Lady Doctors are Called Nurses: The Effects of Gender Bias on Elementary School Children

Lisa Loucks

Writer’s comment: This is probably the most readable research paper I’ve ever written. All my other ones are mostly a string of erudite quotations culled from scholarly articles in dusty journals mouldering quietly in some forsaken corner of the library. I thought an academic paper had to be written in a preachy, pedantic style. Then, in my fourth (but not final) year, I got around to taking English 103F, and Kathy Dixon had us think about how we would use our writing when we started teaching. That prompted me to consider how useful and appropriate my current style would be with students and parents. My conclusion—not very. I spent the next few weeks trying to find a more friendly and conversational “voice.” I also discovered that writing in my own words and in my own way was both more fun and actually easier than trying to sound like some of my professors. I did wonder whether a “user-friendly” paper would be looked down on by the university—thank you to Prized Writing for laying my doubts to rest.
      My choice of topic was prompted by some very animated class discussions about personal biases and attitudes and how these come through in our interactions with others. Listening to these very bright and articulate individuals debate about the influence of gender bias and stereotyping motivated me to do some exploring of my own, and to become passionate about an issue that I had previously not been interested in. I will know I have become a good writer when I can inspire readers the way these speakers inspired me.
—Lisa Loucks

Instructor’s comment: For the research paper for 103F, Advanced Composition for Future Teachers, I have two requirements: First, I encourage students to choose a topic that concerns them and that will somehow be useful for their future teaching. Second, I require that students use both secondary and primary sources for the paper. Students customarily use secondary sources: articles and books—all that commentary and analysis by experts that students lug home from Shields. Students are not so accustomed to using primary sources. Primary investigation involves seeing things for yourself, firsthand. Primary information can be garnered from observations, interviews, surveys, laboratory or field work, or from such primary sources as historical documents, eyewitness accounts, or contemporary news reports, letters, and diaries. I require that students use primary as well as secondary sources because primary research or "original research" (to use Maxine Hairston's phrase) both validates students as authorities, as experts able to gather and analyze "raw" information, and encourages students to make connections between what they have observed and what published experts have observed. I hope that this validation and this making connections prompts my 103F students to envision themselves as teachers, as authorities in education.
      In "Lady Doctors Are Called Nurses" Lisa accomplishes a wonderful blend of primary and secondary research, skillfully building upon secondary sources with her own observations and interviews. Through her investigation for the paper, she becomes an authority on the nature and effects of early gender bias and succeeds, I think, in inspiring us to be more sensitive about how stereotyping can limit human achievement.
—Kathy Dixon

“It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” is typically the first thing parents hear after the birth of a child. This simple statement of fact sets the groundwork for every interaction they will have with their daughter or son, and for every experience that child will have throughout her or his life. Gender identity—the private experience of being female or male—forms a core part of one’s sense of self (Welker). The nature of this private experience is enormously influenced by what we are taught it means to be a girl or a boy, and these lessons are typically fraught with instances of gender bias—what Beverly Stitt, author of Building Gender Fairness in Schools, defines as “a set of beliefs or attitudes that indicates a primary view or set of expectations about peoples’ abilities and interests according to their sex” (Stitt 3). We are educated in this way first by our family members and then, beginning at a very tender age, by the mass media.
      By the time children enter kindergarten, they have assimilated the transmitted sex stereotypes and accept gender discrimination as the norm. The school often encourages this accommodation by exposing the child for thirteen years to a “hidden curriculum” of gender inequality, imparted by instructors who do little to alleviate its effects. The result is that generation after generation of women are prohibited from reaching their full potential as individuals and as members of society. In this nation, education was once regarded as the great equalizer that made the circumstances of one’s birth irrelevant to one’s ability to prosper. Beginning in the primary school, we must teach and practice sexual equality.
      As Andrew Windass, a researcher on classroom organization, explains: “School is just one of the influences in a child’s life: the family, peer group and the media need to be acknowledged as encouraging traditional sex stereotyping” (Skelton 48-49). In our society, males are the preferred sex. Mothers show a 2:1 preference for male children, and fathers even more so (The Pinks and the Blues). Parents stereotype their child from birth: they think that boys are more alert, more coordinated, stronger, bigger, and less attentive, while girls are softer, weaker, and more attentive (Stockman). Research by Bloch at U. C. Berkeley revealed that parents encourage differences in their children; with sons, parents emphasize achievement and value independence and self-reliance, while with daughters, parents emphasize proprieties and supervise their daughters’ activities more than their sons’ (The Pinks and the Blues). I observed a videotape, titled The Pinks and the Blues, of a family interview in which first the son and then the daughter were asked to solve a puzzle with their parents present. With the son, Dad emphasized the cognitive aspects of the task and checked for understanding, while Mom looked on. With the daughter, Dad emphasized the affective relationship (the father-daughter interaction) and stressed that the important thing was to have fun, while Mom provided help to the point of interfering with the daughter’s performance.
      In addition to parents, the other primary agent influencing children at this age is the media, via television. Little girls can watch Spiderman swing high above the ground to rescue a damsel in distress, interspersed with commercials advertising the “My Little Pony” bride, in full costume down to the gold ring that slips over her dainty hoof. Even “quality” (and commercial-free) children’s programming such as Sesame Street may not be free from insidious gender stereotyping. Jane Bergman, feminist and parent, claims that “For a little girl...watching Sesame Street is like taking lessons in invisibility” (Anderson 50). Bergman asserts that female puppets were few, flaky, and fragile (50), that “the cartoon world is overwhelmingly male” (51), and that “the [films] about human beings invariably show [males] as active, competent people who do things, [females] as placid domestic workers, spectators, or passive objects” (51). She is also offended by a skit in which Grover demonstrates love-at-first-sight upon meeting Maria: “his mouth falls open, he sighs wildly, he becomes entirely hysterical trying to anticipate and fill all her requests... ’OHHH,’ he sighs, ‘she is so pret-ty’” (52).
      Since I have been a Sesame Street viewer for over 21 years without concluding that the show is gender-biased to the degree this mother claims, I sat down with my notebook and watched a randomly selected episode. In fifty minutes I saw:

