Gender Development - Becoming Gendered: Biological and Social Factors

The Psychology of Sex and Gender - Jennifer Katherine Bosson, Joseph Alan Vandello, Camille E. Buckner 2022

Gender Development
Becoming Gendered: Biological and Social Factors

David Stocker and Kathy Witterick are raising their three children, Jazz, Storm, and Kio, using a gender-creative approach.

Source: Getty Images / Bernard Weil / Contributor

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 4.1 Parents are generally accurate in their perceptions of sex differences in their infants’ physical abilities.

· 4.2 By calling attention to the sex binary in the classroom (e.g., referring to “girls and boys” rather than “children”), teachers can increase children’s gender stereotyping.

· 4.3 Children who display cross-sex play preferences in childhood (e.g., girls who prefer rough-and-tumble play and boys who prefer dolls) are more likely than other children to identify as gay or lesbian later in life.

· 4.4 In general, children’s levels of conflict with parents tend to be highest in early childhood and then decline by adolescence.

· 4.5 As people enter middle and late adulthood, gender becomes a less central part of the self.


How Central Are Sex and Gender in Early Development?

What Are the Major Theoretical Approaches to Gender Development?

· Social Learning Theories and Sources of Socialization

o Parents and Siblings

o Teachers and Peers

o Media

o Debate: Should Toys Be Marketed as Gender Neutral?

· Cognitive Theories

o Cognitive-Developmental Theory

o Gender Schema Theory

o Developmental Intergroup Theory

o Gender Self-Socialization Model

· Evaluating Social Learning and Cognitive Theories

What Are the Experiences of Gender-Nonconforming Children?

· Biological and Social Contributions to Gender Nonconformity

· Nonconforming Identities and Milestones

How Do Sex and Gender Shape Development in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood?

· Puberty and the Transition to Young Adulthood

· Relationships With Parents

· Friendship, Dating, and Social Networking

· Gendered Self-Views Across Time and Cultures

How Do Sex and Gender Shape Development in Middle and Later Adulthood?

· Cultural Ideals of Womanhood and Manhood

· Gendered Self-Views

· Women’s Gender Advantage?

· The Double Standard of Aging


Students who read this chapter should be able to do the following:

· 4.1 Explain how gender stereotypes influence expectant parents and early child development.

· 4.2 Differentiate social learning and cognitive theories of gender development.

· 4.3 Describe the experiences of gender-nonconforming children and the factors underlying gender nonconformity in childhood.

· 4.4 Explain how sex and gender influence biological, social, and identity changes in adolescence and emerging adulthood.

· 4.5 Evaluate how cultural ideals and gender shape people’s experiences in middle and late adulthood.


Canadian parents David Stocker and Kathy Witterick made international news in 2011 when they decided to raise their baby, Storm, in a gender-neutral (or, in their preferred terms, a gender-creative) way. Though they knew Storm’s assigned sex at birth, David and Kathy did not publicly disclose this information. Instead, just as they did with Storm’s older siblings, Jazz and Kio, they allowed Storm to select the gender identity that felt right. To explain their choice to friends and family, David and Kathy sent an e-mail: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now—a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).” This decision elicited strong opinions from others. Friends criticized David and Kathy, worried that Storm would be bullied. Some strangers sent angry letters or accused them of child abuse; still others rallied around Storm’s family, offering them support and encouragement. Several years after the story first made headlines, a follow-up story revealed that Storm identifies as a girl (Botelho-Urbanski, 2016). For their part, David and Kathy remain happy with their decision to allow their children to choose their gender. Some credit them with sparking a gender-creative parenting (GCP) movement, in which parents increasingly allow their children opportunities for gender self-determination (Vooris, 2018). This is evident in the popularity of blogs such as Raising Zoomer ( and hashtags (e.g., #theybies) that address gender-creative parenting.

Why do some people have such strong, negative reactions to gender-creative parenting? What effects might this parenting approach have on children like Storm? It is difficult to pinpoint the psychological effects of raising a child in a gender-creative way because there are so few examples of it. One common concern is that children raised in this manner will be confused about their gender identity later in life. However, given that most transgender, nonbinary, and agender people are initially socialized in a gender-typical way that matches their assigned sex, such concerns are probably unwarranted. Just as being socialized to adopt a given gender identity cannot ensure that such adoption will occur, being allowed to discover one’s own gender identity does not necessarily produce confusion. As you read in Chapter 3 (“The Nature and Nurture of Sex and Gender”), biological and social factors interact in complex ways to produce gender identity, and we lack evidence that parenting can successfully override children’s sense of their gender.

This chapter addresses how people come to be gendered beings, from birth through adulthood. What role does gender play in shaping infants, children, adolescents, and adults? Socialization is a big part of the picture, but so is the child’s maturing brain, which allows increasingly sophisticated attempts to understand the world through the lens of gender. Often, developmental psychology focuses on changes that occur during childhood, but gender development does not end with childhood. In this chapter, we will consider the role of gender in people’s behaviors, relationships, and self-views throughout life.


Let’s face it: As cute as newborn babies are, they are pretty nondescript. In infancy, clad only in a diaper, most infants are similar in size and appearance, have few distinguishing traits, and spend most of their time sleeping, crying, or sucking on things. Despite this, parents attribute all sorts of unique qualities to their newborns, and sex is one of the main cues that they use. Parents often project gender onto their infants with proclamations such as “What a strong grip he has!” and “She’s got such delicate features!” In one study from the early 1970s, researchers asked 30 pairs of parents to rate their newborn infants on adjectives like “strong versus weak” and “small versus large.” The researchers also measured the babies on various physical characteristics and found no sex differences. Although the male and female babies were physically indistinguishable, their parents rated them differently. Parents of boys rated their babies as stronger, larger, more alert, and more coordinated than did parents of girls (J. Z. Rubin, Provenzano, & Luria, 1974). This study was replicated in the 1990s, with similar results (Karraker, Vogel, & Lake, 1995). Thus, parents engage in gender stereotyping shortly after the birth of their infants. In doing so, parents help to create gender, not only in a social sense but in a biological sense as well: As you may recall from Chapter 3, the gendered actions that parents encourage from children can shape children’s brain development (Eliot, 2009).

Gender reveal parties have grown increasingly common in the United States and other Western nations. What do you think of this practice? Are they just harmless fun, or do they reinforce the gender binary and promote gender stereotypes?

Source: ©

Even before birth, a child’s sex is often of central importance. Expectant parents often wish to know the sex of a child so they can pick out gender-typical clothes, decorate the infant’s room, and select names. Most cultures have folk wisdoms about determining the sex of a fetus, such as consulting the Chinese lunar calendar or dangling a ring on a chain over the pregnant woman’s belly and observing how it swings. When a new child arrives, acquaintances most commonly ask about the baby’s sex. Today, it is becoming more common for parents to throw a “gender reveal” party during which they disclose and then celebrate their child’s sex with friends and family. In contrast, parents of intersex children report feeling at a loss for how to describe their newborn without being able to use the language of the sex/gender binary (Gough, Weyman, Alderson, Butler, & Stoner, 2008).

