20-year-old sex-role research survey still valid

November 04, 1999

BLACKSBURG, Va. ­ In the late 1970s, Penny Burge, director of Virginia Tech's Women's Center, was working on her doctoral dissertation at Penn State University researching the relationship between child-rearing sex-role attitudes and social issue sex-role attitudes among parents. As part of her research, Burge designed a 28-question survey in which respondents were asked to mark how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "Only females should receive affectionate hugs as rewards," "I would buy my son a doll," and "I would be upset if my daughter wanted to play little league baseball."

Hard-hitting questions, many of them. But Burge carried on. She received her degree in 1979, and in 1981 her research findings were published in the Home Economics Research Journal.

Among her findings were that respondents who named the mother as their child's primary caretaker held more traditional child-rearing sex-role attitudes than respondents who named both parents. In addition, those respondents who held more traditional child-rearing sex-role attitudes also held more traditional social issue sex-role attitudes, and fathers were more conventional than mothers with respect to the issue of whether or not boys and girls should be raised differently.

"We found that parents do cling to traditional sex-role attitudes," Burge said. "It was more pronounced with male children where pressure to achieve was more intense."

Over the years, Burge occasionally received requests from other researchers for permission to use her survey in their own research. Burge always granted permission, but had redirected her research focus to gender equity in education. She had moved on in her career, serving on the faculty in Virginia Tech's College of Human Resources and Education from 1979 to 1994 when she became director of the Women's Center.

But a recent request from a researcher at New Mexico State University sparked her interest. The researcher, Betsy Cahill, had used Burge's survey (with some modifications and additions) to conduct research on early childhood teachers' attitudes toward gender roles. After the results of Cahill's research were completed and published in The Journal of Sex Roles in 1997, some unexpected events occurred.

The Educational Testing Service, a national resource that makes research instruments more widely available to other researchers, requested permission to use the Burge and Cahill survey tools in its upcoming Test Collection, a reference publication for future researchers. "I was honored," Burge said. "It was nice to have another researcher include my survey instrument in her own. And the request from the Educational Testing Service gave an additional sanction to my survey. It's amazing to me that the same type of social questions are still valid after 20 years."

And no one can dispute the past two decades have brought enormous social changes in the world, which leads to the second unexpected occurrence.

Cahill found that many of the findings from Burge's research were still very much the same. For example, teachers who espoused traditional gender role beliefs for adults also did for children. For those who were more accepting of cross-gender role behaviors and aspirations, they were more accepting of these behaviors from girls than boys.

Enter Sharon Snow, newly hired assistant director of the Women's Center at Virginia Tech, and the third coincidence regarding Burge's survey tool. As part of a survey research class Snow took while working on her graduate degree at Texas Woman's University, she cited Burge's study in her literature review.

"As part of the class, we conducted a survey of students to determine their attitudes about gender roles in children," Snow said. "We found that parents do indeed drive gender-based behavior. It's not something that just happens naturally."

So 20 year later, researchers find that parents still have a profound influence on their children's gender roles.

"The most amazing finding is that despite tremendous societal change over the past two decades, many parents still hold fast to raising their children with traditional sex-roles," Burge said.
-end-


Virginia Tech

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