Definition of stereotypes

Stereotypes are characteristics that society instinctively attributes to groups of people to classify them according to age, weight, occupation, skin colour, gender, etc. Sexual stereotyping involves associating girls and boys with separate and, at times, opposing sets of characteristics.

Everybody subscribes to some stereotypes because identifying types is the method the brain uses to sort information. Stereotypes are, in fact, “short cuts” taken unconsciously to help people make decisions more easily and quickly, hence the tendency to unthinkingly accept them.

Stereotypes are preconceived ideas and simplistic images that have a negative influence on the way we see people, interact with them and treat them. In other words, stereotypes impose limitations on the people they target, assign them roles that are not necessarily suited to them and make it harder for them to be their true selves.

Development of identity

Children learn by observing and imitating those around them. Their immediate family, relatives, friends, games, toys and school influence their development, as do the media and society. The process by which children learn to assimilate values and norms, to live in society and to acquire knowledge is called socialization. This is decisive for them and their future since it is how they construct their identity.

The three life environments that are key to children’s personal development are:

  • the family
  • the daycare
  • the school

For example, it is in daycare that children develop their relationship to space, their bodies and objects. Daycare is also where they create social and emotional bonds with adults and other children. Early childhood educators therefore play a central role in the social development of children, since these educators teach children life skills and knowledge in addition to establishing rules for living.

Education based on gender

When boys and girls are educated differently, there is a good chance that they will not develop in the same way. Many parents attribute great importance to their children’s gender, even before birth, and expect that their offspring will exhibit specific gender-based characteristics. This, in turn, shapes the ways in which parents interact with their young children.

Moreover, girls and boys are often encouraged to engage in different kinds of activities and games. For example, girls are channeled more toward artistic activities, like music, while boys are steered toward sports. This phenomenon is called “differential socialization.” It is the tendency to behave differently depending on a person’s gender. Children are categorized as “girls” or “boys” instead of being simply thought of as “children.”

Where do these behaviours originate? They are the result of gender stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in our culture. In fact, stereotypical social roles continue to be passed down from generation to generation through differential socialization, especially traditional roles such as “mother and housewife” for women, and “father and provider” for men. Most of the time, adults are not even aware of these stereotypes as they educate their children.

Examples of stereotypes

Here are some examples of stereotypes to help you become more aware of them in your day-to-day life, and to avoid them.

Comparison of stereotypes of girls and boys

GirlsBoys
Girls are more docile and want to please others.Boys are not as good at listening to instructions and are less attentive.
Girls will sometimes sulk too long over next to nothing.Conflicts between boys are easier to resolve and less dramatic.
Girls only like role playing, dolls and taking care of young children.Boys are only interested in playing with cars and trucks and building things.
Girls can do crafts and play at being a teacher all day.Boys find it very hard to stay indoors all day when it rains.
Girls are quieter and more patient.Boys take up more room and are constantly moving.
Girls are more persistent.Boys want to understand everything and are creative.
Girls are more manipulative. They toy with people’s feelings. They are more prideful than boys.Interactions between boys are more direct and violent.
Girls are more fragile.Boys don’t cry.
Girls are interested in fashion, the arts and boys.Boys like video games and sports.
Girls are more perfectionist and better at housework.Boys are more disorderly and less meticulous in doing household.
Girls are good with language.Boys are good at math.
Girls do better in school.School is not suited to boys.

According to a study conducted in 30 countries, certain adjectives are typically associated with women and men: women are mainly described as sentimental, submissive and superstitious, while men are said to be strong, dominant, energetic, independent and adventurous.

Even though the following behaviours seem normal, they come from our brains, which unconsciously categorize people in terms of gender, under the influence of stereotypes.

Comparison of adults’ behaviour with respect to girls and boys

GirlsBoys
Adults make remarks about female babies’ good looks from the day they are born.Adults comment on male babies’ strength and energy from the day they are born.
Adults are gentler with girls and often greet them by commenting on their physical appearance and clothes.Adults tend to interact more vigorously with boys and often greet them by lifting them up in the air, or in other equally active ways.
Play areas are often divided so that, on one side, girls have access to dolls and can engage in role play (e.g. cook).Play areas are sometimes divided so that boys, on “their” side, have access to active games (e.g. playing with toy cars) and building activities.
Girls receive more toys whose appeal is based on physical appearance.Boys tend to be given educational games that encourage active play.
Adults are more likely to question a young girl if she does not seem well.Adults try not to embarrass young boys by asking about their feelings.
Adults more readily accept the fact that girls may engage in activities and develop skills generally considered to be masculine.Boys are often discouraged from taking an interest in activities that are said to be for girls.
Advertising promotes depictions that emphasize looks and hyper-sexualization (Barbie image).Advertising encourages boys to lead active lives, to seek adventure and to excel (hero image).

Transmission of stereotypes

When a child adopts a new behaviour, those around them can either encourage them or react negatively. For example, if a boy receives positive feedback every time he kicks a ball, he will tend to repeat the behaviour. If, on the other hand, he senses that the adults he comes into contact with seem uncomfortable whenever he plays with dolls, he will probably refrain from this activity in the future.