Not only does assigned sex influence the way adults and others socialize children, but sex and gender are also important schemas that children use to organize and make sense of their worlds. Sex is the first social category that infants recognize, as early as 3 months of age (P. C. Quinn, Yahr, Kuhn, Slater, & Pascalis, 2002), and by age 2, some toddlers make associations between people’s sex and the gender-typed activities that they perform (Poulin-Dubois & Serbin, 2006). Children also tend to place a lot of importance on their own gender, viewing their gender identity as more important to their sense of self than other identities such as race (Rogers & Meltzoff, 2017). In this chapter, we will consider gender development from a number of theoretical perspectives, some of which emphasize external forces that socialize children into gendered beings, and some of which emphasize children’s changing cognitive understanding of the world and themselves. Since we addressed biological influences thoroughly in the previous chapter, our primary focus in this chapter is on sociocultural influences.


Major theories of gender development fall into two broad categories: social learning theories and cognitive theories. To a large degree, both types of theories address a set of common questions about how children acquire gendered beliefs and preferences. For instance, they both address the acquisition of gender identity (the sense of belonging to a sex category), gender stereotypes (beliefs about the qualities associated with people of different sexes), gendered self-views (beliefs about one’s own male-typed and female-typed traits), gender roles (sets of behaviors associated with gender), gender preferences (such as toy and play activity preferences), and gender-based prejudices (positive or negative feelings about people of different sexes). These theories differ, however, in their assumptions about how gender development unfolds and which factors drive it. Social learning theories emphasize how external factors, such as socialization agents (e.g., parents, peers, the media), shape children’s gender development, while cognitive theories emphasize how children’s growing cognitive abilities lead them to develop gender. In this section, we cover the main points of several social learning and cognitive theories (see Table 4.1 for a summary).

Social learning theories Theories proposing that children learn gendered beliefs, behavior, and preferences by observing and imitating models and by receiving reinforcement and punishment from others.

Cognitive theories Theories proposing that children learn gender by progressing through a series of increasingly sophisticated cognitive stages, and that the emergence of sex-typed cognitions causes children to learn sex-typed behaviors and preferences.

Table 4.1


In one of the earliest influential theories of gender development, Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stage theory, Freud proposed that children identify with and model themselves after their same-sex parent as a means of resolving unconscious anxieties about sexual urges, resentment and jealousy, and punishment concerns. Karen Horney, a psychoanalytic theorist and contemporary of Freud’s, challenged some of his ideas about gender. For instance, Freud proposed that young girls develop penis envy when they discover that they lack a penis, and this envy contributes to the unconscious anxiety that they must resolve through identification with the mother. In contrast, Horney proposed that girls do not desire a penis per se, but instead they desire what the penis symbolizes: greater social status for men than women. Horney further proposed that boys experience womb envy, or jealousy of women’s ability to bear children. To compensate for this lack, boys and men strive to achieve in other realms, which explains why achievement is so central to the male gender role. While some credit Horney as the founder of feminist psychology (Paris, 1994) and regard Freud as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, many aspects of psychoanalytic theory do not hold up to empirical scrutiny.

Social Learning Theories and Sources of Socialization

Social learning theories of gender development grew out of behaviorist learning theories that dominated psychology in the first half of the 20th century and emphasized direct learning through reward and punishment and indirect learning through observation and imitation of others. Walter Mischel (1966), the first theorist to apply social learning theory to gender development, defined sex typing as the processes by which individuals acquire gendered behavior patterns. According to social learning theory, some behaviors elicit different patterns of reward and punishment for children of different sexes. For example, a boy might observe his father roughhousing with his brother, imitate this rowdy behavior, and receive praise from his parents. In contrast, a girl might be ignored or even reprimanded for the same rough behavior. Children learn which behaviors are associated with their sex through these processes of observation, imitation, reinforcement, and punishment. Reinforcement is any response following a behavior that increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Conversely, punishment is any response that decreases the likelihood of a behavior recurring. Reinforcement and punishment can be obvious things, such as praise or a smack on the hand, but they can also be quite subtle: A simple smile can communicate that a certain behavior is desired, while withdrawing attention can serve as an effective punishment. Importantly, social learning theories posit that behaviors and the rewards they elicit cause children to develop gender beliefs and preferences. That is, a child observes that he receives rewards for doing “boy things” and concludes that he must be a boy (C. L. Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002). Of course, children typically have many models to observe and imitate and many sources of rewards and punishments for their behavior. In the following sections, we outline several major socialization agents, including those within the family (parents and siblings) as well those outside the family (teachers, peers, and the media).

Sex typing In social learning theories, the processes by which individuals acquire gendered behavior patterns.

Reinforcement Any response following a behavior that increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.

Punishment Any response following a behavior that decreases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.

Parents and Siblings

Parents, often as the first major source of socialization for children, teach gender to children in several ways. First, parents serve as models of expected gender roles and behaviors. For example, parents’ attitudes about gender roles predict their children’s gender role attitudes. However, an even better predictor of children’s attitudes about gender roles is their parents’ actual behaviors—how they actually divide household and childcare tasks, or how much they engage in paid work versus staying at home (Halpern & Perry-Jenkins, 2016; Platt & Polavieja, 2016). Children of fathers who are actively involved in childcare tend to hold less traditional gender stereotypes, presumably because their fathers model nurturing as well as agentic behaviors (Deutsch, Servis, & Payne, 2001). Similarly, children raised by lesbian parents endorse less traditional gender stereotypes than children raised by heterosexual parents, partly due to exposure to less gender-typical homes (Sutfin, Fulcher, Bowles, & Patterson, 2008).

Second, parents are an important source of reward and punishment in children’s gender socialization. Although a recent meta-analysis of 126 studies conducted in largely Western countries found that parents treated boys and girls very similarly overall (Endendijk, Groeneveld, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Mesman, 2016), one exception may be when it comes to encouraging sex-typical preferences and activities (Lytton & Romney, 1991; Yu et al., 2017). Despite increases in gender-creative parenting, which you read about in the chapter opener, the tendency for parents to encourage and reinforce young children’s gendered interests through room décor, clothing, toys, and play activities remains robust. For example, MacPhee and Prendergast (2019) found that the bedroom furnishings and toys of middle-class preschoolers remain nearly as gender-typed today as they were over four decades ago. In older children, parents encourage sex-typical behavior by directing sons and daughters toward different types of activities and academic interests and by allocating household chores differentially (McHale, Crouter, & Whiteman, 2003). In fact, in a trend observed across cultures, early adolescent girls spend substantially more time than boys performing household chores such as cleaning and cooking (Rees, 2017).

