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Gender Roles and Gender Differences

In addition to the influence on gender behaviors of biological factors, there are four principle psychological explanations of gender-linked behavior patterns: Freudian theory's process of identification, cognitive social learning theory, gender-schema theory, and Kohlberg's cognitive developmental theory.

The process by which children acquire the values, motives, and behaviors viewed as appropriate for males and females within a culture is called gender typing. Children develop gender-based beliefs, largely on the basis of gender stereotypes; the latter are reflected in gender roles. Children adopt a gender identity early in life and develop gender-role preferences as well.


Both within and across different cultures we find great consistency in standards of desirable gender-role behavior. Males are expected to be independent, assertive, and competitive; females are expected to be more passive, sensitive, and supportive. These beliefs have changed little over the past twenty years within the United States and apparently around the world as well.

There is some variation in cultural gender-role standards both within the United States and across cultures, however. Within the United States, standards vary depending on ethnicity, age, education, and occupation. For example, African American families are less likely to adhere to strict gender-role distinctions when socializing their children, whereas Mexican-American families are more likely to highlight gender differences.

Divergence between cultures is also clearly seen in Margaret Mead's study of differences between three primitive tribes. In two tribes both men and women displayed what the Western world considers to be either feminine or masculine characteristics. In a third tribe the genders reversed the traditional Western roles. However, even within groups, individual differences in the strength of stereotypes often outweigh group characteristics.


Of the many presumed differences between the behaviors of males and females, some are real, some are found only inconsistently, and some are wholly mythical.

Girls are more physically and neurologically advanced at birth. Boys have more mature muscular development but are more vulnerable to disease and hereditary anomalies. Girls excel early in verbal skills, but boys excel in visual-spatial and math skills. Boys' superior mathematic abilities, however, reflect only a better grasp of geometry, which depends on visual-spatial abilities. Boys are more aggressive, and girls more nurturant. Boys have more reading, speech, and emotional problems than girls.

More equivocal are gender differences in activity level, dependency, timidity, exploratory activity, and vulnerability to stress. There are no gender differences in sociability, conformity, achievement, self-esteem, or verbal hostility.

Although differences exist, it is important to remember that the overlap between the distributions is always greater than the differences between them. In addition, noting the existence of the differences does not tell us why they exist. It is clear that girls and boys have many different experiences and opportunities as they develop, which may lead to divergent outcomes or highlight existing differences.

Developmental Patterns of Gender Typing

Children develop gender-typed patterns of behavior and preferences as early as age 15 to 36 months. Girls tend to conform less strictly to gender-role stereotypes than do boys, possibly because there is greater pressure from parents and teachers for boys to adhere to the masculine role. Girls may also imitate the male role because it has greater status and privilege in our culture. Although some boys and girls receive support for cross-gender behavior, most are encouraged to behave according to traditional stereotypes.

Stability of Gender Typing

A longitudinal study found that adult heterosexual behavior could be predicted from gender-typed interests in elementary school. Greater stability was found when a characteristic was related to culturally accepted standards; culturally nontraditional childhood behaviors tended to emerge in divergent forms in adulthood. Thus gender-typed interests tended to remain stable from childhood to maturity.

Research indicates that gender roles fluctuate across the life course as adults change to meet the demands of new situations and circumstances, such as childrearing. Whatever their roles up to this point, women tend to show more expressive characteristics in parenthood and men more instrumental characteristics.


Hormones, Social Behavior, and Cognitive Skills

Biological factors that are thought to shape gender differences include hormones and lateralization of brain function. Hormones may organize a biological predisposition to be masculine or feminine during the prenatal period, and the increase in hormones during puberty may activate that predisposition. In addition, social experiences may alter the levels of hormones, such as testosterone.

Brain Lateralization and Gender Differences

Gender differences in the organization of the brain may be reflected in the greater lateralization of brain functioning in males, which may help explain male success at spatial and math skills. It may also explain female tendencies to be more flexible than males and to withstand injury to the brain more effectively.

Biology and Cultural Expectations

Androgenized female fetuses may become girls who behave more like boys and have more traditionally male interests. Such girls are also better at visual-spatial tasks than other girls. However, environmental factors are also influential in boys and girls developing nontraditional gender-based abilities and interests.


Kohlberg's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Cognitive factors in children's understanding of gender and gender stereotypes may contribute to their acquisition of gender roles. Two cognitive approaches to gender typing have looked at when children acquire different types of gender information and how such information modifies their gender-role activities and behaviors. Kohlberg's three-stage cognitive developmental theory of gender typing suggests that children begin by categorizing themselves as male or females, and then feel rewarded by behaving in gender-consistent ways. To do this, they must develop gender identity, gender stability, and gender constancy.

