Gender stereotyping may begin in infancy, according to a new study of babies’ cries published in the journal BMC Psychology.
Despite no actual difference in pitch between the voices of girls and boys before puberty, the findings showed that adults tend to make gender assumptions and even attribute degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies based on the pitch of their cries.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Sussex, the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne, and Hunter College City University of New York.
The findings show that adults often wrongly assume babies with higher-pitched cries are female and lower pitched cries are male. Then when told the gender of the baby, adults tend to make assumptions about the degree of masculinity or femininity of the baby, based on the pitch of the cry.
“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 Professor Nicolas Mathevon at the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne.
“The potential implications for parent-child interactions and for the development of children’s gender identity are fascinating and we intend to look into this further.”
Also, men who were told that a baby was a boy tended to think that the baby must be in greater discomfort based on the pitch of the cry. This is likely due to an ingrained stereotype that boy babies should have low-pitched cries. There was no equivalent finding for women, or for men’s perception of baby girls.
“There is already widespread evidence that gender stereotypes influence parental behavior but this is the first time we have seen it occur in relation to babies’ cries,” said Dr. David Reby from the Psychology School at the University of Sussex.
For the study, the researchers recorded the spontaneous cries of 15 boys and 13 girls who were on average four months old. Some of the cries were synthetically altered 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.
“We now plan to investigate if such stereotypical attributions affect the way babies are treated, and whether parents inadvertently choose different clothes, toys, and activities based on the pitch of their babies’ cries,” added Reby.
“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. It may even have direct implications for babies’ immediate welfare: if a baby girl is in intense discomfort and her cry is high-pitched, her needs might be more easily overlooked when compared with a boy crying at the same pitch.”
“While such effects are obviously hypothetical, parents and caregivers should be made aware of how these biases can affect how they assess the level of discomfort based on the pitch of the cry alone.”