Self-Socialization of Gender - The Case for Nurture

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

Self-Socialization of Gender
The Case for Nurture

The basic contention of social learning theories is that rewards, punishments, and role models influence children's gender-related behaviors and attitudes, Parents, teachers, schools, and societies treat girls and boys differently; as a result, children learn to do gender. However, the social learning of gender is only part of the story. Children also actively construct mental categories of male and female, and they apply these categories to themselves and to others.

Researchers have posed some fundamental questions about the self-socialization of gender. Do children progress through definite stages of gender knowledge? Are children's gender-related self-concepts and gender knowledge related to their behavior as boys and girls? How does the social environment influence children's gender knowledge?

Gender Knowledge

Haryard psychologist Lawrence Romberg (1966) was the first to argue that children's self-labeling was critical in gender development. According to Kohlberg, once children label themselves as boys or girls, they start to act consistently with their gender labels (see Chapter 3). How exactly do children come to understand the concepts of male and female? An enormous amount of research has focused on this question. (For reviews see Huston [1983], Maccoby [1990], Martin [2000], and Ruble & Martin [1998]. For a definitive early study, see Slafay & Frey [1975].)

The development of gender concepts in children turns out to be more complex than Kohlberg originally envisioned. Most children can correctly answer the question—"Are you a boy (or girl)?"—by age 2½ years. A bit later—by age 3½-ft—most children understand that gender is stable over time. Later still—from 4 to 7 years of age—children achieve gender constancy, the realization that being male or female is a stable attribute that does not change across situations or with superficial physical changes (such as cutting long hair short or wearing a dress rather than pants). Children throughout the world progress through these stages, probably because these stages are linked to children's broader intellectual development.

The development of gender knowledge does not stop at age 6 or 7. One longitudinal study followed 82 German children from ages 5 to 10 (Trautner, 1992). Over the 5 years of the study, children's gender stereotypes steadily increased. From 5 to 7 years of age, children held the most rigid, black-and-white beliefs about the two sexes (e.g., "only girls cry," "only boys play football"). From ages 8 to 10, in contrast, children developed more flexible and probabilistic beliefs about gender (e.g., "more girls cry than boys" or "both boys and girls cry"). Interestingly, although children's gender stereotypes grew more flexible with age, their play activities grew steadily more sex-typed, peaking by age 7. Thus, children's sex-typed behavior did not closely track their gender beliefs.

Another study—this time of more than 500 Canadian children in kindergarten through sixth grade (i.e., ages 6 through 12 years)— also found that children's knowledge of gender stereotypes increased steadily with age (Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993). To assess gender stereotypes, the researchers used the following sort of question: "What do you think that most people believe—that boys are more likely to be adventurous than girls or that girls are more likely to be adventurous than boys?" Older children answered these questions in more gender-stereotypic ways. At the same time, their personal beliefs about gender grew more flexible. Whereas young children believed that only boys or only girls could have certain traits ("only girls are gentle," "only boys are adventurous"), older children increasingly believed that both boys and girls could have these traits.

Although the simultaneous increase in the strength and flexibility of gender stereotypes may seem paradoxical, it need not be. Children learn more about gender as they grew older, although they see gender less in black-and-white terms. It is unlikely that a 3-year-old will be sophisticated enough to believe that "a man is more likely to be a nuclear physicist" and "a woman is more likely to be a nursing professor." However, adolescents may acquire these stereotypes as their knowledge of occupations and gender grows more elaborate. However, despite their increasingly elaborate gender stereotypes, adolescents may acknowledge that some nuclear physicists are women and that some nursing professors are men. In the Canadian study, children's percentage of "correctly" identified gender stereotypes considerably exceeded the percentage of traits they assigned flexibly to the two sexes. Thus, it is important not to overstate children's stereotype flexibility.