Gender-Schema Theory: An Information-Processing Approach

Gender schema theory suggests that children develop naive mental schemas that help them organize their experiences in such a way that they will know what to attend to and how to interpret new information. According to this theory, we should expect individual differences in how gender-schematic children will be.

A Comparison of Cognitive Development and Gender-Schema Theories

According to the cognitive developmental theory, we should not see gender-typed behavior until after gender constancy is reached (around age 6). However, gender-typed toy and activity preferences are seen much earlier and show a preference for same-sex playmates later. These findings suggest that the link between the acquisition of gender concepts and behavior varies depending on gender understanding and kind of behavior.


Parents' Influence on Children's Gender-Typed Choices

Families actively play a role in gender-role socialization by the ways in which they organize the environment for the child. Boys and girls are dressed differently, receive different toys to play with, and sleep in bedrooms that are furnished differently.

Parental Behavior toward Girls and Boys

In addition, girls and boys are viewed and treated differently by their parents, particularly their fathers. Boys are thought to be stronger and are treated more roughly and played with more actively than girls as early as birth. As children get older, girls are protected more and allowed less autonomy than boys, and girls are not expected to achieve as much in the areas of mathematics and careers as are boys.

Modeling Parents' Characteristics

As predicted by cognitive social learning theory, parental characteristics influence gender typing in terms of the role models that are available for the child to imitate. Parental power has a great impact on sex typing in boys, but not in girls; femininity in girls is related to the father's masculinity, his approval of the mother as a role model, and his reinforcement of participation in feminine activities.

Parental Absence or Unavailability

Because the father plays such a critical role in the development of children's gender roles, his absence has been related to disruptions in gender typing in preadolescent boys and to problems in relationships with peers of the opposite sex for adolescent females. Studies show that the effects of a father's absence on his daughter's interactions with men are long-lasting, extending to marital choices.

Gender Roles in Children of Gay and Lesbian Parents

There is no evidence of differences in the gender roles of boys and girls raised in gay or lesbian families. Most children of such families grow up to have heterosexual sexual orientations.


Books and Television

Many extrafamilial influences affect gender-role typing. Male and female roles are portrayed in gender-stereotypic ways in television and many children's books. Males are more likely than females to be portrayed as aggressive, competent, rational, and powerful in the workforce. Females are more often portrayed as involved primarily in housework or caring for children.

Females are less likely to be leading characters on TV, and male characters are over represented in children's books-although some change toward more equal treatment has occurred in recent years. Children who are heavy TV viewers hold more stereotyped views; however, this may be due to their interpretations of what they see based on previously held stereotypes. A few attempts to use television to change gender stereotypes have been successful, but the effects typically have been modest and short-lived.

Peers, Gender Roles, and Self-Esteem

Peers also serve as an important source of gender-role standards. Children who have masculine or androgynous characteristics are likely to have higher self-esteem than those who have traditionally feminine characteristics.

Children are likely to react when other children violate gender-typical behaviors, and boys' cross-gender behaviors are more likely to meet with negative reactions from peers. Reactions from peers typically result in changes in behavior, particularly if the feedback is from a child of the same sex. This pattern of responsiveness may lead to gender segregation, which, in turn, provides opportunities to learn gender-typical roles. In self-socialization, children often spontaneously adopt gender-appropriate behavior.

Schools and Teachers

Teachers also treat girls and boys differently. Due to the emphasis in school on typically feminine characteristics such as quietness, obedience, and passivity, girls tend to like school better and perform better than boys in the early grades. Even in preschool, boys receive more criticism from teachers, who often react to children in gender-stereotypic ways. The implication of young boys' perceptions of school as gender-inappropriate may be lowered motivation and interest in school activities, leading to the higher rate of learning problems found in boys during the early grades.

The kinds of conforming and dependent behaviors encouraged in girls may be detrimental for their later academic success. The lack of public awareness of research findings, such as that in most areas of math girls do as well as boys, may prevent parents and others from encouraging girls to excel in these areas.


Most people are not strictly feminine or masculine but androgynous, that is, they possess both masculine and feminine characteristics. Children who are more androgynous make less stereotyped play and activity choices.

Research interventions and the experience of nontraditional preschools indicate that children's gender stereotypes can be reduced. Similarly, children of nonconventional parents who place a high value on gender egalitarianism are less gender typed in their beliefs about possible occupations for males and females, although they are no different from other children on play preferences and knowledge of cultural sex typing. In other words, they are multischematic, holding more than one gender schema for responding to the world.

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