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3.1.1: Gender Socialization

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    In Chapter 1, we learned that gender is achieved, rather than ascribed. We discussed gender is something we do rather than something we are. So, if gender is something we learn, how do we learn it? This can be achieved through gender socialization, or the shaping of individual behavior and perceptions in such a way that the individual conforms to socially prescribed expectations for males and females.23 In other words, our gender roles are socially proscribed expectations and attitudes assigned to and associated with one's biological sex. A gender role is a set of societal norms dictating the types of behaviors that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their actual or perceived sex.

    Gender is so taken for granted, that we don’t often recognize our gendered behaviors. Since we do gender every day, it’s not something we challenge or question very often. Until, that is, someone or something challenges our assumptions and taken for granted positions on the topic. In fact, it’s so taken for granted, most people believe (and reinforce) the idea that gender is something we are born with, rather than something we create and recreate. Therefore, gender is a human production that exists only when people do it.24

    Think about this for a moment: How many people do you know who want to know the sex of a fetus? Why? Does the parents knowing their baby’s sex affect the health of the baby? No. Does knowing the baby’s sex have any correlation with the happiness of the baby? No. Does knowing the baby’s sex before birth help improve its development? No. Then why? So we know what color to paint the nursery, of course! I mean, how could we possibly put a female baby in a blue nursery? That would be insanity!

    According to a study conducted in 2001 by a team of doctors at Harvard Medical School in Boston with over 1,300 participants, about 58% of parents-to-be wanted to know the sex of the fetus before the birth.25 So sex is a pretty important variable for most parents-to-be. But why? So they can start planning, of course! Boy or girl, pink or blue? How should they decorate the nursery? What toys should they play with? What books should they read? Historically, and even today, a lot of the answers to these questions will be mostly shaped by the sex of the baby. Does the baby know its sex? Or that it’s in pink or blue? Of course not! So who cares? Many parents form gendered expectations for their child before it is even born, after determining the child's sex. The child thus arrives to gender-specific clothes, games, and even ambitions. And, enter gender socialization: Our primary caregivers will be the most influential in our gender socialization in our primary years (we’ll discuss other influences later on). While various socializing agents—parents, teachers, peers, movies, television, music, books, and religion—teach and reinforce gender roles throughout the lifespan, parents probably exert the greatest influence, especially on their very young offspring.


    Figure \(3.1.1\). Bar Graph of “Parents Who Want to Know the Sex of Their Baby”

    Adults perceive and treat female and male infants differently. Parents and guardians probably do this in response to their having been recipients of gender expectations as young children. Sociologists have found that in the U.S., traditionally, fathers teach boys how to fix and build things; mothers teach girls how to cook, sew, and keep house.26 Sound old-fashioned and out of date? I hope so! And certainly sociologists accept and acknowledge exceptions, but the truth is, today children still receive parental approval more often for conforming to gender expectations and adopting culturally accepted and conventional roles. Despite social revelations that girls are not too fragile to play sports and boys can benefit from learning to manage household responsibilities, we still find ourselves surrounded by limited gender expectations and persistent gender inequalities. Additional socializing agents, such as media, peers, siblings, etc, reinforce all of this. In other words, learning gender roles occurs within a social context, the values of the parents and society being passed along to the children. This results in children adopting a gender identity early in life, resulting in them also developing gender-role preferences.27 Gender identity is one’s concept of self as female, male, or neither. Gender-role preference is one’s preference for the culturally prescribed roles associated with gender identity.

    Gender roles adopted during childhood normally continue into adulthood. People have certain presumptions about decision‐making, child‐rearing practices, financial responsibilities, and so forth. At work, people also have presumptions about power, the division of labor, and organizational structures. None of this is meant to imply that gender roles are good or bad; rather, this is an acknowledgement that they exist and shape our perceptions of reality. Gender roles are realities in almost everyone's life, but since they are not biologically determined, our “realities” surrounding gender can differ from generation to generation, from group to group, even from individual to individual.

    Gendered social arrangements also dictate or create external means of control of how females and males should act, and they are often justified by religion and cultural morés. In Western culture, alternatives to our constructed gendered norms has largely been virtually unthinkable.28 While there is no “essential” gender for human beings, society and culture holds the individual responsible for reproducing the expected gendered norms assigned to them. The individual is expected to recreate the already prescribed gendered behaviors laid out for them, and, in turn, they themselves become the re- creators of what it means to be a women or a man in their society. “If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as individuals may be called to account (for our character, motives, and predispositions).”29

    23 Hammond, Ron, Cheney, Paul. Introduction to Sociology.
    24 Doing Gender. Candace West; Don H. Zimmerman. Gender and Society, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Jun., 1987), pp. 125-151.
    25 Shipp, T. D., Shipp, D. Z., Bromley, B., Sheahan, R., Cohen, A., Lieberman, E. and Benacerraf, B. (2004), What Factors Are Associated with Parents’ Desire To Know the Sex of Their Unborn Child?. Birth, 31: 272–279. doi:10.1111/j.0730- 7659.2004.00319.x
    26 The Social Construction of Gender, Margaret L. Andersen and Dana Hysock, Thinking about Women, Allyn & Bacon, 2009
    27 Ibid
    28 Foucault, Michael. 1972. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. NY, New York. Pantheon.
    29 Doing Gender. Candace West; Don H. Zimmerman. Gender and Society, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Jun., 1987), pp. 146.

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