  • a woman on the phone droning endlessly on about bridge and recipes while her cat pantomimes death by starvation if it is not immediately fed;
  • a cartoon sequence about the number 10 in which ten female turtles with blond curls and lipstick chat on the phone and order various vegetables;
  • a Chaplin-impersonator swooning upon seeing a portrait of a woman in a long, white, ruffled dress;
  • a cartoon sequence in which Mother Cat stands at the sink doing dishes as part of the background;
  • a cartoon sequence in which a girl watches a fire rage while a hand reaches down from the sky and turns on the water faucet in front of her, dousing the flames;
  • a video clip about a boy who visits a friend’s home—the father is introduced as “cool,” the mother as “a great cook.”

      Of twenty-seven clips, only twelve featured females in any capacity; of these, only four featured females in prominent roles as narrators or key characters. Tami Trexler, a friend who is a mommy that logs more hours of Sesame Street than of soaps, protests that this was an atypical episode, that for each skit involving only males, there is a similar one aired alternately which features only females. I am not sure that such “balancing” would be any less damaging.
      The determined parent may decide to dispense with television viewing altogether and read to her or his young child instead. The infamous Little Golden Books have a reputation for being good children’s literature. That’s what Kathy Dixon thought when she resurrected her own old Little Golden Books from storage, intending to pass them on to her son. Upon re-reading them, she found some so stereotypical that she discarded many of them immediately. One that she recalled in particular featured school-children dressing up in the garb of their future professions: boys were doctors and pilots, girls were nurses and secretaries (Dixon).
      Parents who manage to counteract the influence of gender stereotypes in the media and in literature and produce gender-conscious kindergarteners are shocked by the changes in their youngsters after they start school; one such parent, Joy Rose, wrote:

Within six months of starting school my child had abandoned the term “firefighter” for “fireman.” He told me that I was not capable of rescuing him in play, as women had not got any muscles.... I can no longer be referred to as Dr. Rose when administering [band-aids] but am henceforth to be addressed as “nurse.” (Skelton 15)

      Geoffrey Short and Bruce Carrington, researchers on children’s perceptions of gender, conducted the following interview with two nine-year-olds:

Interviewer: What are the best things about being a man? Boy: I can be a doctor. Interviewer: Can’t you be a doctor if you’re a woman? Boy: No. Girl: You can be a lady doctor. I’ve seen them. Boy: Yes, but they’re called nurses, though. (Skelton 35)