Interestingly, parents generally allow boys less flexibility than girls to pursue cross-sex behavior, or behavior associated with a sex other than one’s own (Spivey, Huebner, & Diamond, 2018; Yu et al., 2017). Moreover, heterosexual fathers, as compared with other parents, tend to be less tolerant of female-typed activities in sons. In a classic illustration of this, Judith Langlois and Chris Downs (1980) had children engage in both sex-typical and cross-sex play activities while either their mother or their father watched. When boys did sex-typical play (e.g., playing with toy trucks and dressing in a firefighter’s uniform), fathers got on the floor and played with them, giving them lots of reinforcement. In contrast, when boys did cross-sex play (e.g., playing with a tea set and dressing in a princess costume), fathers largely ignored them. By withdrawing attention, parents can give powerful messages about the sorts of activities and interests that children ought (and ought not) to have.

Cross-sex behavior Behavior that is strongly associated with a sex group other than one’s own.


What do you think would happen if Langlois and Downs’s (1980) study were replicated today? Would fathers show similar levels of disinterest in their sons’ cross-sex play? Why or why not?

What about same-sex parents? If parents are a source of children’s gender role development, does it make a difference what sex they are? Some people express concerns that the children of same-sex parents will have trouble developing a gender identity or that the lack of both male and female parents will deprive them of important gender role models. These fears appear unwarranted, however, as research consistently shows that gender identities, gender role behaviors, and sexual orientations develop in similar ways among children of gay and straight parents (Farr, Bruun, Doss, & Patterson, 2018; Fedewa, Black, & Ahn, 2015). In fact, evidence from studies conducted in both the United States and Europe indicates that, in comparison with children of heterosexual parents, children of same-sex parents do not differ in psychological adjustment or well-being (Patterson, 2006). One exception, noted earlier, is that children of lesbian parents tend to endorse fewer gender stereotypes than children raised by heterosexual parents (Sutfin et al., 2008).

A related question concerns the gender socialization of children raised in single-parent households. There is evidence that parents in single-parent families tend to socialize children in a more gender-egalitarian manner than parents in two-parent families, in part because single parents themselves often must adopt both male-typed (financial provider) and female-typed (caregiver) roles (Biblarz & Stacey, 2010). Overall, however, existing studies with proper controls do not show substantive differences in the gender development and well-being of children raised in single-parent versus two-parent households (Biblarz & Stacey, 2010). Studies that do reveal differences between these two groups of children often fail to control adequately for other confounding variables, such as financial resources, parental involvement, and family disruptions (e.g., divorce), that may account for the observed differences (Dunifon, 2009).

Children of lesbian parents tend to display less rigid gender stereotyping than children of heterosexual parents. This perhaps reflects their experiences of being socialized within a nontraditional family arrangement.

Source: ©

Note that parents not only influence children, but children influence parents as well. These patterns of mutual influence are called parent—child interactions, and they can take a couple of different forms (Pomerantz, Ng, & Wang, 2004). First, children’s temperaments can influence how parents treat them. For example, girls tend to respond better than boys do to gentle discipline, which can help to explain why parents use harsher discipline with sons than daughters. Second, even when parents treat male and female children similarly, children may respond differently to such treatment. For example, boys tend to be more reluctant than girls to accept socialization attempts from their parents. Although most research focuses on parents as socialization agents, gender socialization is a two-way street. Children may not have as much power as their parents do, but they can be active players in their own socialization.

Parent—child interaction A phenomenon in which a parent and child mutually influence one another and therefore jointly contribute to the child’s development.

Within the family, siblings also represent a daily source of gender messages for many children. Consider a child with older brothers versus older sisters. Would you expect the child to be exposed to different gender messages, have access to different types of toys, and observe different gender modeling? In one study, researchers examined more than 5,000 preschoolers—some with older brothers, some with older sisters, and some without siblings (Rust, Golombok, Hines, & Johnston, 2000). Girls with older sisters and boys with older brothers displayed the most traditionally sex-typical behaviors. Boys and girls with cross-sex older siblings displayed the least traditionally sex-typical behaviors, and children without siblings were somewhere in the middle. These patterns suggest that older siblings influence children’s gender role development. Of course, these data are correlational, and causation therefore cannot be determined, as you may remember from reading Chapter 2 (“Studying Sex and Gender”).

Aside from these different patterns of gender role socialization within the family, cultural differences exist in the extent to which parents and the wider culture value girls and boys. Some cultures in North Africa, South and East Asia, and the Middle East tend to value boys more because they carry on the family name and bring the economic benefits of a wife and her dowry into the family. In contrast, girls in these cultures may be viewed as an economic burden because their dowries will go to another family. These cultures sometimes show a male bias by giving boys better nutrition, health care, and educational opportunities; by selectively aborting female fetuses or killing or abandoning infant girls; and by selling young girls into marriage (Rafferty, 2013). Even in more gender-egalitarian nations, boys tend to receive preferential treatment when families’ economic resources are tight. For instance, among U.S. families with limited economic resources, sons are more likely than daughters to receive developmentally beneficial (but costly) activities, such as extra classes, lessons, and sports involvement (McHale et al., 2003).


In cultures that value sons over daughters, the practices of sex-selective abortion and infanticide can lead to skewed sex ratios (the numbers of men per woman in a population). For example, China implemented a one-child policy in 1980, which limited Chinese couples to having only one child. Because boys tend to be valued more than girls in China, the one-child policy resulted in disproportionate rates of abortion and infanticide of female infants. According to a 2014 report by UNICEF, the sex ratio at birth in China by 1982 was 109 male infants to 100 female infants (109:100), and this ratio rose to 118:100 by 2010. Economist Amartya Sen (1990) estimated that selective abortion and infanticide resulted in 100 million girls “missing” from the global population. A study conducted in 2016 indicated, however, that up to 25 million of these girls may be alive. In rural Chinese villages, where officials may have been reluctant or unable to strictly enforce the one-child policy, families often did not report the births of daughters and allowed them to remain unregistered until they were of marriage age (Shi & Kennedy, 2016). In 2015, the Chinese government ended its one-child policy, allowing Chinese couples to have two children. How do you think this will influence China’s sex ratio in the future?

Teachers and Peers

In many cultures, children spend hours at school each day, and teachers can thus have a substantial impact on gender development. Not only do teachers serve as models of gendered behavior, but they can also influence children’s adoption of gender stereotypes by drawing attention to binary sex categories. If teachers regularly use gendered language (e.g., by saying, “Good morning, boys and girls,” instead of “Good morning, children”) or draw attention to sex (e.g., lining children up according to sex), this can encourage children to endorse gender stereotypes more strongly and favor their own sex group over others. You’ll read more about this in the upcoming section on developmental intergroup theory.

Sex ratio The number of men per woman in a given population or locale.

With regard to peers, children’s peer and friendship circles tend to be quite sex segregated. Beginning at about age 3, most children show an increasing preference for peers and friends of their own sex and this lasts until about puberty (C. L. Martin & Ruble, 2004). By the age of about 5 or 6, children spend about 70%—75% of their unsupervised free time in the company of same-sex peers, with most of the rest of the time in mixed-sex groups. This pattern of sex segregation is observed among children of different races and ethnicities in the United States (Halim, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, & Shrout, 2013) and in cultures around the world (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). Interestingly, segregation by sex seems to be chosen and preferred by children. In school settings, even when teachers encourage mixed-sex play, children choose to spend most of their time with same-sex playmates (Fabes, Martin, & Hanish, 2003).

