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boy with doll

Thank goodness we have come back around to agreeing that the genders really are different in many ways. There are deep roots of gender differences – in both nature and nurture. By nurture, we mean our culture influences – including what we learn from parents, teachers, media etc. about what is and is not appropriate. It influences norms for little girls, little boys, men and women. Author Dr. Pat Heim says that little boys and little girls actually grow up in different cultures.

There is little question about whether there are differences in how the average little boy and average little girl play. Some think that’s about nurture; some think it’s about nature. I think it’s about both. Parents today try to play down the gendered nature of toys and games. Boys play with dolls and girls play soccer (etc.). But differences remain.

When my kids (boy followed by girl) were young, my son grabbed my daughter’s Barbie doll, cut her hair, dyed what was left black, gave her tattoos, tied on a parachute and dropped her off a balcony. My daughter wanted to play with the doll, not turn it into a warrior! Now my grandkids (a girl followed by a boy) are on a similar path. The young boy imitates his big sister by playing dolls and dress up, but is more likely to adopt a fighting stance and growl threatening to “pow” me than she is! And I hear stories in my workshops! Like the little girl who played “family” with a set of trucks.

The experts (Dr. Baron-Cohen, Dr. Pat Heim and Janet Lever, for example) back up our personal observations. Young boys play sports, cops and robbers or cowboys, war. Their games take up more space, involve more players and rules, and result in more skirmishes. They play more aggressively. Little boys play “in parallel,” each doing his own thing without communicating much with the others. Their games involve rank or hierarchy; who is to be “alpha” is decided up front.

Since Title IX became law in 1972, girls have participated more and more in team sports, giving them more experience competing, winning, and losing. But little girls also play just as they did before Title IX. Lever says that girls tend to play in smaller groups and that their games take up less space and involve fewer rules. Girls’ pretend play is about caregiving and nurturing. Rather than playing in parallel, their play is coordinated; they report to one another on what they are doing. There is little or no hierarchy—no boss of dolls or hopscotch!

If you look at workplace behavior, you may agree that we work very much like we learned to play. The table below summarizes how the average little boy and the average little girl play:


Games involve competition Relationships trump winning
Rules are critical Relationships top rules
Play involves conflict Play involves avoiding conflict
Games require aggression Games require taking turns, sharing
Play is goal focused Play is process focused
Goal is to win Goal is a win-win outcome
Games involve hierarchy Play involves “flat” power structure


What differences have you seen in young children? In what ways do you think how we play shows up in the workplace behaviors of men and women?