Being Boys, Being Girls – A Q&A with Prof Carrie Paechter on understanding gender

We were delighted to welcome Prof Carrie Paechter to the Q&A room to answer our questions about her research on how children learn about and understand gender.

Image: Viktor Karppinen by CC2.0

Carrie:Dr Carrie Paechter Hi everyone. I’m Carrie Paechter, and I’m Director of the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families. Most of my research is about children and gender.

I’m interested in how children think about themselves as boys and girls and how that happens – what influences their ideas about gender.


Q: Carrie – what do we know about when children start to have a real understanding of gender? I’m guessing it’s a gradual thing, but is there an average age when a child starts to talk about themselves or others in gendered terms?

Carrie: Children are aware of gender quite a while before they can talk

PSG B: What are the signs of this?

Carrie: An example is, they’ve been found to associate objects in their homes that are used by males and females with pictures of male and female faces as young as nine months.

So if their dad does all the ironing, then irons and ironing boards will be associated with men

PSG C: All men or just their fathers?

PSG A: Its an interesting question  – what is the “stronger” category – “father” or “man”?


Carrie: Children start identifying themselves as boys or girls pretty early on once they start talking, but their awareness of gender is much earlier.

They also tend to over-generalise. So they think that if mum likes coffee and dad likes tea then all women like coffee and all men like tea.

If children are uncomfortable in their assigned gender they may well say so from a very early age, but wishing you are of the other binary gender and believing you are aren’t quite the same.

Some girls are conscious quite early of the additional power males have and would like to have some of that.

PSG A: Wow – is that the way that they express that? Do they consciously understand that power is what they are after?

Carrie: They don’t usually put it like this – but boys are aware that masculinity brings extra benefits and will defend it; so not letting girls do things they think are only for boys.

If girls are dissuaded or discouraged from doing adventurous play at nursery they might wish they were boys so they could, whereas others feel that they should have been assigned as boys from the start, and vice versa.

PSG G: How do you tell the difference?

Carrie: That’s quite difficult and not something I’m an expert in. But there are some children who are quite clear that they are not the gender assigned to them at birth.

Others say they are that gender but they would like to be able to do the things that they think only the other gender can do.

PSG G: But gender isn’t assigned… Sex just IS… If girls can do and be what they want and vice versa for boys, surely the only difference is sex organs? Shouldn’t we be pushing to get rid of gender difference entirely?

Carrie: Gender is assigned – at birth we look at a baby’s body and assign gender on the basis of what we see and sometimes what we see in the body doesn’t reflect how the person thinks of themselves as they get older.

PSG F: I think this happens before births more people find out the gender of their baby at 20 weeks and the gender is assigned and celebrated very early.

PSG H: But the sex is still the same regardless of how the person feels. I think the word ‘assigned’ is difficult because that implies it is randomly chosen when it’s actually observed.

PSG G: But surely how they think of themselves is a reflection of the world they are raised in. Different societies have different gender norms.

PSG E: Gender is the cultural identity, assigned on the basis of visible sex. For the vast majority it is assigned correctly, but for some there is a mismatch.


PSG B: This is so interesting! I felt I was a boy growing up but my Mother brow beat me into believing (and telling everyone else) I was pretending to be a boy. Yet I felt so strongly I was born into the wrong body…I then felt confused and was gay for a long time. Then believed I was a gay man because I was attracted to men. Very different to how I guess a child would simply wish to be the other gender?

Carrie: I think it’s a bit easier now for children who feel like you as there is more in the press etc. In our research we found lots of primary school children knew about Caitlin Jenner for example. So children have more idea of what’s possible and about the fluidity of gender.

PSG B: That’s great news! 

Q: Carrie, I often worry about my daughter (5) being picked on as she has short hair and prefers boys style clothing.

Do you think then that as children grow up in a world where gender fluidity is more known and accepted, that she might actually continue to be accepted as she is? I know that bullying is complex though, but it is my main worry for her growing up and continuing to express herself.

Carrie: Yes, I think it will get easier as time goes on. It’s also easier for girls like that than for girly boys, so she will probably be fine.

In my research on tomboys most of the time they were accepted, though girls who want to spend all their time with the boys usually have to say that they think all girls and girly stuff are awful, which is a pity.

We had quite a few girls who saw themselves as ‘a bit tomboy’ and did things like climbing trees but more stereotypically girly stuff as well.

PSG F: That is comforting thank you. I am so very proud of her for sticking with her decisions, rocking up to school after the holidays with the hair she’d been requesting for over a year.

