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WSU-involved study indicates adolescent attitudes about gender can be shaped by signage

A sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. in 2007.
Toby Talbot
/
AP
A sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. in 2007.

How young people think about and understand gender can be shaped by the kinds of messaging they see in everyday environments, according to a study that involved a Washington State University researcher.

The online study worked with 319 people, 12 to 17 years old. They were shown a basic virtual simulation of a school environment. The scenario involved interactions with fictional classmates and choices such as exploring different hallways. One group’s virtual school featured restrooms and locker rooms that carried standard men-and-women gender signs. The second group was shown the same places, but with gender-neutral signage.

The second group reported a broader concept of gender and more positive attitudes toward transgender and non-binary people.

WSU assistant professor of communications Traci Gillig was on the team that conducted the survey.

“When youth are in these environments where you see boys’ and girls’ spaces, or men’s and women’s spaces, they’re learning from that. And it’s teaching them that gender is binary, that it’s male or female, those are the two categories,” Gillig said. “When youth are seeing all-gender spaces, they have a deeper understanding that gender can go beyond that, that genders beyond male or female are valid, and they’re real.”

The researchers wanted to focus on adolescents because that’s a period in life in which people are forming their own views about themselves and the world around them, Gillig said.

“They’re really in a stage of life where they’re developing an understanding of gender,” Gillig said. “And that may also be in regards to their own gender identity, to their peers’ genders…and because they’re in that sort of phase, we were interested in how these messages – in particular, in a school environment – how that would influence them.”

While the study found restroom and locker room signage influenced attitudes, Gillig said it did not strongly point to any effect on adolescents’ social interactions with their peers. That kind of change might happen after longer-term exposure to messaging, Gillig said.

The study sought to sample opinions from different young people, so researchers invited adolescents from different parts of the country.

Gillig hopes policymakers and school leaders can use the study’s findings in real-life learning environments.

A similar study has been conducted for adults, simulating a workplace instead of a school. Its results are still being analyzed.

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The initial version of this story referred to findings based on geography and regional culture. Gillig says those angles were not specifically investigated in this study. The copy has been edited to reflect that.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.