While they are still very young, children adopt gender-based behaviours because stereotypes have been unwittingly transmitted to them by their parents, or by their human or material environment. This includes other adults, their living environment, books, toys and the media.

The media has a huge influence on how people behave, particularly with regard to physical appearance. Children and teenagers, who are busy constructing their identities, are particularly susceptible to this influence. The problem arises when advertising uses stereotypes or images that hypersexualize girls and boys to get a message across. For more information, go to the page entitled Effects of Hypersexualization.

Books and toys for girls generally suggest roles associated with family responsibilities and appearance, while those given to boys usually have to do with conquest, exploration and professional work. Simply by the toys they choose, parents unwittingly steer girls toward household tasks, tidying up and caring for others, while encouraging boys to excel and carve out a place for themselves in society.

In school, girls may come to feel, for example, that the task of cleaning up after a laboratory activity falls to them even if the teacher does not give any instructions to this effect. In other words, some students may have already unconsciously learned to assume certain responsibilities, as if gender were somehow associated with a specific type of competency.

Effects on child development

Stereotypes are everywhere and, by virtue of this fact, affect various aspects of children’s lives including:

  • academic success
  • career choice
  • attitude toward sharing family responsibilities
  • emotional life and romantic relationships
  • body image
  • identity expression

Overall, stereotypes have undesirable effects on our personality development and the types of activities we do, as well as the way we live and the careers we choose.

Tips for countering stereotypes

There are a few simple things that you, as an adult, can do to raise children and young people in the same way regardless of gender. Remember that you are a role model for them and that they imitate you. A young person who sees a woman always doing the same household tasks will tend to believe that women are solely responsible for this kind of work.

It is important to distribute tasks fairly among children, who should not be asked to always perform tasks typically associated with their gender, such as taking care of younger children (girls) and moving heavy objects (boys). Make sure that you respect the ways in which family members carry out their tasks (even if their methods differ from your own).

Likewise, suggest diverse activities, experiences, reading material and toys for boys and girls, making no distinctions as to what might be appropriate for either gender. This will enable young people to develop the full range of their competencies and abilities. For example, a girl whose friends and family always steer her toward quiet or artistic activities will be unlikely to develop sports skills, just as boys who are always told to be strong and brave will find it very hard to express their emotions.

Offering an education free of stereotypes does not mean, however, taking away all “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys,” such as dolls or firetrucks. Rather, it means actively encouraging children to make choices usually associated with the other gender.

You also need to help young people achieve their educational, vocational and social goals, so that they know that all options are open to them and everything is possible, regardless of gender. Introduce them to different role models: truck driver, nurse, mechanic, secretary, etc. Encourage them to choose a non-traditional occupation based on their own interests, not on gender stereotypes.

Also provide reading material featuring a diverse range of personalities that do not exemplify conformist behaviour. At the same time, show children (ages 4 to 5) certain books that convey gender stereotypes so that they can hone their critical sense.

Finally, do not hesitate to act if you witness stereotypical or sexist situations or comments. For example, do not simply sit idly by if you heard a child say, “Brooms are for girls!” Rather, ask questions likely to make the child think, such as:

  • Are all girls interested in that? 
  • Do you believe that all boys are like that?  
  • Why do girls do most of the housework?

Go to the tool box This hyperlink will open in a new window. for more concrete tools, such as pedagogical activities to carry out in class.

Effects on gender equality

In Québec, there are still inequalities between women and men. Even though they have the same rights, the reality is that women:

  • continue to be paid less for work of equal value
  • account for the vast majority of victims of domestic violence
  • are less likely to hold positions of power in politics or the work sector
  • are restricted to a smaller range of trades and professions
  • are under more pressure with regard to physical appearance
  • devote more time to family responsibilities

Such inequalities persist because of stereotypes that impose different responsibilities and roles based on gender. For example, women are often expected to perform household and childcare tasks including:

  • cooking
  • doing the laundry
  • taking children to medical appointments
  • shopping for clothing
  • helping children with homework
  • managing activities and the family schedule

According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, in 2015, women devoted one hour more per day to unpaid work, compared with men (e.g. taking care of household tasks, errands, lunches and other meals).

In 2019, the number of hours women were absent from work due to personal or familial obligations was four times higher than that for men.

Even at work, tasks are often distributed in a stereotypical manner. For example, there is a tendency to believe that women are better equipped to manage sensitive situations involving colleagues, or that they are better at taking notes.

Among men, the simplistic image of the “good provider” who earns money to support his family is still deeply ingrained, as are ideas about men’s positions of power in politics and management. At home, men do occasionally perform other tasks, such as mowing the grass or shoveling snow. They play their social roles mostly outside the family environment, unlike women.

The uneven sharing of responsibilities can have serious consequences, particularly for women: stress, burnout, health problems, heavy psychological burdens, etc. Women often feel as if they are working at two jobs at the same time.

In the long term, this results in a wage gap between women and men. Since it is most often women who take time off work for personal or family reasons, they work fewer paid hours. They may have few possibilities for career advancement, leading to lower retirement incomes.

Children must be taught that tasks are not gendered so that, when they become adults, they distribute work more equitably and work toward equal treatment for women.

For more information on gender equality in Québec, go to the website of the Secrétariat à la condition féminine This hyperlink will open in a new window. (available in French only).