Q: Just so I can follow and understand your precise meaning, what are you using the term “gender” to describe? In my mind it’s distinct from ‘sex’ but in a comment above you describe gender as constant which I don’t think it is, so maybe I’m reading at cross purposes….

Carrie: I’m treating gender as a social construct distinct from sex. When I talk about gender constancy that’s more of a technical term. But it is also the case that most people’s beliefs or feelings about what gender they are don’t change.

Very young children think it’s all about what you do, not who you are, so they do stereotyped things to reinforce their sense of themselves as boys or girls.

PSG C: Thank you – that makes it more clear.

Q:  Do children have binary understandings of gender (male/female) or do they understand gender as a spectrum? How much does this vary by culture, if at all?

Carrie: Children tend to have quite polarised ideas about everything, so they tend to see gender as a binary. They don’t have to – you can bring your children up to see gender as a spectrum.

And in Sweden there is a gender-neutral pronoun so again that’s a more obvious possibility.

PSG H: I see sex as a binary and gender as a social construct that we do not have to stick too – I’m trying to teach my children that boys can dress/act/be how they like, and so can girls – but they are still boys and girls.

Carrie: Sex isn’t really a binary – there are people who are intersex and don’t fit a binary divide with their bodies either.

But gender is also a social construct and doesn’t have to be binary.

PSG J: How would you bring a child up to see gender as a spectrum in the midst of a binary society?

Carrie: By talking about the fact that it is and using things like children’s books on more fluid genders to support you.

Q: Where are the gaps in research relating to this topic? If you could get any study commissioned tomorrow, what would it be?

Carrie: There are gaps everywhere. My own interest at the moment is in how we keep girls active after age 10

Q: How can we combat the influence of other children? My son was fairly gender neutral until he picked up from a friend that ‘xx is for boys and not for girls’, how can I reverse this? Talking and explaining to him doesn’t appear to be working.

Carrie: This is a real problem – we all have to work to combat that all the time. Nursery staff can help with this.

But it’s understandable as the most important thing for children is to fit in with the group and the peer group is the most important influence on children.

PSG M: This is in reception. It is mainly at lunch time, the teachers haven’t noticed when I mentioned it to them.

PSG N: If all the parents would be on the same boat, our children wouldn’t have those preconceived thoughts. The schools should organize meetings teachers-parents to unify the way we want to educate them about gender roles.

PSG H: That would be great but lots of parents like to reinforce gender roles – particularly how boys should behave (i.e. do’nt want them to be’girly’)

PSG O: So true.

Q: In the article on gender stereotypes in nurseries that we read, you said that nursery policies are one thing, but we need to realise that children police each other’s gender behaviour. Where does that come from then? Families must vary in how gender roles play out in their house. Are the kids with the most ‘traditional’ views the ones whose views win out at nursery?

Carrie: Not always but pretty often. I think this is partly because they feel most threatened by difference so they policy harder.

I think also many families are much more traditional than we like to think – so what many children actually see at home is not quite what we believe should happen, even if we do believe in equality. There aren’t many families where roles are completely reversed or equal.


Q:  How do you approach presenting these ideas to nurseries?

My son’s nursery has done several shows / plays where the children are cast according to stereotypes (eg a circus with girls as “our beautiful bare back horse riders” and boys as “our fearless strong men”).

I love their nursery so I want to present this evidence as a critical friend. Do you know of any presentations / training material that I can share?

Carrie: There was a great BBC programme last summer called No More Boys and Girls in which a class and their teacher were challenged about gender. Introducing the nursery to that would be a good start.

Or Barbara Martin’s book Children at Play which is full of research from nursery.

PSG O: No more boys and girls should be compulsory viewing for everyone in childcare and education!

PSG F: I spoke to the school about it, they were really interested. But I imagine that if education was how we wanted it to be (not political, well-funded etc) then I think they’d take it forward.

PSG U: Let Toys Be Toys has adapted the Breaking the Mould resources for early years. You can read about it here: Much of what Graham Andre did in that programme comes from that.


Q:  How can nurseries break the cycle of older kids teaching younger kids about gender stereotyping?

Carrie: Again, it’s very difficult. If staff work hard at it they can make inroads, but they have to prioritise it. Male early years teachers doing things like wearing pink socks can help, but it’s an uphill struggle.

PSG S: I saw Andy on CBeebies in a bright pink T-shirt the other day and wondered if that was a conscious effort to show males in pink…

Q:  What effect have you seen of single parent families on a child’s perception of gender?

Carrie: I’m afraid that I’ve seen nothing about this.

