Summary - Theories of Gender

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

Theories of Gender

Theories of gender focus on four kinds of explanations:

1. Group-level factors, such as the biological and social groups we belong to

2. Past biological and social-environmental factors, such as fetal hormones and parental rearing

3. Current biological and social-environmental factors, such as current hormone levels and social settings

4. Internal factors, such as personality traits, attitudes, stereotypes, and schemas

These levels of explanation are not independent of one another. Factors at each level influence factors at succeeding levels, and factors at each level may interact with one another.

Biological theories of gender use Darwin's theory of evolution as an organizing framework. Evolutionary theory describes how traits are selected based on their adaptiveness in particular environments. Traits that foster survival and reproduction tend to get passed on to the next generation; traits that do not die out. Modern evolutionary theory often takes a gene-centered rather than individual-centered view of natural selection. Sexual selection is a kind of natural selection whereby traits are selected because they help individuals to mate. Evolutionary theories of gender propose that because of differences between male and female reproduction, men and women evolved to have somewhat different reproductive strategies and physical and behavioral traits.

Evolution shows its effects through genes and physiology. The physiological factors most studied in relation to gender are sex hormones and brain structures. Hormonal theories propose that prenatal hormones organize sex differences in the nervous system, whereas adult hormone levels activate gender-related behaviors. Recent research suggests that sex chromosomes may sometimes have direct effects on bodily development, independent of the effects of sex hormones.

Environmental theories of gender focus on rearing, social roles, gender beliefs, and social settings as causes of sex differences and of individual differences in masculinity and femininity. Social learning theories propose that sex differences are learned via classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and modeling. Cognitive developmental theory suggests that when children label themselves as boys and girls, they try to act consistently with their gender labels. Gender-schema theory argues that some people think more in terms of gender than others and this influences their behavior. Furthermore, gender schemas (the beliefs we hold about males, females, and gender) can bias our memory and what we attend to, and they can constrain our behavioral choices. The source of gender schemas is thought to be the social environment.

Social psychological theories of gender emphasize the power of the social setting to create sex differences. Such theories often focus on gender stereotypes, their causes and consequences. Alice Eagly's social role theory proposes that gender roles (e.g., women as mothers, men as workers) lead women and men to behave differently, and this leads people to form gender stereotypes. The theory of self-fulfilling prophecies suggests that once gender stereotypes exist, people act in ways that make them come true. Claude Steele's stereotype threat theory proposes that negative stereotypes about group performance (such as stereotypes about women's math abilities) lead group members to experience intrusive thoughts and anxieties about their performance, which then undermine their performance. Self-presentation theories argue that gender is an act that varies depending on the situation we are in, the beliefs we hold about gender, and the expectations of others. According to such theories, gender is not something we are; rather, it is something we do.

Social constructionists propose that gender is a cultural creation. They argue against essentialist views that hold that gender, masculinity, and femininity are stable characteristics of individuals, and they reject biological theories of gender.