What role might sex segregation have in children’s gender socialization? Some posit that increasing exposure to same-sex peers as models, combined with reinforcement from such peers, ultimately leads children to adopt more sex-typical behavior and reduce their cross-sex behavior. Over time, peer socialization can produce sex differences in behavior, relationship styles, and even emotional expressions. To illustrate, a study that tracked children over a 1-year period found that girls who interacted more with same-sex peers showed increases in their expressions of sadness, and boys who interacted more with same-sex peers increased their expressions of anger (Lindsey, 2016). This suggests that peers act as socialization agents who teach one another sex-typical ways of expressing emotion. Since this kind of sex segregation operates in a binary system, with children sorting as either male or female, it can marginalize gender-nonconforming children and increase their chances of rejection, bullying, and harassment (McHugh, 2017).


Of course, children gain exposure via the media to many models beyond their families, teachers, and peers. Studies of children’s use of “screen time” (i.e., watching television shows and movies, playing video games, and using social media) show some alarming trends. According to Common Sense Media, young children (ages 0—8) in the United States average 2⅓ hours of screen time per day, children ages 8—12 average 4½ hours per day, and teenagers (ages 13—18) average over 6½ hours per day (Bhattacharjee, 2017). In the United States, television viewing constitutes the largest category of media use among children of all ages, and other types of media use reveal some sex differences. For example, boys tend to play more console video games than girls, whereas girls tend to use social media more frequently than boys.

Think about the many gender models that children see in cartoons, advertisements, books, fairy tales, movies, and games. What messages do children get from these media? One answer may be that what children don’t see is just as important as what they do see, and girls and women of all races and boys and men of color are relatively less visible in much of children’s media. Take books, for instance. In one analysis of over 5,600 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, 57% of main characters were male, while only 31% were female. By the 1990s, there was greater parity in gender representation, but male characters were still more common (McCabe, Fairchild, Grauerholz, Pescosolido, & Tope, 2011). In terms of race, in a sample of over 3,600 children’s and young adult books published in 2012, only about 7.5% featured African American, Asian American, Latinx, or Native American characters (Horning, Lindgren, & Schliesman, 2013). Children’s television shows reveal similar patterns. One study examined the contents of children’s fictional television programs in 24 countries around the world and found that only 32% of all lead characters were female while 68% were male (Götz et al., 2008). As shown in Figure 4.1, gender bias in favor of male main characters is even more pronounced when the characters are nonhuman animals, monsters, objects, and robots. Video games and coloring books also portray more male than female lead characters (M. C. R. Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007; Fitzpatrick & McPherson, 2010).

Beyond differences in the visibility of female and male characters, decades’ worth of research documents how children’s entertainment reinforces gender stereotypes. Television programs and advertisements often portray female characters in a sexualized manner and as having a thin body (APA Task Force, 2007; Götz et al., 2008). In contrast, they often portray male characters in more active and leadership roles than female characters (Götz et al., 2008; Kahlenberg & Hein, 2010). One notable change in portrayals of men in advertisements in recent years is the increase in men in “softer” roles, such as interacting with children (Grau & Zotos, 2016). Researchers know relatively little about children’s consumption of entertainment media in nonindustrialized and rural cultures, where there is less access to television, radio, and the Internet. How do you think cultural differences in access to media might influence the development of children’s gender stereotypes in industrialized versus nonindustrialized cultures?


Figure 4.1 Sex of Lead Characters in Children’s Television

Source: Götz et al. (2008).


Consider the ways in which children’s media portray female and male lead characters. How can we know whether gender representations in the media directly influence children’s gender development? What type of study would you have to conduct to test the hypothesis that gender images in children’s entertainment influence children’s gender development?

Another gender stereotype that is regularly modeled in the media regards toy preferences. As one of the strongest, most consistent sex differences in childhood, sex-typed toy preferences emerge across cultures. By age 2, girls tend to prefer playing with dolls and household objects, and boys prefer cars, trucks, and weapons (A. Campbell, Shirley, & Caygill, 2002). But how much of this reflects children’s natural preferences versus their exposure to media images and toy ads?

Although this is a difficult question to answer, evidence suggests that preferences for sex-typical toys emerge early in life, remain relatively stable as children age, and appear across a range of countries (Todd et al., 2018). Studies of infants often use a technique called preferential looking, which consists of showing infants two different things and examining how much time they spend looking at each one. Researchers find that infants as young as 3—8 months of age prefer looking at sex-typical toys over sex-atypical ones (G. M. Alexander, Wilcox, & Woods, 2009). Moreover, toy and play preferences have a moderate genetic component (Hines, 2013), and sex differences in toy preferences are not unique to humans: Rhesus monkeys, who obviously lack exposure to children’s entertainment media, display toy preferences based on sex that are similar to children’s preferences (Hassett, Siebert, & Wallen, 2008). Still, while children spend about 20% of their play time with sex-typical toys and only about 5% of play time with sex-atypical toys, most of their play time (75%) is spent with gender-neutral toys such as crayons and puzzles (Fagot, Rodgers, & Leinbach, 2000). Given that children seem to prefer gender-neutral toys over all other toys, why bother marketing toys for children in ways that can potentially reinforce gender stereotypes? We address this question in the debate titled “Should Toys Be Marketed as Gender Neutral?”

Preferential looking A method for determining preferences among preverbal infants that involves showing them two different objects or stimuli and examining how much time they spend looking at each one.


Walk into the toy section of a store, and you will likely find separate toy aisles for girls and boys. Now, step back, and look at the colors. In many toy sections, you will notice an explosion of pinks, lavenders, and pastels in some aisles and bright blues, blacks, and reds in other aisles. Some argue that gender-typed marketing of toys is unnecessary and even harmful because it perpetuates stereotypes that can ultimately lead to sex differences in competencies and occupational choices. Why limit children’s options by suggesting that only girls can play with dolls and only boys can play with toy cars?

In 2012, the United Kingdom launched a campaign entitled “Let Toys Be Toys” designed to pressure retailers and the publishing industry to stop gender-specific marketing of toys and books ( That same year, Europe’s largest toy company, Top-Toy, began advertising toys in a gender-neutral way (Molin, 2012). The ads show both boys and girls playing with beauty kits, girls holding toy guns and playing with cars, and boys pushing toy vacuums. In 2015, U.S. department store Target dropped gender-based labels and marketing in the toy aisles of their stores (Robinson, 2015). No longer are there “boys’ building sets” and “girls’ building sets” but simply “building sets.” Are these moves helpful correctives to unnecessary gender-based marketing, or are they simply a case of political correctness gone too far?


