You are here

Meet the McNair Scholar: Leah Oswinn

Do children raised by male caregivers have different perceptions of gender as a result of who raised them? This psychology major spent her summer exploring the question.

People  |  Sep 7, 2018  |  By Nicole Rupersburg
woman at desk

UNLV psychology major Leah Oswinn is getting in-depth research experience in UNLV's Baby & Child Rebel Lab. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)


UNLV psychology major Leah Oswinn has worked with psychology researcher Jennifer Rennels in the Baby & Child Rebel Lab for the last three years. Oswinn’s research into the associations children make about males and females when they’ve been raised by male primary caregivers is unlike any other research she’s seen in her time in the lab or read about. Here, she speaks more in depth about her research and her takeaways from the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergraduate research that prepares first-generation and underrepresented students for future graduate studies.

For my McNair research, I’ve been working with a sample size of 20 children ages four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half who have or have had a male primary caregiver. To my knowledge, there are no developmental studies that specifically look at children who have male primary caregivers, so it’s exciting to be in uncharted territory.

In the first year of life, most infants spend up to 70 percent of their waking hours with a female caregiver, whether that caregiver is their mother, an aunt, grandmother, or nanny. The trend of female caregivers continues as children go to school. Nursery school teachers are predominantly female, and so are preschool and elementary school teachers.

We’re looking at the male caregiver experience to see if there are any differences in the associations children make about warmth with females and power with males. We’re looking to discover what their implicit and explicit attitudes are that may cause them to associate females with warmth and males with power. We will then compare that group to a control group of another 20 children in the same age range that have a female primary caregiver.

Gender is an interesting subject to explore from this perspective because it’s different from other social categorizations such as race. Children show an own-group preference when they’re very young — boys prefer boys and girls prefer girls — and the preference is very strong. That own-group preference tends to be stronger in girls than it is in boys.

As we age, females continue to show a preference for females, but males also show a preference for females by adulthood. We don’t really know why that is.

This phenomenon is different from other social categories, too. With race, for example, very young children show an own-group preference, but as they get older, their preference shifts to whatever race the high-status group is where they live. Gender is an anomaly.

There are a lot of theories as to why both genders have a preference for females by adulthood. Some researchers suggest that it stems from predominant experience with female caregivers or the violent and aggressive portrayals of men in media. It’s probably a combination of things.

We are only in the preliminary stages of analyzing our data, but overall, children are showing gender-typical associations and attitudes regardless of caregiver experience, meaning that they’re associating females with warmth and males with power in both male and female primary caregiving groups. However, in the male primary caregiver group, we’re seeing more associations with males and warmth than with females and power, which is interesting. I’ll be continuing this study beyond this summer semester with the McNair Program.

I’ve made a lot of friends in the McNair Program. It’s great to be a part of a group of people who also have 10 different balls in the air at the same time, whether it’s collecting data, writing papers, extracurriculars, or the daunting process of applying to graduate school. Being surrounded by people I can share my ideas, hopes, and fears with, who are just as obsessed with research as I am has been a highlight of my undergraduate studies.