For the first few years of life, boys and girls are mostly equal. They develop mentally at about the same rate, are disciplined similarly, and are equally likely to start school, a new UNICEF study says.
But the study suggests that gender differences begin to grow as the children do — particularly when girls become big enough to pick up a broom, care for an ailing grandparent, or fetch water.
Worldwide, girls spend about 50 percent more time on chores than their brothers, according to UNICEF. In the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, the gap is wider — girls ages 5 to 14 spend twice as much time on chores.
The hard work doesn’t build character, says the organization, which is dedicated to providing humanitarian and developmental assistance.
‘‘The types of chores commonly undertaken by girls — preparing food, cleaning, and caring for others — not only set the stage for unequal burdens later in life but can also limit girls’ outlook and potential while they are still young,’’ according to the study.
The chores socialize girls into thinking that domestic duties are the only ones they’re qualified for. Chores such as cooking, cleaning, and fetching water are not as highly valued as other tasks that may earn money for a family. That has ‘‘lasting effects on [girls’] self-esteem and sense of self-worth,’’ the study says.
Among the study’s findings:
■ Globally, girls ages 5 to 14 spend 550 million hours every day on household chores, 106 million more hours than boys their age.
■ In the three countries with the highest girl involvement in household chores, more than half the girls spend 14 hours per week on chores.
■ Two-thirds of girls worldwide help with cooking and cleaning in the house. Fifty percent help with shopping, and 46 percent fetch water or firewood. About 43 percent care for other children.
The increased time on household work negatively affects girls’ lives — and their futures — compared to boys. Every hour a girl spends on chores is an hour she can’t spend making friends, doing schoolwork, or playing.
The early typecasting reverberates as girls become women, making it harder to close gender gaps in education and employment, UNICEF says.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, a quarter of a billion women entered the global labor force between 2006 and 2015, ‘‘and yet, the annual pay for women only now equals the amount men were earning ten years ago.’’
The forum’s report shows similar problems in skilled labor: ‘‘While more women than men are enrolling at university in 97 countries, women make up the majority of skilled workers in only 68 countries and the majority of leaders in only four.’’
The Economic Policy Institute said years of social programming and gender expectations can explain the complex reasons for the gender pay gap in the United States.
According to a recent study by the institute:
‘‘By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, expectations set by those who raised her, hiring practices of firms, and widespread norms and expectations about work-family balance held by employers, co-workers and society,’’ the study says.
‘‘In other words, even though women disproportionately enter lower-paid, female-dominated occupations, this decision is shaped by discrimination, societal norms, and other forces beyond women’s control.’’
The UNICEF study suggests some solutions for gender disparities. A first step: a more even distribution of chores.
‘‘Household chores and negative gender patterns must be addressed before they become cemented in adulthood,’’ the study says.
‘‘Supporting girls to stay in school and be involved in sports, play, and other leisure and asset-building activities — and investing in infrastructure, technology, and child care to ease uneven burdens — can help put girls on the path to empowerment and the world on course to great gender equality.’’