A key question in the study of children's gender stereotypes is this: Are stronger stereotypes associated with more sex-typed behavior? A number of studies have found some relationship between the two, but it is weak (Aubry, Ruble, & Silverman, 1999; Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993). In a carefully conducted recent study, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Lynn Liben and University of Texas psychologist Rebecca Bigler (2002) measured 6th and 7th graders' gender stereotypes (how much they thought various activities, occupations, and personality traits were for males or for females only) and how stereotypically masculine and feminine these students' own activities, occupational preferences, and personality traits were. They found only weak relationships between the strength of students' gender stereotypes and students' own masculinity and femininity in various behavioral domains. Furthermore, Liben and Bigler noted that the cause-effect relationships could go in both directions. Gender stereotypes may affect sex-typed behaviors (e.g., a boy with strong gender stereotypes may not dance or cook because he perceives these as girls' activities). Conversely, gender-related behaviors may affect gender stereotypes (e.g., a boy who likes to cook may decide that cooking is for boys as well as girls).

Gender Knowledge and Sex-Typed Behavior

Lawrence Kohlberg (196b) proposed that gender constancy—the mature understanding that sex is stable over time and place and despite superficial changes in appearance—is essential for sex-typing to occur in boys and girls. Research, however, has proven him wrong on this point. As noted previously, children show strongly sex-typed toy and activity preferences by their second year of life, well before they can label themselves accurately as male or female (Campbell, Shirley, Heywood, & Crook, 2000; Weinraub et al, 1984). Thus, sex-typed behaviors can precede even basic kinds of gender knowledge.

Nonetheless, gender labeling has an impact on sex-typed behaviors. Boys who have learned to label their own and others' gender and who understand that gender is stable over time pay more attention to same-sex models (Slaby & Frey, 1975). In a similar vein, boys who have a higher degree of gender understanding watch more male characters and male-typical (e.g., sports) events on television (Luecke-Aleksa, Anderson, Collins, & Schmitt, 1995). Although sex-typed toy preferences exist before children can accurately label gender, when children achieve gender labeling, they may show more sex-typed toy choices as a result. For example, when presented with a choice between a highly attractive girl's toy and a not-so-attractive boy's toy, boys who can accurately label gender will choose the not-so-attractive boy's toy (Frey & Ruble, 1992). Thus sender understanding may tip the balance in favor of sex-typed choices in conflicted situations. Furthermore, older boys may avoid an attractive novel toy if it has been labeled as a girl's toy, a phenomenon labeled the hot potato effect (Martin, Eisenbud, & Rose, 1995).

The lowest level of gender understanding—the ability to label oneself and others as male or female—is sufficient to increase sex-typed toy choices in some settings (Bussey & Bandura, 1984; Fagot, 1985; Weinraub et. al, 1984). In addition, it may sometimes increase preferences for same-sex playmates (Smetana & LeTourneau, 1984). One study looked at three kinds of sex-typed behaviors in 2- to 3-year-old children: toy choices, same-sex playmate preferences, and aggression (Fagot, Leinbach, & Hagan, 1986). Children's ability to label the gender of pictured people was not related to their sex-typed toy choices. However, it was related to their playmate preferences and aggression. Children who could correctly label others' gender showed stronger preferences for same-sex peers, and girls who could correctly label gender were less aggressive than girls who could not. Another more recent study found that 4- to 6-year-old British school children who displayed higher levels of gender understanding were less willing to dress up in opposite-sex clothing when asked to do so by the researcher (Warin, 2000).

It seems reasonable that gender labeling should be related to certain kinds of sex-typed behaviors. To develop preferences for either male or female playmates, it would seem useful for children to be able to label accurately who is a boy and who is a girl. As noted earlier, children learn about male and female activities in part by observing what most males and most females do. Accurate gender labeling would seem to be a prerequisite to abstracting such information. And to follow the admonition that "big boys don't cry," a boy first needs to understand that he is a boy and that he belongs to the category of boys in general. The admonition becomes even more powerful if he observes other boys and infers that many of them in fact do not cry as much as girls do.

The metaphor of a booster rocket is useful here. Children show sex-typed behaviors (e.g., toy preferences) before they are able to label gender accurately. But when they do acquire the ability to label gender, children ignite a kind of second-stage booster to the accelerating rocket of gender development. Accurate gender labeling amplifies already existing tendencies, and it provides a powerful conceptual schema for children to use in inferring additional gender-related information from their social world. Thus gender knowledge serves to promote and organize gender development (Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002).

