Essays Gender Socialization

Society expects different attitudes and behaviors from boys and girls. Gender socialization is the tendency for boys and girls to be socialized differently. Boys are raised to conform to the male gender role, and girls are raised to conform to the female gender or role. A gender role is a set of behaviors, attitudes, and personality characteristics expected and encouraged of a person based on his or her sex.

Influence of Biology

Experts disagree on whether differences between males and females result from innate, biological differences or from differences in the ways that boys and girls are socialized. In other words, experts disagree on whether differences between men and women are due to nature, nurture, or some combination of both.

Example: There are some significant differences between female and male brains. The language center in the male brain is usually in the dominant (usually left) hemisphere, whereas females use both hemispheres of the brain to process language. This may explain why females seem to have stronger communication skills and relish interpersonal communication more than males and why, on average, girls learn to speak and read earlier than boys.

Influence of Family

Every culture has different guidelines about what is appropriate for males and females, and family members may socialize babies in gendered ways without consciously following that path. For example, in American society, the color pink is associated with girls and the color blue with boys. Even as tiny babies, boys and girls are dressed differently, according to what is considered “appropriate” for their respective sexes. Even parents who strive to achieve a less “gendered” parenting style unconsciously reinforce gender roles.

Example: The toys and games parents select for children are often unconsciously intended to socialize them into the appropriate gender roles. Girls receive dolls in an attempt to socialize them into future roles as mothers. Since women are expected to be more nurturing than men, giving a girl a doll teaches her to care for it and fosters the value of caring for others. When boys receive dolls, they are likely to be action figures designed to bring out the alleged aggressive tendencies in boys.

Influence in Education

As children enter the educational system, traditional expectations for boys and girls continue. In the past, much research focused on how teachers were shortchanging girls in the classroom. Teachers would focus on boys, calling on them more and challenging them. Because boys were believed to be more analytical, teachers assumed they would excel in math and science. Teachers encouraged them to go into careers that require a lot of math and science, such as computer science or engineering.

Research from the late 1990s, however, indicates that the current educational climate is failing boys. Boys are falling behind girls in school. The dropout rate for boys is rising. More boys are being diagnosed as learning disabled. The number of boys applying to college has declined. Some sociologists argue that current teaching methods favor girls’ learning styles. Girls mature more quickly than boys and are able to focus and concentrate in class more easily.

Example: Studies show that boys are more physically active than girls. This difference is greater when children are in elementary school. Boys may be less able to sit still during a lesson. They are often sent out of class as disruptive, which puts them behind in the schoolwork and can reinforce their problems in the classroom.

Influence on Career Choice

If cultural expectations dictate that girls are more compassionate and nurturing than boys, then parents, teachers, and counselors will steer them toward fields that require patience and concern for other people, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching. Though a girl who expresses a desire to become a nuclear engineer would probably no longer be explicitly discouraged, a boy with a similar goal would probably encounter more encouragement.

Example: Women working in traditionally male occupations often hit a glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that keeps women from reaching executive positions. Men who work in traditionally female occupations, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching, are often viewed as more qualified than women. These men often benefit from a glass escalator; they are paid more and promoted more quickly than their female counterparts.

The following article summarizes the topic of gender socialization from both a theoretical and a research perspective. A brief history of the study of gender is discussed, as are some of the challenges inherent in defining gender. After introducing the major theoretical perspectives of gender socialization—social-learning theory, gender-schema theory, and psychoanalytic theory—findings from research on parent, peer, and media socialization are discussed. Some of the limitations of current definitions of gender-appropriate behavior for both men and women are suggested in conclusion. Gender scholars attempt to challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions about men and women, point out the ways in which our behavior is culturally rather than biologically produced, and encourage us to imagine different ways of being male and female.

Keywords Cognitive Developmental Theory; Gender; Gender Schemas; Gender Segregation; Media; Parental Socialization; Peer Group Socialization; Psychoanalytic Theory; Sex; Social Learning Theory

Gender Socialization


As topics of study, both gender and gender socialization are relatively new areas of interest within sociology, and in the social sciences more generally. Chafetz (1999) explains, "With few exceptions, the best that can be said for our classical tradition [of sociology] is that gender issues were peripheral" (p. 4). With the advent of the women's movement in the late twentieth century, however, feminists began criticizing the academic disciplines for their male bias and demanded that women be included as subjects of study. As a result of their efforts, courses on the sociology of women were added to the core curriculum in what became known as the "add women and stir approach" (Wharton, 2005, p. 5). Gradually, however, the sociology of women morphed into the sociology of gender with the recognition of gender as relational; that is, sociologists began to recognize that "understanding what women are or can be requires attention to what men are or can be" (Wharton, 2005, p. 5).

The increasing focus on gender introduced as many new questions as it answered. When do children first develop a gender identity, recognizing themselves as a member of one sex group or the other? Are our behaviors as males and females determined by our environment—our culture, our interaction with others, our social institutions—or are they determined by biology and genetics? Sociologists admit that the answers to such questions remain elusive. Stockard (1999) writes, "The extent to which physiological factors influence differences between the sex groups is an active and contentious issue and will probably not be resolved any time soon" (p. 217). Nevertheless, sociologists believe that social influences matter most and, as a result, have turned their attention to the study of gender socialization, or the "processes through which individuals take on gendered qualities and characteristics…and learn what their society expects of them as males or females" (Wharton, 2005, p. 31).

