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Teen gender norms linked to lower socioeconomic status in highly masculine males

Attitudes about gender that male teens encounter during high school can shape their educational achievements and careers, a new study has found.

High school can be a difficult time. But, the challenge of navigating gender norms can make adolescence even more harrowing. The attitudes about gender that teens encounter during high school impact the rest of their lives, a Stanford study has found.

In fact, the most masculine males in high school -- and those surrounded by other highly masculine males -- were more likely to spend fewer years in school and have lower job statuses as adults, researchers have found.

This work, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, was led by Benjamin Domingue, PhD, an assistant professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. It builds off a previous series of five papers on gender equality, norms and health in The Lancet led by Gary Darmstadt, MD, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford Medicine; he is also a co-author in this new report. 

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which in 1994-5 enrolled a cohort of nationally representative school students aged 11-19 years from across the United States. The survey gathered more data on 14,540 respondents 14 years later, when the respondents were in their late 20s.

The studies relied on a definition of gender as a summary of self-reported behaviors (e.g., How many hours do you play video games per week?; Do you get into fights?) and beliefs (e.g., How much do you feel that your friends care about you?).

The researchers adjusted the gender "scale" for each of the 80 schools included in the survey data.

In each school, behaviors and beliefs that were more reliably associated with males or females were then labeled as masculine or feminine traits, respectively.

Darmstadt and colleagues had previously discovered that teens' patterns of behavior correlated with adult health outcomes -- for example, more masculine gender expression was associated with alcohol and harmful drug use. 

Interestingly, Domingue and colleagues found that adolescent behavior was linked to social mobility through adulthood. 

"Adolescent males who have very masculine behavior are likely to go less far in school than their peers and to have reduced levels of educational attainment," said Domingue. These males also had lower job statuses as adults, as measured by the typical incomes and education levels of people with those jobs. One's "gender context" also had an effect: males with other male classmates who demonstrated highly masculine behaviors also saw reduced socioeconomic attainment.

Why this happens is an open question, Domingue said, but one possible mechanism could be related to the observation that highly masculine males tend to end up in occupations that have a lower proportion of females; their analysis found that among males, jobs with a higher proportion of females tend to be higher status.

Additionally, highly masculine males reported that they didn't feel worse off emotionally than other males as adults.

The study found a much different result for females.

"There's much less of an association between a female's gender behavior in adolescence and their position in terms of occupational and educational attainment downstream," Domingue said. Additionally, there was no peer effect caused by gendered behaviors of other female classmates.

What causes this difference between males and females remains an open question. Potential explanations could be an innate female resilience or women's support networks, Darmstadt hypothesized.

The study highlights the importance of teens' environments during a critical period of their development, Darmstadt said.

"We could help kids make more informed decisions, so they don't feel like they're heading down a pathway without knowing why," said Darmstadt, "Can we empower people, so they know, 'I can seize the opportunity and be what I want to be. I don't have to be influenced by these forces around me that are telling me, you must do certain things, you must behave a certain way.' We can help empower people to actually make those choices."

Photo by Kate Kalvach

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