If the ability to label gender provides a second-stage booster to the rocket of gender development, then the development of internal gender standards provides the third-stage booster, Macquarie University psychologist Kay Bussey and Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura found that this third stage typically occurs between 3 and 4 years of age (Bussey & Bandura, 1992). In a carefully conducted experiment, these researchers measured the gender knowledge and sex-typed behaviors of 40 nursery school children who ranged in age from 2½ to almost 5 years. Children were asked to rate how good or bad they would feel about playing with various toys, some of which were masculine (a dump truck) and some of which were feminine (a baby doll). Children were then given the opportunity to play with the toys, and their amount of play with masculine and feminine toys was measured. Finally, the children observed videotapes of individual 7-year-old boys and girls engaged in cross-sex play (e.g., the videotaped boy diapered a baby doll, and the videotaped girl played with a dump truck). The preschoolers were then asked to rate how good or bad the videotaped child's friends would feel about the portrayed play.

Not surprisingly, children's play was strongly sex-typed; boys played more with masculine toys and girls' played more with feminine toys. Children's level of gender knowledge (e.g., whether they accurately labeled gender or understood that gender is consistent over time) showed little relationship to their degree of sex-typed play, after controlling for age. The most interesting finding was a dramatic difference between older children (mean age of 4 years) and younger children (mean age of 3 years). The older children tended to evaluate cross-sex play much more negatively than the younger children did (Fig. 5.1). Furthermore, older children's evaluations of playing with masculine (or feminine) toys predicted their actual amount of play with masculine and feminine toys, whereas younger children's evaluations did not.

At a conceptual level, Bussey and Bandura demonstrated that sometime between 3 and 4 years of age children internalize gender standards. As a result, children evaluate their behavior in comparison with these standards and they attach a kind of moral right or wrong to gender-related behaviors. Three-year-olds play with sex-typed toys because of social influences (reinforcement, modeling) and perhaps because of innate preferences. But 4-year-olds play with sex-typed toys also because they have internalized standards of gender conduct and they feel bad (embarrassed, ashamed) when they violate these standards. Bussey and Bandura learned just how powerful such gender standards can be when they asked reluctant 7-year-old boys to serve as actors in the videotapes portraying cross-sex play. After diapering a baby doll in front of the researchers' video camera, one mortified 7-year-old boy declared, 'It's the most awful thing I have every done!"


FIG. 5.1 How positively children feel about playing with masculine and feminine toys. Children are classified by age ("younger" = mean age of 3, and "older" = mean age of 4) and by sex.

Copyright 1992. Society for Research in Child Development. Adapted with permission.

Social Influences on Gender Knowledge

Where does gender-related knowledge come from? Two obvious answers are: (a) people (i.e., parents, teachers, peers) teach children gender stereotypes, and (b) children infer facts about gender based on what they see around them. For example, if children observe only women as elementary school teachers and only men as police officers, they will infer that elementary school teachers are women and police officers are men. Whether children learn from direct instruction or from indirect inference, social factors undoubtedly have a big influence on their developing knowledge.

A number of studies suggest that parents who possess strong gender stereotypes and traditional attitudes toward women are more likely to have children who similarly possess strong gender knowledge and stereotypes (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989; Fagot, Leinbach, & O'Boyle, 1992; Repetti, 1984; Serbia, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993; Weinraub et al., 1984). One study assessed the gender knowledge of 376 children (in kindergarten and in third grade) and found that the degree to which parents chose gender stereotypic toys and chores for their children predicted how gender-stereotyped versus flexible their children's gender beliefs and preferences were (Katz & Boswell, 1986). However, children's choices of media role models and their perceptions of peer attitudes predicted even more strongly their sex-typed preferences, and this was especially so for boys.

Lower and working class children tend to have more rigid stereotypes about gender than do middle and upper-middle class children (Lackey, 1989; Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993). One reason may be that social class is correlated with education, and educated parents tend to have more liberal attitudes about gender roles. Furthermore, higher class and more educated women are more likely to work in high status occupations, and children learn that women can in fact be doctors, lawyers, and executives when they see their own mothers in such roles (Marantz & Mansfield, 1977). Finally, educated and higher class fathers may be more likely to pitch in with child care. One study found that when fathers participated in child care, their 4-year-old daughters tended to have weaker gender stereotypes (Baruch & Barnett, 1981). Another study found that when their fathers engaged in feminine domestic tasks at home, their 2-to 3-year-old children were less likely to accurately classify people by gender (Weinraub et al, 1984).