The consequences of gender-typed toy marketing can be great because playing with toys provides opportunities for children to develop important skills. For example, playing with construction and sports toys helps children develop spatial abilities and motor skills (Gold, Pendergast, Ormand, Budd, & Mueller, 2018), and playing with dolls helps them develop language skills through conversations and playacting (Orr & Geva, 2015). Given this, marketing toys as gender neutral might encourage children to play with both male-typed and female-typed toys, which could benefit them by increasing their range of skills and interests.

Furthermore, because of the plasticity of the brain, experiences with different types of toys can strengthen neural circuits while unused neural circuits tend to weaken (Eliot, 2009). In other words, a child who regularly plays with a building set will strengthen brain pathways that contribute to spatial skills and motor coordination, and one who plays with dolls may strengthen brain pathways that underlie verbal skills and relational competencies. Thus, marketing toys in a gender-typed manner can perpetuate sex differences that take root at the level of the brain’s architecture. Conversely, gender-neutral marketing may encourage brain growth in ways that can increase children’s life opportunities.


Some people question whether any of this matters. Sex differences in toy preferences show up early in life, consistently across cultures, and even in nonhuman primates (Hassett et al., 2008). These trends suggest that socialization, including exposure to gender-typed toy marketing, plays relatively little role in children’s toy choices.

Consider Lego. The wildly successful toy company enjoyed enormous growth in the first decade of the 21st century, but 91% of the children who bought Lego sets in the United States were boys, despite Lego’s history of gender-neutral advertising (Reddy, 2012). In an effort to expand the market to girls, Lego introduced “Lego Friends” in 2012, with sets marked by pastel colored cafés, beauty salons, and grocery stores, and figures that are taller, curvier, and more doll-like than the traditional, boxy Lego figures (Orenstein, 2011). These efforts paid off. The number of girls who played with Legos tripled by the end of 2012, and “Lego Friends” became the company’s fourth-best-selling toy line (C. Allen, 2014). In essence, by changing Lego from a “building set” toy to a toy that features dolls and interpersonal environments, Lego successfully attracted the little-girl market. If girls appreciate and use this product, is there anything inherently wrong with marketing it in a gendered way?

Is marketing a product as a “girl toy” or a “boy toy” a rational response to children’s already strong gendered toy preferences? Or does this type of marketing reinforce gender stereotypes? Which side of the debate seems more reasonable to you? Which evidence do you find most and least convincing? Why?

The “Lego Friends” toy characters (left) are marketed for girls. Compare them with the more traditional Lego figures (right), which are boxier and have less expressive faces.

Source: ©; Qrt / Alamy Stock Photo

Cognitive Theories

As you likely noticed, social learning theories focus on the external influences that contribute to children’s gender development, but they tell us very little about children’s internal worlds. What do children think about gender? How do they view themselves as gendered beings? These questions are the focus of cognitive theories, which address the mental changes that children undergo as they mature and develop increasingly sophisticated understandings of themselves and the world. As you will see, cognitive approaches treat children as active, curious perceivers of their social environments.

Cognitive-Developmental Theory

According to Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1966) cognitive-developmental theory, children’s understanding of gender progresses through three stages of increasing maturity. In the first stage, children develop gender identity, which he described as the ability to identify the self as a boy or a girl and to label others according to sex. Note that Kohlberg’s use of gender identity largely matches our use of this term elsewhere in this book, though it emphasizes a binary view of sex and specifically focuses on the cognitive aspect of gender identity. Most children develop gender identity by about age 2 to 3, and once they do, they begin to perform behaviors consistent with that sex in order to receive rewards for doing so. Notice that this is the opposite causal sequence from that proposed by social learning theorists: In social learning theory, being rewarded for sex-typical behavior leads children to develop gender identity; in cognitive-developmental theory, the emergence of gender identity causes children to perform sex-typical behavior.

The second stage of gender development, gender stability, usually occurs around the age of 4 or 5 and is signified by an understanding that sex remains invariant across time. To illustrate, a cisgender girl who has gender stability understands that she may be a “mommy” when she grows up but not a “daddy.” Finally, the third stage is gender constancy, which is the recognition that sex is (largely) fixed and does not change as a result of external, superficial features. Before children master gender constancy, they may think that a girl can turn into a boy by getting a short haircut, or a man can become a woman by wearing a dress. Most children master gender constancy by the age of 6 or 7. In support of cognitive-developmental theory, longitudinal studies show that children who enter the gender identity stage earlier tend later to show stronger sex-typical preferences and gender stereotypes (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). More generally, the idea that children’s cognitions about sex and gender precede and guide their gender stereotypes, preferences, and behaviors remains a hallmark of cognitive gender theories.

Gender stability The understanding that sex remains (largely) invariant across time.

Gender constancy The recognition that sex is (largely) fixed and does not change as a result of external, superficial features.

Gender Schema Theory

Gender schema theory proposes that gender schemas—mental networks of information about gender—guide how people interpret, process, and remember new gender-relevant information (Bem, 1981). As soon as children can identify their own sex and that of others, they begin to build a schema for gender by seeking out additional information about gendered traits, behaviors, and roles. For instance, a child might see that her mother usually does the laundry and therefore assimilate into her gender schema the belief that “laundry is a female behavior.” Moreover, as children learn the traits, behaviors, and roles associated with gender, they incorporate these into their self-concepts to varying degrees, which can help explain how people come to develop gendered self-views.

Gender schema A mental model about gender, based on prior learning and experience, that guides how people interpret, process, and remember new gender-relevant information.

Self-concept The entire set of an individual’s beliefs, feelings, and knowledge about the self.

As noted, gender schemas influence how people interpret and remember gender-relevant information. One meta-analysis found that girls were more likely than boys to remember items depicting feminine activities and objects (d = −0.35), whereas boys were more likely than girls to remember items depicting masculine activities and objects (d = 0.34; Signorella, Bigler, & Liben, 1997). Children rely on gender schemas to guide their personal preferences as well. In one study, researchers offered preschool children gender-neutral toys, like magnets and flip books, and initially noted no sex differences in the children’s toy preferences. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers presented another group of children with the same toys but placed half of them in a box labeled “Girls” and half in a box labeled “Boys.” Under these conditions, girls and boys preferred the toys in the “sex-appropriate” box over the toys in the “sex-inappropriate” box. Moreover, children generalized these preferences beyond themselves by assuming that other children of their sex would also prefer the same toys that they did (C. L. Martin, Eisenbud, & Rose, 1995). This illustrates how gender schemas allow children to go beyond the information that is given and make inferences about other people based on gender.

One interesting contribution of gender schema theory is the notion that people differ reliably in how much they use gender schemas to process information about the world. Sandra Bem (1983) proposed that people who rely on gender schematic processing are especially likely to notice gender and use it as a way of understanding and organizing the world. In contrast, those who do not use gender as a dimension for interpreting the world are referred to as gender aschematic. For instance, one study conducted with Chinese students found that exposure to male and female faces activated gender stereotypes and allowed faster processing of gender-relevant trait information for gender schematic individuals. In contrast, gender aschematic individuals did not differ in how quickly they processed gender-relevant trait information after exposure to male and female faces. This suggests that the sight of the faces did not activate gender stereotypes for gender aschematic individuals (Yan, Wang, & Zhang, 2012).

