London | Gender stereotyping may start as young as three months, according to a new study which found that adults attribute degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies based on the pitch of their cries.
Despite no actual difference in pitch between the voices of girls and boys before puberty, the study found that adults make gender assumptions about babies based on their cries. Adults often wrongly assume babies with higher-pitched cries are female and lower pitched cries are male, researchers said.
They also generally assume that babies with higher-pitched cries are in more intense discomfort. Men who are told that a baby is a boy tend to perceive greater discomfort in the cry of the baby. This is likely to be due to an ingrained stereotype that boy babies should have low-pitched cries, researchers said.
It is intriguing that gender stereotyping can start as young as three months, with adults attributing degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies solely based on the pitch of their cries, said David Reby from University of Sussex in the UK. Adults who are told, or already know, that a baby with a high-pitched cry is a boy said they thought he was less masculine than average. And baby girls with low-pitched voices are perceived as less feminine, Reby said.
The finding that men assume that boy babies are in more discomfort than girl babies with the same pitched cry may indicate that this sort of gender stereotyping is more ingrained in men, he added.
This research shows that we tend to wrongly attribute what we know about adults – that men have lower pitched voices than women – to babies, when in fact the pitch of children’s voices does not differ between sexes until puberty, said Nicolas Mathevon from University of Lyon in France. Researchers recorded the spontaneous cries of 15 boys and 13 girls who were on average four months old.
They also synthetically altered the pitch of the cries while leaving all other features of the cries unchanged to ensure they could isolate the impact of the pitch alone. The participating adults were a mixture of parents and non-parents.
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