The strongest influence on a child’s gender development often occurs in the family, with parents or guardians passing on, both overtly and covertly, to their children, their own beliefs about gender. One study indicates that parents have differential expectations of sons and daughters as early as 24 hours after birth.32 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 typically protected more (physically and emotionally) 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.33
Further, research has indicated that many parents attempt to define gender for their sons in a manner that distances the sons from femininity. Emily Kane, professor of Sociology and author of The Gender Trap, found “the parental boundary maintenance work evident for sons represents a crucial obstacle limiting boys’ options, separating boys from girls, devaluing activities marked as feminine for both boys and girls, and thus bolstering gender inequality and hetero-normativity.”34 Parents provide messages regarding gender and what is acceptable for children’s gendered selves based on their sex category-- messages that are internalized by the developing child and translate into adolescence and adulthood. However, their sex role stereotypes will be well established early in their childhood.35
Many influences outside of the family affect gender-role socialization. Male and female roles are portrayed in ways that might be described as being “gender-stereotypic” in television and many children's books. For example, males are more likely than females to be portrayed as aggressive, competent, rational, and powerful in the workforce. Females are more likely than males to be portrayed as involved primarily in housework or caring for children.
Typical themes for books aimed at boys include robots, dinosaurs, astronauts, vehicles, football and pirates; while girls are more often allowed princesses, fairies, make-up, flowers, butterflies, fashion, and cute animals. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but it is wrong when they are repeatedly presented as only for one gender (really, only for one sex since we promote constructed gender normativity for specific sex categories). Girls can like pirates and adventure, and boys can like cute animals and dressing up. Why tell them otherwise? What do we have to gain from telling kids what their personal interests should be based on their sex category and subsequent prescribed gender? These points will also be discussed further in the chapter “Language and Media.”
Former Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said “All television is educational; the only question is: what is it teaching?”36 Children start watching television from a very early age, about 18 months.37 And television is perhaps the most influential form of media.38 Since very young children often have difficulty telling fantasy from reality, they are particularly susceptible to the portrayals of gender types on television, especially cartoons, which make up the majority of children's television viewing between the ages of two and eleven.39 Therefore, it can be assumed that children might use the portrayals of males and females in cartoon format as a model for performance of their own genders, in order to assimilate into the norms of their culture. Researchers coded and analyzed 175 episodes of 41 different cartoons, showing large discrepancies between prominence and portrayal of male and female characters.40 They noted that, compared to female characters, males were given much more prominence, appeared more frequently, and talked significantly more.
“Traditional gender roles, wherein men are encouraged to be decisive and to show leadership qualities while women are encouraged to be deferential and dependent, do not benefit anyone, particularly women. Traditional gender roles discourage the full range of expression and accomplishment. Children should be allowed to develop a sense of self in a gender-fair environment that encourages everyone to fully feel a part of society.”
– Susan D. Witt is Assistant Professor, School of Family and Consumer Sciences, The University of Akron, Akron, Ohio.
Parents and guardians are who most often provide children with toys. Meaning, rarely do very small children have any autonomy in what’s purchased and brought into the home. How could they, right? However this also results in parents choosing gender-specific (and gender-differentiated) toys and rewarding play behavior that is gender stereotyped.41 “A study of children's rooms has shown that girls' rooms have more pink, dolls, and manipulative toys; boys' rooms have more blue, sports equipment, tools, and vehicles.”42
Females are less likely to be leading characters on television, and male characters are over-represented in children's books. We have seen some shifts to more equal gender role representation between the sexes in shows in recent years.
Peers, Gender Roles, and Self-Esteem
Peers also serve as a significant influence on a child’s gender-role socialization. For example, children are likely to react when other children violate expected gender-role behaviors. In addition, boys are more likely to receive negative sanctions from peers for acting out “gender-bending” behaviors than are females. Think for a moment: What do we often call a little girl who likes to wear boys’ clothes? That’s right, a “tomboy.” But what are some of the names given to little boys who feel more confortable wearing feminine-looking clothes? In Dude: You’re A Fag C. J. Pascoe argues the "specter of the fag" has become a disciplinary mechanism for regulating boys and how the "fag discourse" is even more focused on gender than to sexuality.43 Reactions from peers, especially negative reactions, typically result in changes in behavior, particularly if the feedback is from a child of the same sex. This pattern of responsiveness reinforces traditional gender roles in children who might otherwise exercise more freedom in their gender expression.
Schools and Teachers
Teachers also treat girls and boys differently. Let’s make clear teachers are not bad people or people who should be blamed for reinforcing gender norms during the socialization process. Rather, they are just another piece to a huge puzzle! 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 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. We will also be looking further into these points in the chapter “Gender and Schools.”