Gender schematic Having a tendency to use gender as a salient schema for understanding the world.

Gender aschematic Lacking the tendency to use gender as a salient schema for understanding the world.


Are you more gender schematic or aschematic? What are the pros and cons of being gender schematic and of being gender aschematic? If you had a child, would you rather they become gender schematic or aschematic? Why?

Developmental Intergroup Theory

Developmental intergroup theory is a variant of gender schema theory that emphasizes how groups shape the formation of gender stereotypes and prejudices in children (Bigler & Liben, 2007). The theory assumes that individuals tend to appraise groups positively as soon as they identify with the group (or, in gendered terms, as soon as they form a gender identity). Though true of any social group, this is particularly true for salient and meaningful groups, and sex is one such group. Appearance differences between boys and girls make sex a salient category, and authority figures regularly make sex groupings meaningful for children by forming separate lines for boys and girls, segregating teams or clubs by sex, building separate male and female bathrooms, and so on. As children observe adults’ pervasive tendency to divide the world based on sex, they develop the belief that there must be inherent, natural differences between male and female people. This paves the way for children to develop gender stereotypes and gender-based prejudices, most notably in-group bias (favoritism for one’s own sex group over other sex groups).

In-group bias Favoritism for one’s own social group over other groups.

Thus, adults can influence children’s gender stereotypes and in-group biases by making sex more (or less) salient as a grouping dimension. In a quasi-experimental demonstration of this, teachers of two preschool classes made sex either more or less salient over a period of 2 weeks (Hilliard & Liben, 2010). In one classroom, teachers made sex salient by organizing play and educational activities by sex, lining children up by sex, and using gender-specific language (e.g., “I need a girl to pass out the markers”). In another classroom, teachers avoided sex-based organization of activities and gendered language. The researchers measured children’s gender stereotypes and their in-group bias both before and after the 2-week period and observed striking differences between the classes. In the classroom where teachers made sex salient, children engaged in more gender stereotyping, displayed more in-group bias, and played less with other-sex peers (see Figure 4.2). Importantly, the effects remained several weeks later when the researchers returned for follow-up testing. This suggests that children’s gender stereotypes and in-group bias can be increased or decreased by the amount of labeling that teachers use, even in a relatively short amount of time.

Gender Self-Socialization Model

The gender self-socialization model integrates assumptions from other cognitive approaches and focuses on the dynamic links among gender identity, gender stereotypes, and gendered self-views (Tobin et al., 2010). The model proposes that children form three sets of cognitive associations about gender: those that connect the self to a sex group (gender identity), those that connect sex groups to traits (gender stereotypes), and those that connect the self to traits (gendered self-views). These associations vary in strength from one person to another, depending on how strongly they are learned and reinforced. Moreover, each association is influenced by the other two associations because of people’s need for cognitive consistency among their beliefs. Thus, for instance, children who identify more strongly with their sex (e.g., “I am a girl”) and endorse gender stereotypes more strongly (e.g., “Girls are friendly”) will be especially likely to develop gendered self-views (e.g., “I am friendly”). While provocative, this model is relatively new and has not undergone as much empirical testing as other cognitive development theories have.

Evaluating Social Learning and Cognitive Theories

Social learning theories make a compelling case for the influence of parents, siblings, teachers, peers, and the media in children’s gender socialization. However, these approaches have been criticized for treating children as somewhat passive recipients of environmental influences and for ignoring how children think about gender. In contrast, cognitive approaches emphasize how children strive actively to make sense of the world, selectively attending to (and ignoring) information depending on its relevance to them. Of course, cognitive perspectives can be criticized for de-emphasizing the role of the external world—and particularly the role of culture—in gender development. So, which is it? Do children develop gender because they imitate others and receive reinforcement? Or do children develop gender because their beliefs guide their actions and their interpretations of the world? The evidence suggests that both processes are at work. Liben’s (2017) constructivist-ecological perspective underscores this point. According to this model, gender development occurs through a complex and dynamic interaction between children and their surrounding environments. Thus, children develop gender schemas based, in part, on observation of and interaction with others in specific environmental contexts, and they use their schemas as guides in their own gender-relevant behavior and responses. Each of these processes actively shapes and reinforces the other.

Constructivist-ecological perspective A model asserting that gender development occurs through a dynamic and reciprocal interaction between children and their surrounding contexts.


Figure 4.2 Children’s Gender Stereotyping

Source: Hilliard and Liben (2010).

Note: Higher scores indicate less stereotype endorsement. Children’s gender stereotyping was assessed both before and after a 2-week period during which their teachers either did (high-salience condition) or did not (low-salience condition) call attention to binary sex. The gender stereotype measure assesses children’s tendency to say that “both women and men” should do various male-typed (e.g., be a firefighter) and female-typed (e.g., be a dancer) activities and occupations; higher scores mean less stereotyped responding.


Thus far, we have focused on typical gender development. However, not all children fit into the sex binary or display sex-typical interests and behaviors. Psychologists tend to study two forms of gender nonconformity in childhood. First, some children display cross-sex behavior, such as play preferences that deviate from traditional expectations. Examples of such children might be girls who prefer rough-and-tumble play or boys who prefer dress-up games. Second, some children display a gender identity that is at odds with the sex they are assigned at birth. These children might be transgender or nonbinary. While research that assesses transgender and nonbinary children and youth does exist, it is not common. Most developmental psychologists who study gender tend to focus on children who fit cleanly into the sex and gender binaries. For this reason, some developmental psychologists are calling for more research on the experiences of transgender and intersex children, as well as multiracial children, in order to develop more inclusive theories (Dunham & Olson, 2016).

Biological and Social Contributions to Gender Nonconformity

As discussed in the previous sections, powerful social and cognitive factors encourage children to adopt gender-typical roles, traits, and interests. If gender nonconformity goes against the normative messages that children receive, why does it occur? Genes and biology likely play some role. For instance, both cross-sex play preferences and gender identity (as cisgender versus transgender) are moderately genetically heritable (M. J. Bailey & Zucker, 1995; M. Diamond, 2013). Moreover, adolescents who identify as lesbian or gay at age 15 are much more likely than their heterosexual peers to display cross-sex play preferences between the ages of 2 and 5, and the effect sizes are large for both girls (d = 0.9) and boys (d = 1.2; G. Li, Kung, & Hines, 2017). This suggests that genes that code for childhood play preferences may also code for sexual orientation. However, biological factors only account for some of the variance in gender nonconformity, indicating that social factors must play a role. What might these social factors be?