Q: Considering interventions to try to combat gender stereotypes in small children, what research findings do you think are most important?

Carrie: I’ve not seen a lot on successful interventions I’m afraid, though the good news is that they get more flexible by the time they are eight or so.

Part of the problem is that under about age 5, children’s understanding of gender isn’t very good. They don’t really get that gender is constant so they think that maybe if they do something they think is really for the other gender they will change gender. You can see why that might worry you.

But it’s also about how we behave with them. There is evidence that parents use more emotion words with three year old girls than three year old boys – so you need to consciously talk about emotions with boys

PSG A: So there’s a real gap in the research there! If you could do any research to fill up this void, Carrie, what would you do?

Carrie: Thinking……

Find a nursery willing to work with you on it and really work together to see how much you can change. Use things like non-stereotypical story books and talk to the children about them. Get staff to support children to do non-stereotypical play. Try rearranging some of the areas and what’s in them.

Q: How do you counteract young children’s impressions of gendered toys? My daughter is 4 and despite being able to play with whatever she wants, she told my mum the other day that “cars are for boys” *head desk*.

Carrie: It’s difficult. Quite a lot of boys will play with dolls at home even though they won’t at nursery.

One thing you can do is supply toys of all kinds and play with them with the child. I think there’s some research that showed that girls would play with lego if there was a female staff member with the lego playing too.

PSG G: That’s interesting because my 2 year old son is more than happy to play my little pony and dolls but he hasn’t started Nursery yet. I’m going to make a conscious effort to play cars with her.

PSG F: We make a conscious effort to do jigsaws with the girls, especially after watching the BBC programme (No More Girls and Boys) last year.

PSG G: Yes I bought a tangram puzzle on the back of that show!

PSG B: Which one was that?

Carrie: It’s the one where a shape is broken up into other shapes and then you try to make patterns with them. Good for spatial awareness.

PSG C: Yeah but my son said scooters are for girls! No idea why….

Carrie: That’s interesting. Maybe girls get the scooters and the boys the bikes at his nursery. Or some very dominant girls like scooters.

PSG N: I personally find it’s very effective with my 3yr old to avoid using the words boys and girls all together. The words kid and person make a huge difference! My kid constantly corrects her grandparents so everyone around her is learning too! No school yet!

Carrie: Yes, just referring to them as ‘children’ or ‘friends’ is good practice.

Q:  I’ve noticed at 3.5 my son has started misgendering people, eg using ‘him’ to refer to me, have you seen this before?

Carrie: No – but I wouldn’t worry about it.

And the fact that I’ve not seen it doesn’t’ signify anything. It’s interesting though

PSG J: He’s also started using nonsense words, I’m guessing it’s some sort of phase or experiment

PSG C: My son who is nearly 4 still does this on occasion. Took a while for him to get the hang of ‘correct’ gendered pronouns.

Q: I wear typically ‘male’ clothing, could this affect my sons view on gender? I dislike feminine things but make an effort for him to be a broad as possible so he can choose his preferences rather than me choosing for him e.g. I will purposefully choose a ‘feminine’ toy rather than a blue one for example. At what age do children show preference towards certain colours, styles etc?

Carrie: I don’t think your preferences will have an enormous effect apart from stopping you buying certain stuff. But children show preferences by two or three in some cases, and again, other children are a strong influence – they often want the same stuff.

But there is also something that some psychologists have jokingly called ‘pink frilly dress syndrome’ where girls aged about 3 insist on wearing a pink frilly dress all the time, whatever they are doing, however adventurous.

It seems to be making sure that we (and they) know they still know they are a girl even though they are doing things stereotypically for boys like climbing trees.

PSG B: So if they have predominantly male or female friends, they’d desire what that person has…despite gender?

Carrie: Possibly. There is evidence that boys with older sisters are less stereotyped. And children like to be like the bigger kids.

Q: I imagine some people would say it doesn’t matter what toys children play with. Is there evidence that connects the toys children play with, etc, with outcomes as adults – eg studying physics at university, never helping with the housework, whatever.

Carrie: Yes there is some – I give a link to some in my article for The Conversation. And certainly what you play with develops skills, abilities, etc that you will miss out on if you don’t do certain forms of play.

Q: Have you noticed differences in single parent families on children and their concept of gender?

Carrie: No – though that may just mean I’ve not seen the research.

Q: I’m really interested in how primary care givers and close significant others can influence a child’s views on their own gender and therefore their perceived ability to perform certain tasks. How strongly do positive role models influence a child view of themselves?

