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4.2: Gender as a Socializing Agent

  • Page ID
    194453
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    Sociologists and other social scientists generally attribute many of the behavioral differences between genders to socialization. Socialization is the process of transferring norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors to group members. The most intense period of socialization is during childhood, when adults who are members of a particular cultural group instruct young children on how to behave in order to comply with social norms. Gender is included in this process; individuals are taught how to socially behave in accordance with their assigned gender, which is assigned at birth based on their biological sex (for instance, male babies are given the gender of “boy”, while female babies are given the gender of “girl”). Gender socialization is thus the process of educating and instructing males and females as to the norms, behaviors, values, and beliefs of group membership.

    Preparations for gender socialization begin even before the birth of the child. One of the first questions people ask of expectant parents is the sex of the child. This is the beginning of a social categorization process that continues throughout life. Preparations for the birth often take the infant’s sex into consideration (e.g., painting the room blue if the child is a boy, pink for a girl). Today it is largely believed that most gender differences are attributed to differences in socialization, rather than genetic and biological factors.

    Gender stereotypes can be a result of gender socialization. Girls and boys are expected to act in certain ways, and these ways are socialized from birth by many parents (and society). For example, girls are expected to be clean and quiet, while boys are messy and loud. As children get older, gender stereotypes become more apparent in styles of dress and choice of leisure activities. Boys and girls who do not conform to gender stereotypes are usually ostracized by same-age peers for being different. This can lead to negative effects, such as lower self-esteem.

    In Western contexts, gender socialization operates as a binary, or a concept that is exclusively composed of two parts. In other words, individuals are socialized into conceiving of their gender as either masculine (male) or feminine (female). Identities are therefore normatively constructed along this single parameter. However, some individuals do not feel that they fall into the gender binary and they choose to question or challenge the male-masculine / female-feminine binary. For example, individuals that identify as transgender feel that their gender identity does not match their biological sex. Individuals that identify as genderqueer challenge classifications of masculine and feminine, and may identify as somewhere other than male and female, in between male and female, a combination of male and female, or a third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) gender altogether. These identities demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which is so frequently thought to be biological and immutable. Gender fluidity also shows how gender norms are learned and either accepted or rejected by the socialized individual.

    Pause to Reflect!

    Choose one of the podcasts from the How to Be a Girl series and listen to it.

    1. Summarize the podcast that you listened to, emphasizing your key takeaways.
    2. What questions would you ask the caregivers in this story about their parenting relationships?
    3. What questions would you ask the children in this story?
    4. What strategies would you offer the schools and communities in this story to best support this family as it moves forward into the future?

    The Family

    Socialization into gender roles begins in infancy, as almost from the moment of birth parents begin to socialize their children as boys or girls without even knowing it (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2009). Many studies document this process (Lindsey, 2011). Parents commonly describe their infant daughters as pretty, soft, and delicate and their infant sons as strong, active, and alert, even though neutral observers find no such gender differences among infants when they do not know the infants’ sex. From infancy on, parents play with and otherwise interact with their daughters and sons differently. They play more roughly with their sons—for example, by throwing them up in the air or by gently wrestling with them—and more quietly with their daughters. When their infant or toddler daughters cry, they warmly comfort them, but they tend to let their sons cry longer and to comfort them less. They give their girls dolls to play with and their boys “action figures” and toy guns. While these gender differences in socialization are probably smaller now than a generation ago, they certainly continue to exist. Go into a large toy store and you will see pink aisles of dolls and cooking sets and blue aisles of action figures, toy guns, and related items.

    Peers

    Peer influences also encourage gender socialization. As they reach school age, children begin to play different games based on their gender. Boys tend to play sports and other competitive team games governed by inflexible rules and relatively large numbers of roles, while girls tend to play smaller, cooperative games such as hopscotch and jumping rope with fewer and more flexible rules. Although girls are much more involved in sports now than a generation ago, these gender differences in their play as youngsters persist and continue to reinforce gender roles. For example, they encourage competitiveness in boys and cooperation and trust among girls. Boys who are not competitive risk being called “sissy” or other words by their peers. The patterns we see in adult males and females thus have their roots in their play as young children (King, Miles, & Kniska, 1991).