Parents are an obvious candidate since they do vary in how much gender nonconformity they tolerate in children. Think of the decision by David and Kathy Stocker-Witterick, described in the chapter opener, to allow their children to choose their own gender identities freely. While Storm identifies as a girl, her oldest sibling, Jazz, identifies as a transgender girl, and Kio identifies as nonbinary (Botelho-Urbanski, 2016). This raises the question: Had they been raised in a more traditional manner, would the Stocker-Witterick children display less gender nonconformity? Or alternatively, would the expression of their gender nonconformity merely have been delayed until a later stage of life? While it is not possible to answer these questions conclusively, we know that parenting by itself cannot prevent people from displaying gender nonconformity. Among a sample of transgender adults, 56% of transwomen and 20% of transmen reported that their parents did not tolerate any cross-sex identity expression in childhood (M. Diamond, 2013), and yet, they developed a transgender identity nonetheless.

Rather than attempting to identify the precise social factors that predict childhood gender nonconformity, Milton Diamond’s (2006) biased-interaction theory addresses the broad question of how people come to think of themselves as male, female, or outside the binary. This theory begins with the assumption that biological factors, including chromosomes and prenatal hormones, predispose individuals to display temperaments and tendencies that are classified by societies as “masculine” or “feminine.” However, natural variance exists in the degree to which biological factors translate into masculine versus feminine tendencies, and some children’s tendencies do not align with their biological sex. Once sex is assigned at birth, social contexts—such as family, society, and media—offer the developing child a rich body of information about the typical traits, preferences, and attitudes of male and female individuals. Early in life, children begin to assess their similarity to others around them by comparing their internal sense of self—their own likes and dislikes, attitudes, and preferences—to those of “girls” and “boys,” which are often the only two options shown. Gender identity emerges from this comparison of self with others: The majority of individuals initially view themselves as similar to others of their sex and accordingly develop a cisgender identity. In contrast, some perceive themselves as “different” from their sex, gradually distance themselves cognitively and emotionally from that group, and align themselves instead with the group to which they feel most similar (or, in some cases, they align with no gender group). Thus, this theory defines the social factors that shape gender identity as the entire body of gender-relevant information that children use as bases of self—other comparisons. Moreover, it captures the early childhood experiences of gender-nonconforming individuals, who often recall feeling “different” from others of their assigned sex early in life. Consider this childhood memory recalled by a transwoman: “I found a pic in a catalogue. I felt it would be really good to be able to dress and look like that. I took the catalogue to my mum … and asked her if I could have it. She said I couldn’t because I was a boy and this was for girls” (Riley, Clemson, Sitharthan, & Diamond, 2013, p. 249). According to biased-interaction theory, this brief exchange is one of many experiences that teaches the child, over time, that “I am not like boys” and “I am like girls.”


Consider this mother—child exchange from the perspectives of both social learning and cognitive theories. What gender identity outcome might a social learning theorist expect based on this parent—child interaction? What gender identity outcome might a cognitive theorist expect? Do social learning and cognitive theories do a good job of explaining the emergence of transgender identity? Why or why not?

Nonconforming Identities and Milestones

Some people express skepticism of the idea that prepubertal children can have a stable transgender identity and believe instead that these children are likely confused or playacting. To examine this issue, Kristina Olson and her colleagues studied the gender identities of 32 binary transgender children between the ages of 5 and 12 (Olson, Key, & Eaton, 2015). They also recruited an age-matched sample of cisgender children to use as a comparison group. To measure the children’s gender identities, Olson and colleagues used self-report and implicit (indirect) measures. On self-report measures, transgender children and their cisgender peers did not differ significantly: Transgender girls reported similar toy, food, and play preferences as cisgender girls, and transgender boys’ preferences resembled those of cisgender boys. Likewise, the indirect measures revealed similar responses between transgender and cisgender children. Indirect measures capture automatic responses over which people do not have full conscious control. For example, the Implicit Association Test—a reaction time test that measures how strongly different concepts are associated in memory—revealed that transgender children associate themselves just as strongly as cisgender children do with concepts that match their gender identity (i.e., pictures of girls or boys). Transgender and cisgender children also distance themselves equally strongly from concepts that do not match their gender identity. In short, these findings suggest that binary transgender children are not confused or pretending to be another sex but, in fact, genuinely identify as members of a sex group that does not match their assigned sex.

However, a great deal of variety exists in how transgender and nonbinary individuals experience the development of their gender identity. The study conducted by Olson and her colleagues examined the responses of children who presented as binary transgender early in life (Olson et al., 2015). This suggests that by young childhood, some transgender children have a clear and consistent sense of themselves as belonging to a sex group that differs from their assigned sex. Other transgender people, however, take longer to realize that their initial gender identity and assigned sex do not match. They might feel a sense of unhappiness whose source they cannot identify until they encounter other transgender people in adolescence or adulthood. Still others might temporarily adopt an identity as gay or lesbian as they strive to understand themselves but ultimately realize that this does not “fit.” These differences in transgender people’s development may reflect diverse factors, such as their family, religious, and cultural backgrounds; their race and ethnicity; and even the historical time in which they live. For instance, people who grow up with access to the Internet can encounter other transgender people at a much younger age relative to people from previous generations or to those who lack Internet access. To capture this variety, Beemyn and Rankin (2011) proposed a “milestone” model of transgender identity development based on interviews with almost 3,500 transgender adults in the United States (see Table 4.2). This model captures several of the major turning points reported by transwomen and transmen in their gender identity development. However, note that not all transgender people experience all of these milestones, and people may go through them in different orders.

As shown in Table 4.2, transgender individuals often recall a time in their childhood when they hid their feelings of difference in order to avoid hostility and rejection from others. Perhaps not surprisingly, treatment of gender-nonconforming children within families varies widely, depending on personal, cultural, and religious attitudes. Gender-nonconforming children whose parents reject or abuse them have a substantially increased risk for depression, attempted suicide, drug and substance use, and risky sex behavior (Simons, Schrager, Clark, Belzer, & Olson, 2013). Among peers, gender-nonconforming children and youth experience increased risk for all sorts of harassment, including threats, rejection, and verbal and physical abuse (Kosciw, Diaz, & Greytak, 2008). Gender-nonconforming boys, in particular, experience especially high rates of rejection and bullying from peers (Pauletti, Cooper, & Perry, 2014) and more negative stereotyping from adults (Sullivan, Moss-Racusin, Lopez, & Williams, 2018). We will return to these issues in Chapter 6 (“Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”) and Chapter 13 (“Gender and Psychological Health”).

Table 4.2

Based on interviews with thousands of transgender and gender-nonconforming adults, this model describes important milestones that many binary transgender people experience as their gender identity develops. Note that not all transgender people experience all of these milestones, and they may experience them in different orders and at different ages.

Source: Adapted from Beemyn and Rankin (2011).