      A six-year-old boy whom they asked, “Do you think that women can mend cars as well as men?” replied, “No, ‘cos they don’t know what it’s all about.... God made them like that” (Skelton 27).
      These attitudes are not developing out of context. Windass blames the textbooks used in primary-grade classrooms, in which, he claims, “females are under-represented and the ‘cult of the apron’ continues in that females are presented stereotypically” (Skelton 42). Karen DeCrow, author of The Young Woman’s Guide to Liberation, cites another factor: “the standard illustration...of boys doing something (climbing, running, investigating) and girls watching them” (Anderson 47). I found this to be the case in the primers (Houghton Mifflin Literary Readers, 1989) I examined, currently in use in a Sacramento first-grade classroom; the title page shows five male bear cubs in surfer shorts and t-shirts playing leap-frog and turning somersaults, while two female bear cubs dressed in full-skirted dresses with puffed sleeves look on in glee and awe. Many of the stories and illustrations are blatantly stereotyped and biased: little girls at a birthday party sit demurely in the gazebo eating cake while the boys straddle the ridgepole and walk the picket-fence; little boy bear wants to be “just like daddy” and carry his own fishing-pole and hook his own worm, while mother carries the picnic-basket; Speckled Hen loves her chick, teaches him to eat worms and seeds and crumbs, frightens away the cat, and “warms and coddles” the chick after he takes a dunking—but the chick imitates the crowing rooster; Mother Rabbit outwits a fox by cooking; and she-Turtle (carrying a purse and wearing Mary Janes on her feet and an enormous bow in her hair) insists that he-Pig is smart when he identifies a pencil as something to tuck into a hat-band.
      This series is not exceptional; a study analyzing 2,760 stories in 134 elementary school readers found that males “demonstrated...ingenuity, creativity, bravery, perseverance, achievement, adventurousness, curiosity, sportsmanship, helpfulness, skill acquisition, competitiveness, power use, autonomy, self-respect, and friendship” while females exhibited “dependency, passivity, incompetence, fearfulness, concern about their physical appearance, obedience, and domesticity” (Stitt 25).
      Regarding the impact that these texts have on children, an outraged DeCrow wrote: “School attendance is compulsory in this country. That means that every young girl must read about herself as a passive citizen for twelve years—by law” (Anderson 44). It would be impractical to discard all textbooks manifesting the problems described above. The obvious alternative is for teachers to confront the biases and stereotypes contained in the books-as Windass suggests, to “use such material to highlight the [problems] with pupils, to emphasize that nowadays mothers go out to work, fathers bathe babies, men can be nurses and women can be engineers” (Skelton 42). Such analysis and discussion would not only minimize the damage done by the materials but provide another caveat—the development of critical thinking skills!
      Education is by nature a behavior-modifier; because of the powerful position of teachers as examples and arbitrators of what are appropriate actions and expectations, they especially must guard against transmitting inappropriate or biased messages to their captive audiences. For example, a kindergarten teacher may encourage both girls and boys to play in the housekeeping corner, doll corner, block corner, and truck corner, but if she herself spends very little time in the latter two areas, she conveys a strong lesson on proper activities and interests for girls and boys (The Pinks and the Blues).
      Researchers have shown that students learn at the outset of their academic careers that various combinations of sex and behavior produce different results. For example, boys discover that aggression earns them attention, while girls learn that dependency on the teacher will get them what they want (The Pinks and the Blues). Teachers encourage boys more and attribute successes to inherent traits; with girls, success is attributed to luck and/or the fact that they try hard (The Pinks and the Blues). Furthermore, Stitt cautions, “Girls are more likely to be invisible members of the classrooms. They receive fewer academic contacts, less praise, fewer complex and abstract questions, and less instruction on how to do things for themselves” (Stitt 4). The result is that from the start of instruction, warns Windass, “boys [begin] to ‘own the classroom’...girls learn not to expect to win, while the boys expect, and indeed achieve, victory” (Skelton 43).
      Teachers must refrain from acting in ways that contribute to these expectations. Gender differences must be minimized: lines should not be sex-segregated, pupils should be referred to as “class” or “students” and not “boys and girls”; girls should be asked for assistance in moving large objects or operating audio-visual equipment (during the primary years, they are often larger and stronger than the boys); and boys should be asked to pass out papers and deliver messages to the office (Stitt 31).
      In the end, according to Windass, “It is in the general level of consciousness of the teacher, in the classroom management skills practiced and in the general ethos of the school that solutions might rest” (Skelton 44). Our schools should be what Windass describes as “a place where the pupil is encouraged to realize his or her full potential” (Skelton 48). Rose maintains that this can be realized only by “[ensuring] an educational experience that challenges stereotyping and allows [children] to develop into [adults] undamaged by sexist expectations” (Skelton 11). Gender bias must be combatted at all levels of instruction, from educational television programming to textbook publishing to teaching. To do any less is not to equalize but to reinforce existing beliefs that females must curtail their potential and pledge allegiance to the “cult of the apron.”


Anderson, S., ed. Sex Differences and Discrimination in Education. Worthington, Ohio: Charles A. Jones, 1972.

Bergman, J. “Are Little Girls Being Harmed by Sesame Street?” Anderson 50-53.

DeCrow, K. “Look, Jane, Look! See Dick Run and Jump! Admire Him!” Anderson 44-49.

Dixon, Kathleen. Personal interview. 1 March 1991.

The Pinks and the Blues, a videotape shown in HDE 30 on November 8, 1988.

Rose, J. “A Parent’s Voice.” Skelton 11-21.

Short, G. & Carrington, B. “Discourse on Gender: The Perceptions of Children Aged Between Six and Eleven.” Skelton 22-37.

Skelton, C., ed. Whatever Happens to Little Women? Gender and Primary Schooling. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1989.

Stitt, B. Building Gender Fairness in Schools. Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Stockman, K. Lecture. 8 Nov. 1988.

Trexler, T. Personal interview. 4 March 1991.

Welker, J. Lecture. 30 Nov. 1989.

Windass, A. “Classroom Practices and Organization.” Skelton 38-50.