    Image of three girls at play

    In considering the debate, discussed in the text, between biology and sociology over the origins of gender roles, some widely cited studies by sociologists over gender differences in children’s play and games provide evidence for the importance of socialization.

    Janet Lever (1978) studied fifth-grade children in three different communities in Connecticut. She watched them play and otherwise interact in school and also had the children keep diaries of their play and games outside school. One of her central aims was to determine how complex the two sexes’ play and games were in terms of such factors as number of rules, specialization of roles, and size of the group playing. In all of these respects, Lever found that boys’ play and games were typically more complex than girls’ play and games. She attributed these differences to socialization by parents, teachers, and other adults and argued that the complexity of boys’ play and games helped them to be better able than girls to learn important social skills such as dealing with rules and coordinating actions to achieve goals.

    Meanwhile, Barrie Thorne (1993) spent many months in two different working-class communities in California and Michigan observing fourth and fifth graders sit in class and lunchrooms and play on the school playgrounds. Most children were white, but several were African American or Latino. As you might expect, the girls and boys she observed usually played separately from each other, and the one-sex groups in which they played were very important for the development of their gender identity, with boys tending to play team sports and other competitive games and girls tending to play cooperative games such as jump rope. These differences led Thorne to conclude that gender-role socialization stems not only from practices by adults but also from the children’s own activities without adult involvement. When boys and girls did interact, it was often “girls against the boys” or vice versa in classroom spelling contests and in games such as tag. Thorne concluded that these “us against them” contests helped the children learn that boys and girls are two different and antagonistic sexes and that gender itself is antagonistic, even if there were also moments when both sexes interacted on the playground in more relaxed, noncompetitive situations. Boys also tended to disrupt girls’ games more than the reverse and in this manner both exerted and learned dominance over females. In all of these ways, children were not just the passive recipients of gender-role socialization from adults (their teachers), but they also played an active role in ensuring that such socialization occurred.

    The studies by Lever and Thorne were among the first to emphasize the importance of children’s play and peer relationships for gender socialization. They also called attention to the importance of the traits and values learned through such socialization for outcomes later in life. The rise in team sports opportunities for girls in the years since Lever and Thorne did their research is a welcome development that addresses the concerns expressed in their studies, but young children continue to play in the ways that Lever and Thorne found. To the extent children’s play has the consequences just listed, and to the extent these consequences impede full gender inequality, these sociological studies suggest the need for teachers, parents, and other adults to help organize children’s play that is more egalitarian along the lines discussed by Lever, Thorne, and other scholars. In this way, their sociological work has helped to make a difference and promises to continue to do so.

    Pause to Reflect!

    Discuss the following questions.

    1. What does egalitarian children’s play look like?
    2. Identify at least 2 games played by children that offer an egalitarian lens.

    Schools

    School is yet another agent of gender socialization (Klein, 2007). First of all, school playgrounds provide a location for the gender-linked play activities just described to occur. Second, and perhaps more important, teachers at all levels treat their female and male students differently in subtle ways of which they are probably not aware. They tend to call on boys more often to answer questions in class and to praise them more when they give the right answer. They also give boys more feedback about their assignments and other school work (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). At all grade levels, many textbooks and other books still portray people in gender-stereotyped ways. It is true that the newer books do less of this than older ones, but the newer books still contain some stereotypes, and the older books are still used in many schools, especially those that cannot afford to buy newer volumes.

    Pause to Reflect!

    Discuss the following questions.

    1. Identify at least 3 children’s books published in the last 10 years that highlight trans or non-binary characters.
    2. Read at least one of those stories.
    3. Is the character(s) story presented from a strengths or deficit based lens?
    4. How is gender or socialization presented in the story?

    This page titled 4.2: Gender as a Socializing Agent is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Joan Giovannini (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.