Carrie: There’s an important experiment with slopes that some psychologists did. They asked 8 month old children to crawl down slopes – some were impossible for all children that age, some possible for all of them. Beforehand they asked the mothers whether their children would attempt or succeed at the slope.

Mothers of boys said their boys would attempt and succeed at the impossible ones, mothers of girls said they would refuse to try and would fail at the ones all children could do.

But there are no differences between 8 month old boys and girls in crawling ability.

PSG W: I am shocked at how mothers would limit their own daughters like that!

PSG D: Sadly, I am not. I see it a lot in lot daughter’s classmates.

PSG W: It is interesting that the mothers felt that “climbing” was a “male” activity!

PSG W: How might my influence as a logic driven science-y, maths, professional influence my daughter do you think? Carrie Paechter

Carrie: It depends on how much you talk to your daughter about it and how much she notices that, I think. But if you do mathsy things with her from a young age she will at least feel confident doing them herself.

But there is unfortunately evidence (not very recent) of children with doctor mothers saying women couldn’t be doctors. So they aren’t always very rational about it.

PSG V: There’s a study that had a person in authority tell a group of teens that girls score better than boys and the girls in the group scored more than boys and better than they did when they weren’t told anything, and worse when they were told girls score worse. This shows us how much of our inherent abilities are affected by stereotypes about women’s abilities in academia 🙁

PSG W: Well! I will continue to be the logical sciencey one who wields to tools and fixes things then! And hopefully some of that will stick to my (3yo) daughter, who is in her princess stage!

Carrie: There is evidence that when someone is given a gendered child to play with they play differently according to whether they think it’s a boy or a girl, for example, letting boys crawl further.

Parents also don’t’ let girls roam locally as far as boys, so they end up knowing local geography less well. Girls certainly get socialised into sitting quietly and lots of early years staff just expect boys to want to be active all the time.

PSG Y: And being able to sit down and be quiet is seen as a positive and a sign of maturity whereas I’m not sure it is at all!

PSG Z: I find it amusing we tell our two boys to calm down,sit down, stop climbing the furniture all the time but it doesn’t seem to make much difference!

Carrie: Yes, by that stage they are pretty committed to rushing around.

The trouble is we handle our babies differently from birth without being aware of it, even if we try quite hard not to, and that leads to different behaviour.

Q: Is there a neurological connection for the like or dislike of gender specific colours or toys?!

Carrie: No – see Cordelia Fine’s very readable books for example.

Q:  Blue and pink assigned to gender…why?! And why did it change 100 years ago?

Carrie: I don’t know how it happened but it’s the sort of thing that commercial companies would do…

PSG B: Like Coca Cola and Santa being in red I guess

Carrie: Yup

PSG U: Jo Paoletti and Elizabeth Sweet all have good write ups of this change: here are some links:

Blame Mamie Eisenhower for pink:

PSG P: I heard somewhere pink was originally for boys due to red being a “war” colour and as usually happens, girls took it to be more like boys and boys got blue then… Something like that.

PSG U: Something like that! Jo Paoletti is the best on the history. Pink was red, and was for boys. Blue was the Virgin Mary.

PSG J: Like high heels…

PSG J: I believe Santa became red before coca cola, I think it’s in ‘the night before Christmas’ that fixed a lot of our Santa ideas.

Q: One of the topics people seem particularly interested in, is adults showing a gender bias in how they judge children’s behaviour. (e.g girls seen as daydreaming while boys are ignoring / Girls picking up a smaller child are being caring, but boys are being dangerous etc).

If we want to read around this, where would you recommend we start?

The slope study you mentioned is great! Where do we find out about more like that – so we can work out where the gaps in research might be?

Carrie: There are some good summaries of this sort of research put together by psychologists from time to time.

On that topic, there’s a nice study of a jack in the box – when it pops up the child cries. Adults think girl children are frightened, boys angry. But they are being shown the same crying child with different gendered names

PSG T: Clever!

Carrie: If you email me tomorrow I can put together a list of things to read: Gender reading list.

PSG K: That would be awesome, thank you so much! 🙂

Carrie: They will be in the British library. You can get a reader pass if you can convince them you are doing research. It’s not difficult – you just have to tell them what you want access for. Though you can’t take anything out, you have to stay there to read it

PSG K: Sounds like there may be a LTBT – PSG British Library meetup on the horizon?! (Excellent!)

PSG A: And a breakaway group at the Boston Spa (Yorkshire) branch!

Click here to read Carrie’s Gender reading list.

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Also, why not catch up on some of the Parenting Science Gang’s other Q&A sessions? Check out;



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