Perhaps some of you have heard of the fictional baby X (that's a PDF), a children's story piece which appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975. I know that when I read it, I was amused, fascinated, and intrigued. The story is about a baby who is raised not as a girl, not as a boy, but as an X. The parents tell no one whether X is a boy or a girl, and many adventures ensue. I highly recommend you read the story, it's a fascinating reflection on what shapes us and forms us as boys and girls, beginning right at birth (and there is evidence of before birth shaping, too, but that's not what we're working on today).
Once you read the story of baby X, you might wonder, as I did, what the REAL effects of known gender have on how we deal with babies and young children. We might think we deal with babies fairly equally without regard to boy or girl, but...what DO we do? And more relevant to baby X, what do when do when we DON'T KNOW?
Welcome to the story of the REAL baby X.
Seavey, Katz, and Zalk. "Baby X: The effect of gender labels on adult responses to infants" Sex roles, 1975.
We probably all know on some level that boy babies and girl babies elicit different responses. Of course we all see the relatively overt ones, that boys are more often given trucks, and girls are more often given dolls, but the differences in how we treat girls and boys begin far before the first toy. Baby girls are treated as more delicate than baby boys, and baby boys get more attention for gross motor behavior (not peeing your pants, I'm talking moving arms and legs about freely). Not only that, mothers TOUCH male infants more initially than they do female infants, though this trend reverses at 6 months of age, and they verbalize to female infants more.
This study was one of the first to look at how much behavior toward a baby varied, simply by the gender information that was given about the child. They took 42 men and women (mostly grad students) who were NOT parents (they didn't want previous parenting experience to influence the results), and put them in a room with a baby, and three toys. The toys were a doll, a little football, and a rubber ring. The baby was 3 months and dressed in a yellow jumper.
For 1/3 of the people, they said the baby was a boy, for 1/3 it was a girl, and for 1/3, they didn't say anything, and when they asked, the scientists in charge said they couldn't remember which baby was being run. They then watched the adults interact with the baby for three minutes each, rating how often they touched the baby, what toys they tried, etc, etc.
You can see above the results for what toys the adults picked when they were told whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and when they weren't told anything. The results broke down first by whether they thought the baby was a boy or a girl. People were far more inclined to give the doll to a baby they thought was a girl, but the football wasn't really preferred when the baby was thought to be a boy, possibly due to a little football not being that great of a toy option for a 3 month old). But the results really broke down when they didn't KNOW, and they broke down by the gender of the adult, rather than the (presumed) gender of the baby. When it was a baby X, men were more likely to go neutral and try for the teething ring, while women still strongly preferred plying the baby with the doll. This could mean that women may see a doll as less gendered, or it could mean that the difference based on presumed gender is just strongest in the male adults.
They also looked at how many times the baby was handled or touched during the encounters.
The highest ranking was 12, so as you can tell, people REALLY like to hold babies. Yet again, there was a gender breakdown of how the adults reacted. There appears to be slightly less handling of babies presumed female (backing up the study mentioned above), but the no label condition is the interesting one. When confronted with no label, men held the baby LESS, while women held it MORE.
The authors also asked the study participants who got the "no label" condition, whether they thought they had a boy or a girl at the end. While 57% of the men thought they had a male baby, 70% of the women thought the baby was a boy (in fact, in all cases, the baby was a girl. There was only one test baby). No matter what they thought, everyone said they could tell by the strength of the grip, by the lack of hair, or by how round and soft it was, whether it was a boy or a girl.
What can we get from this? Well it looks like the biggest thing is that people have the MOST gendered response when they believe the baby to be a girl, using the doll with far more frequency than they used any object when they thought the baby was a boy. I do think this could be an issue of footballs not being great playthings, maybe they could have tried...I dunno, a truck?
But of course you might be wondering, the baby WAS actually a girl. Did they choose dolls most often because they somehow sensed it? Nope. The study was replicated in 1980 using two boy babies and a girl baby, with the same other conditions. The replication actually found a STRONGER gender effect, with the men more likely to try the football regardless, and the women overwhelmingly more likely to try the doll regardless. The authors from both studies say that the gender that the adults were fed strongly influenced how they interacted with the infant. This is true, but I'm also very interested by the findings that women (especially in the second study) picked the doll more, while men picked the football. In the no label condition, the women opted more for the teething ring, while the men went for the doll, which is somewhat of a reversal from the previous study. The data from the second study is below.
The fact that the women picked the doll more and the men picked the ball more is interesting to me. It makes me wonder WHY. Are they trying to impose their own gender norms on the kid? Or are they just reaching for the toy they themselves feel most comfortable with, without regard for the baby?
The two studies raise far more questions than they answer, but they make it very clear that we put plenty of gendered assumptions on to kids, even when they are three months old! The participants ALWAYS wanted to guess the gender, and always thought they could back up their guesses. So even with yellow jumpers and teething rings, it's going to take a lot more effort and more than a manual to raise a baby X.
Sidorowicz, L., & Lunney, G. (1980). Baby X revisited Sex Roles, 6 (1), 67-73 DOI: 10.1007/BF00288362
Seavey, Katz, and Zalk (1975). Baby X: The effect of gender labels on adult responses to infants Sex roles, 1 (2)