Definition of Gender

One of the first steps in defining gender is to distinguish it conceptually from the term sex. Burn (1996) writes, "In most contexts, psychologists prefer the word 'gender' because it includes the idea that many differences between men and women are culturally created while the word 'sex' implies that the differences are caused directly by biological sex" (p. xix). Thus, when referring to anatomical or reproductive differences between men and women, many social scientists use the term "sex"; when referring to differences not directly caused by biology—for example, different hair or clothing styles of men and women—social scientists prefer the term "gender."

Unfortunately, the distinction between sex and gender is not quite so clear. Whereas defining key conceptual terms typically clarifies, the varying definitions of sex and gender often muddy the waters. Wharton (2005) explains, "There is no firm consensus on the appropriate use of these two terms among gender scholars. Some reject the term 'sex' altogether and refer only to 'gender.' Others use the terms almost interchangeably" (p. 18). The confusion stems largely from the varying degrees of emphasis placed on biology and culture in understanding what it means to be male or female. On one end of the spectrum are those who believe gender is entirely socially constructed, and therefore not grounded in any physiological reality (Wharton, 2005). On the other end are those who believe the two genders are a biological fact. And in the middle is the biosocial perspective, the idea that gender is constructed within limits already established by our biology.

Although most agree that biology and society interact to shape human behavior, sociologists place their emphases on the social influences on our behavior. Accordingly, one of the working definitions of gender used by many sociologists features three characteristics:

• Gender as a process rather than a fixed state

• Gender as a characteristic of society as well as individuals

• Gender as a system that creates differences and inequalities (Wharton, 2005)

In addition, sociologists often study gender using different frameworks. Some emphasize gender as a characteristic of the individual, some as a product of social interactions, and some as a characteristic of social institutions (Wharton, 2005). Wharton (2005) explains that all frameworks are "necessarily partial and selective" and that no one framework alone is sufficient for understanding gender. Those who are interested in socialization processes, however, usually study gender as a characteristic of the individual; as such, much of the theoretical work on socialization is drawn from psychology as well as sociology (Burn, 1996; Wharton, 2005).

Theoretical Approaches to Gender Socialization

Several theories that attempt to explain gender socialization—social-learning theory and gender-schema theory, for example—fall within the category of learning theories more broadly (Wharton, 2005). Proponents of these theories understand the processes by which children learn gender-appropriate behavior in the same way they do the processes by which children learn in general. Other theories focus on gender and sexuality exclusively. Psychoanalytic theory, for example, emphasizes the unconscious processes involved in developing gender identity. Stockard (1999) suggests that all three theories help explain the process of gender socialization, even though evidence for some as comprehensive, stand-alone, explanatory theories is lacking.

Social-Learning Theory

Social-learning theory, most closely associated with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, is an outgrowth of the behaviorist tradition, which defines learning in terms of stimulus and response. According to this perspective, children are reinforced, both positively and negatively, in their gender-appropriate and -inappropriate behavior (Burn, 1996; Wharton, 2005). A young boy playing with dolls, for example, might be ignored by his father; the lack of attention serves as a negative reinforcement, so that the boy eventually stops playing with dolls altogether. Or parents might hug a young girl who cries, the hug serving as a positive reinforcement that will increase the likelihood of the girl crying again in the future. In this way, the theory suggests, boys and girls learn which behaviors are expected of them. Boys learn that playing with dolls is "inappropriate"; girls learn that expressing emotion is consistent with being female. Social-learning theory also suggests that children learn by observing and imitating the behavior of same-sex adults. A young girl learns what it means to be female by observing her mother, whereas a boy learns what it means to be male by observing his father.

First proposed in the 1950s and 1960s, social-learning theory has not withstood the test of time. Research has shown, for example, that parents who themselves exhibit sex-stereotypical behaviors are not more likely than other parents to have children who exhibit strong sex-stereotypical behaviors, thus discrediting the idea that children imitate same-sex adults (Stockard, 1999). In addition, children, especially boys, display gender-appropriate behaviors even in the absence of reinforcement (Wharton, 2005). Finally, evidence is mixed concerning the extent to which parents reinforce male and female children differently. All of which suggests, critics argue, that children are more actively engaged in their socialization than the theory acknowledges. Wharton (2005) writes, "To simplify somewhat, we can say that social learning theory tends to view children (and other targets of socialization) as lumps of clay that are modeled by their environment" (p. 32).

Cognitive-Development Theory

Cognitive theories of gender socialization offer a different perspective, emphasizing the developmental nature of the socialization process and the active role the child plays in the construction of his or her gender identity (Stockard, 1999). Lawrence Kohlberg, best known for his theory of moral development, was one of the first to apply theories of cognitive development to gender identity. Specifically, he argued that "children's views of appropriate gender roles …change as they grow older, reflecting their changing cognitive development" (Stockard, 1999, p. 218). Younger children between the ages of five and eight tend to have the most rigid definitions of gender and apply the most severe sanctions for violations of gender norms; as they age, children are able to develop more complex and flexible definitions of gender (Martin & Ruble, 2004). In general, however, Kohlberg believed that once children develop gender constancy—the recognition of themselves as male or female and the stable, unchanging nature of their gender—they become more motivated to demonstrate gender-appropriate behavior (Wharton, 2005).

Critics of Kohlberg's theory pointed to contradictory evidence—namely, the fact that children demonstrate gender-typed behavior as young as two or three years of age, long before they develop gender constancy—to discredit his theory (Martin & Ruble, 2004). They also argued that Kohlberg's theory failed to explain why children use gender, rather than some other construct, to organize their view of the world (Wharton,...

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