Western Tradition and Gender Roles
More often times than not, the “masculine” is treated as the default human experience by social norms. Masculine behaviors are typically rewarded over and above feminine ones. Because we often devalue qualities we construct and label as “feminine,” we see social reproductions such as men (in general) being paid better than women, enjoying more sexual and social freedom, and having other benefits that women do not by virtue of their socially prescribed gender. While there are variations across race, class, education, sexuality, religion, and other socio-economic measures, the human capabilities labeled as “masculine” still remain more valued than the human capabilities labeled as “feminine.”
In Western societies, gender power is held by White, highly educated, middle-class, able-bodied heterosexual men whose gender represents hegemonic masculinity – the ideal to which other masculinities must interact with, conform to, and challenge. It is not enforced through direct violence; instead, it exists as a cultural “script” that we’re taught throughout our socialization processes.
In his book Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, sociologist C.J. Pascoe argues young working-class American boys enforce the masculine ideal by using jokes exemplified by the phrase, “Dude, you’re a fag.” Boys are called “fags” (a derogative and homophobic slur, at it’s best) not because they are homosexual, but when they engage in behavior considered to be “un-masculine”. This might include dancing, taking “too much” care with their appearance, being too expressive with their emotions, or being perceived as incompetent. So in this case, boys who are exhibiting behaviors labeled as “feminine” by Western culture become vulnerable to being harassed. This not only reinforces the ultra-constricting masculine ideal in boys, but it also reinforces the devaluing of anything labeled as “feminine” in the culture.
This leads us to another point: Because Western culture is largely indoctrinated with patriarchal ideals and traditions, femininity in Western culture is constructed to be inferior to masculinity. As a result, women often lack the same level of cultural, political, and economic power as men. However women are typically afforded more agency to resist their prescribed gender ideals than are men. Meaning, femininity and feminine roles have developed to include more variation in expression than has masculinity in recent decades. Men, then, typically endure harsher social punishments more often for exercising behaviors thought to be “feminine” by the culture than are women who exercise behaviors thought to be “masculine.” Women are also more socially permitted to actively challenge gender norms by refusing to let patriarchy define how they portray and reconstruct their femininity. However, this becomes a double-edged sword, because more often than not, some social problems will then be labeled as women’s problems. For example:
- Rejecting the double standard assigned to sexual behaviors for males and females
- Fighting rape culture
- Fighting sexual harassment
- Fighting for equal pay and permission to enter male-dominated fields
- Representation of women as sexual object in advertising and other forms of popular culture
- Bringing attention to the issue and combatting domestic violence
Gender Over the Life Span
Gender experiences will evolve over a person’s lifetime. Gender is therefore always in flux; it’s fluid. It changes as our likes/dislikes, morals, values, interpretations, and constructions change. We see this through generational and intergenerational changes within families, as social, legal, and technological changes influence social values on gender.
The Social Construction of Gender, Margaret L. Andersen and Dana Hysock, Thinking about Women, 2009
Pascoe, C. J. (2012). Dude, you're a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press
Vincent, Norah. 2009. Self Made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man. Penguin Publishing.
32 Rubin, J., Provenzano, F., & Luria, Z. (1974). The eye of the beholder: Parents' views on sex of newborns. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44, 512-519.
33 Eccles, J. S., Jacobs, J. E., & Harold, R. D. (1990). Gender role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents' socialization of gender differences. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 186-201.
34 Spade, Joan. The Kaleidoscope of Gender. London: SAGE. pp. 177–184.
35 Arliss, L. P. (1991). Gender communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
36 Thompson, Teresa L. and Zebrinos, Eugenia. (1995). Gender Roles in Animated Cartoons: Has the Picture Changed In 20 Years? Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 32: 651 - 674.
37 Thompson, Teresa L. and Zebrinos, Eugenia. (1997). Television Cartoons: Do Children
38 Lauer, R. H., & Lauer, J. C. (1994). Marriage and family: The quest for intimacy. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
39 Witt, Susan D. (1997) Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles.
40 Thompson, Teresa L. and Zebrinos, Eugenia. (1997). Television Cartoons: Do Children
41 Etaugh, C. & Liss, M. B. (1992). Home, school, and playroom: Training grounds for adult gender roles. Sex Roles, 26, 129-147.
42 Witt, Susan D. 1997. Parental Influence on Children's Socialization to Gender Roles. Adolescence.
43 Pascoe, C. J. (2012). Dude, you're a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.