Mind & Body

The Way Children Draw Men and Women Has Changed in the Last 50 Years

It goes without saying that childhood has changed in recent decades. A recent German study suggests that those cultural and societal shifts you can see so starkly in an episode of "Stranger Things" might be about more than the rise and fall of shopping malls and walkie talkies. Psychology researchers from the Universities of Münster and Osnabrück wondered if they could spot differences between childrens' drawings in 2015 and 1977. If 8-year-olds drew women differently in 2015 than in 1977, what would that mean about how society had changed?

Pencils Ready!

The experiment they used was the classic Draw-a-Person test, and you can try it yourself: Take a white, printer-sized sheet of paper and set it down vertically. Then, take as much time as you need to draw a picture of a person as well as you can.

In 1977, researchers asked 839 German first graders from 15 different schools to do just that. In 2015, they asked 278 first graders from 12 different schools to do the same thing. Then, to make sure all of the drawings they used came from roughly 50/50 girls and boys of about the same age, researchers excluded any outliers to end up with a grand total of 376 drawings: 208 from 1977 and 168 from 2015. When all of the drawings were ready, the researchers got to analyzing. They coded all of the "person" drawings and determined whether they were male or female, then they looked at how details the children included — like hats, necklaces, and bow ties — could be gendered.

The lead scientist on the study, Bettina Lamm, and her colleagues expected to see something really specific in their analysis: that the rise of gender equality in society on one hand and the increasingly gendered distinctions in products and marketing on the other would be reflected in children's drawings of the human figure.

And for the most part, the researchers found exactly what they thought they would. In 1977, most of the children drew men. Researchers coded 70 percent of those drawings as male, and just 18 percent as female. But in 2015, the gender split evened out. Researchers coded 47 percent of those pictures as female and 40 percent as male. Around 12 percent of all of the drawings couldn't be identified as either male or female.

Even more striking, just 34 percent of girls in 1977 chose to draw people of their own gender. In 2015, that number rose to 85 percent.

Researchers from the present study were surprised to find that in 2015, drawings of women were more stereotypically feminine than they were in 1977. Modern female drawings included more dresses, more jewelry, and more feminine hairstyles than they had before. The same wasn't true when it came to the masculinity of male figures.

But Why the Difference?

According to researchers, the proportion of drawings from 1977 that depicted men suggest that children heard "people" and thought "men." As gender equality has risen, so too have children's drawings of women as "people." It's even possible that the number of women that girls drew in 2015 suggests that women's rights movements have led to increased self-esteem. Lamm and her co-authors wrote, "in 2015, girls had the freedom and the self- esteem to draw a female person, a person corresponding to their own gender, just as boys of both cohorts did."

The same could apply for the increase in femininity of the female drawings. As adults focus more on how the genders are different — and the value of those differences — children highlight the same differences in their drawings through clothing and jewelry.

As for why the feminine attributes of female figures might have been more prominent than stereotypically "masculine" features of male figures, the researchers could only speculate. One possibility, they write, is that men in books and movies are often shown in activity — fighting or playing sports. It could be easier to draw a woman standing still in a dress and jewelry than it is to draw a man in motion. Also, the researchers assume that drawings with weapons might be more discouraged by their teachers than drawings with purses and high heels (in fact, only one drawing in the entire collection included a weapon). It's possible that this, too, might reflect a societal change that children have absorbed: Feminine attributes have risen in status more than traditionally masculine attributes.

The main thing to take away from this study is that gender representations change over time. And children's understanding of gender also changes over time, according to marketing, education, and societal values. We can turn to children's drawings of people to understand how they see the world around them and how that world might be changing.

Also, maybe this is worth trying with friends. All it takes is a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a little casual psychological analysis.

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Some of the things we "know" about gender and families in the past never really happened. Learn what they are in "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk August 20, 2019

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