Language at Work: Children's Gendered Interpretations of Occupational Titles



A large literature has shown that children's beliefs and aspirations about occupations reflect cultural gender stereotypes. One channel that may create or sustain occupational stereotypes is language. Two studies were designed to examine whether children interpret occupational titles as gender specific or gender neutral. In Study 1, children (6- to 11-year-olds, N= 64) were asked directly if various job titles could be used for both men and women doing the job. In Study 2, children (6- to 10-year-olds, N= 51) were shown pictures of men and women engaged in job activities and asked which one(s) showed someone who could be called a(n). Titles were linguistically unmarked for gender (e.g., doctor), strongly marked (e.g., policeman), or weakly marked (e.g., postmaster). Marked titles were given in masculine and feminine forms. Findings reinforced past work showing that marked titles are exclusionary, revealed that some children harbor confusions about even unmarked titles, and demonstrated the mediating role of individual differences in attitudes. Implications for the changing lexicon and for educational programs are discussed.