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25.4: Gender Roles

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    As mentioned earlier, gender roles are well-established social constructions that may change from culture to culture and over time. In American culture, we commonly think of gender roles in terms of gender stereotypes, or the beliefs and expectations people hold about the typical characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of men and women.

    By the time we are adults, our gender roles are a stable part of our personalities, and we usually hold many gender stereotypes. When do children start to learn about gender? Very early (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). By their first birthday, children can distinguish faces by gender. By their second birthday, they can label others’ gender and even sort objects into gendetyped categories. By the third birthday, children can consistently identify their own gender (see Martin et al., 2002, for a review). At this age, children believe sex is determined by external attributes, not biological attributes. Between 3 and 6 years of age, children learn that gender is constant and can’t change simply by changing external attributes, having developed gender constancy. During this period, children also develop strong and rigid gender stereotypes. Stereotypes can refer to play (e.g., boys play with trucks, and girls play with dolls), traits (e.g., boys are strong, and girls like to cry), and occupations (e.g., men are doctors and women are nurses). These stereotypes stay rigid until children reach about age 8 or 9. Then they develop cognitive abilities that allow them to be more flexible in their thinking about others.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Children develop the ability to classify gender very early in life. [This work, “Gender Classification Timeline,” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Judy Schmitt. It is a derivative of “Figure 2” by Christia Spears Brown, Jennifer A. Jewell, and Michelle J. Tam/Noba, which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

    How do our gender roles and gender stereotypes develop and become so strong? Many of our gender stereotypes are so strong because we emphasize gender so much in culture (Bigler & Liben, 2007). For example, males and females are treated differently before they are even born. When someone learns of a new pregnancy, the first question asked is “Is it a boy or a girl?” Immediately upon hearing the answer, judgments are made about the child: Boys will be rough and like blue, while girls will be delicate and like pink. Developmental intergroup theory postulates that adults’ heavy focus on gender leads children to pay attention to gender as a key source of information about themselves and others, to seek out any possible gender differences, and to form rigid stereotypes based on gender that are subsequently difficult to change.

    There are also psychological theories that partially explain how children form their own gender roles after they learn to differentiate based on gender. The first of these theories is gender schema theory. Gender schema theory argues that children are active learners who essentially socialize them- selves. In this case, children actively organize others’ behavior, activities, and attributes into gender categories, which are known as schemas. These schemas then affect what children notice and remember later. People of all ages are more likely to remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes than schema-inconsistent behaviors and attributes. So, people are more likely to remember men, and forget women, who are firefighters. They also misremember schema-inconsistent information. If research participants are shown pictures of someone standing at the stove, they are more likely to remember the person to be cooking if depicted as a woman, and the person to be repairing the stove if depicted as a man. By only remembering schema-consistent information, gender schemas strengthen more and more over time.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): People are more likely to remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes than schema-inconsistent behaviors and attributes. For example, people are more likely to remember men, and forget women, who are firefighters. [“The girls” by Billy V/Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]

    A second theory that attempts to explain the formation of gender roles in children is social learning theory. Social learning theory argues that gender roles are learned through reinforcement, punishment, and modeling. Children are rewarded and reinforced for behaving in concordance with gender roles and punished for breaking gender roles. In addition, social learning theory argues that children learn many of their gender roles by modeling the behavior of adults and older children and, in doing so, develop ideas about what behaviors are appropriate for each gender. Social learning theory has less support than gender schema theory—research shows that parents do reinforce gender-appropriate play but for the most part treat their male and female children similarly (Lytton & Romney, 1991).

    This page titled 25.4: Gender Roles is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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