothers and traditional parents were the most traditional to begin with and became more traditional over time. Similarly, girls and second-born boys who had parents with more traditional attitudes and brothers did not decrease in traditionality as much over time as other children, suggesting that having traditional parents and a brother is a potent combination that supports the development of traditional gender attitudes.

Patterns for first-borns and second-borns were somewhat different, with second-borns tending to become less traditional in middle childhood, but endorsing more traditional attitudes again beginning at about age 15 (possibly because of the influence of peers).

“In society at large, attitudes about gender roles are gradually becoming less traditional and more egalitarian, but these findings show why, even in the face of this widespread attitudinal shift, there remain individuals who are staunchly conservative about the roles of women and men," according to Ann C. Crouter, professor of human development and director of the Social Science Research Institute at The Pennsylvania State University and the study's lead author.

“The development of these attitudes comes, at least in part, from experiences with parents and siblings across the school-age and adolescent years."

Source: Society for Research in Child Development