What are the best ways for sexual minority adolescents to cope with the stresses of bullying, rejection, and stigma? One study asked White and Latinx LGB young adults to recall how they dealt with difficulties related to their sexual orientation between the ages of 13 and 19. Three types of coping strategies emerged: (1) Seeking social support from LGB-specific groups or services; (2) looking for alternative friends and living situations; and (3) using cognitive strategies such as imagining a better future or trying not to think about it. Of these three coping strategies, getting involved in LGB-specific groups and organizations was related to higher self-esteem and life satisfaction, less depression, and better academic outcomes. In contrast, seeking alternatives and using cognitive strategies were both associated with lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, and more depression (Toomey, Ryan, Diaz, & Russell, 2018). What do you make of these correlational findings? Why do you think LGB youths who get involved have better outcomes?


As we have discussed, gender socialization in childhood typically results in children adopting a gender identity and gendered self-views, developing a gender schema, and learning gender stereotypes. Moreover, children often display sex-typed play activities, interests, and emotional expressions. Still, girls and boys are fairly similar to each other, both physically and cognitively, until adolescence. With the onset of puberty, young women and men diverge physically and, in some ways, psychologically. In addition, sources of gender socialization shift during this phase as adolescents become more autonomous. While parental gender socialization may decline in adolescence and young adulthood, the influence of peers and media grows.

Puberty and the Transition to Young Adulthood

Puberty consists of a series of biological changes typically including the development of secondary sex characteristics, such as an Adam’s apple and facial hair in young men, enlarged breasts in young women, and pubic hair. It also involves the onset of menstruation in young women and the production of sperm in young men. On average, girls enter puberty about 2 years earlier than boys, but there are differences within sex in age of pubertal onset, and these age differences predict certain psychological and behavioral outcomes. One consistent finding is that, in Western cultures, early puberty relates to more negative outcomes among girls—White girls, in particular—than among boys (Copeland, Worthman, Shanahan, Costello, & Angold, 2019; McGuire, McCormick, Koch, & Mendle, 2019). Some girls who enter puberty earlier have a more negative body image and an increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and risky behavior such as alcohol and drug use, smoking, vandalism, and sexual activity. This may occur because early maturation sets young women apart from their same-age peers and activates physical changes (e.g., in breast and hip development) for which they may not be emotionally ready. Moreover, their physical (if not emotional) readiness for sexual activity may encourage early maturing girls to spend more time with older male peers, which can increase their access to alcohol, drugs, and sexual partners. The research is mixed on whether these patterns associated with early maturity apply similarly to adolescents across different races and ethnicities. While some studies find that early maturing Black and Latina girls experience the same depression and body image symptoms as early maturing White girls, other studies find no evidence of negative psychological outcomes for early maturing Black and Latina girls (Mendle, Turkheimer, & Emery, 2007).

The relationship between early puberty and negative outcomes is less consistent for boys than for girls, although early maturing boys do experience a heightened risk for antisocial behaviors, mood disturbances, and early sexual activity (Mendle & Ferrero, 2012). Still, early maturing boys experience some benefits that early maturing girls do not. For instance, such young men often are more popular and have higher self-esteem than late maturing boys. Early maturing boys also tend to have a more positive body image than late maturing boys, partly because puberty brings about increases in height and muscle mass that promote athletic competence (Weichold, Silbereisen, & Schmitt-Rodermund, 2003).

A young Ethiopian man from an Omo Valley tribe performs the bull jumping ceremony as a rite of passage into manhood.

Source: ©

Regardless of the specific age at which young people enter puberty, many cultures consider puberty an important life transition, celebrating it with formal rites of passage. For instance, among the Sateré-Mawé of Amazonian Brazil, pubertal boys become men by sticking their hand into a glove full of painful, stinging ants (Hogue, 1987). In the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, young men prove their manhood and readiness for marriage by running naked across the backs of bulls (Forssman, 2015). Malawian girls take part in an initiation ceremony, often involving singing and dancing, at the onset of menstruation (Munthali & Zulu, 2007), and Latina girls across the Americas have a fiesta de quinceañera to celebrate their 15th birthday (Stavans, 2010). Formal rites of passage to adulthood tend to be less common in Western, industrialized countries, so how do people in these cultures know when they are adults? Given that there is no single milestone, people rely on different symbolic events to mark the transition. These include biological changes (e.g., menstruation and reaching the age of 18 or 21), role transitions (e.g., getting married and moving out of their parents’ house), and developing family capacities (e.g., being able to support and care for a family; L. J. Nelson et al., 2007).


One early hypothesis, the gender intensification hypothesis, proposed that gender socialization pressures increase during adolescence as children prepare for the social roles that they are most likely to perform in adulthood (J. P. Hill & Lynch, 1983). According to this hypothesis, young women approaching puberty face increasing pressure to adopt caregiving traits of emotionality and self-sacrifice, while young men face increasing pressure to adopt masculine qualities, such as confidence and self-esteem, that will prepare them for competitive workplace roles. This logic may sound reasonable, but the data do not cleanly support it. Contemporary adolescents, at least in the United States, do not appear to undergo a consistent increase in gendered self-views (Priess, Lindberg, & Hyde, 2009). Moreover, to the degree that gender socialization intensifies in adolescence, it seems to differ as a function of sex: Adolescent boys, relative to girls, face more intense pressure from peers to avoid sex-atypical behavior.

Relationships With Parents

In adolescence, gender socialization sometimes reflects a double standard whereby parents, especially those who hold more traditional gender role ideologies, afford sons and daughters different levels of freedom. One study of Mexican American families illustrates this point nicely. Among more traditional families with both a daughter and a son, parents allowed adolescent daughters fewer privileges (e.g., attending parties and staying out late) than they gave to sons, even when daughters were the older sibling (McHale, Updegraff, Shanahan, Crouter, & Killoren, 2005). The Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS), a longitudinal research program examining how gender norms shape gender development in the transition from childhood to adolescence, confirms these patterns. From 2014 to 2016, the GEAS assessed over 15,000 early adolescents (aged 10—14) and their parents in 15 countries across five continents. The findings revealed global tendencies for parents to (a) perceive girls as vulnerable and in need of protection, especially when it comes to sexuality; (b) perceive boys as independent and sexually predatory; and (c) restrict the mobility of girls by not allowing them to go out or by making them stay away from boys (Blum, Mmari, & Moreau, 2017). Thus, gender double standards appear to be common in parents across the globe.

Gender intensification hypothesis The hypothesis that gender role socialization pressures increase during adolescence, resulting in increases in adolescents’ gendered self-views.

Regardless of parents’ gender socialization practices, adolescence is a developmental phase during which relationships with parents often become destabilized as young people seek greater autonomy. For young people, levels of conflict with parents tend to be highest in early and middle adolescence and then decline in frequency toward late adolescence and emerging adulthood, which is the period of life between ages 18 and 25 when people in Western, industrialized nations typically transition to more adult roles and responsibilities (Parra, Oliva, & del Carmen Reina, 2015). Conflict with parents during adolescence often arises from disagreements regarding the criteria for determining when adolescents become adults. As noted in the prior section, people raised in Western cultures define the transition to adulthood in a variety of ways, and parents and adolescents do not always see eye-to-eye on this issue. For instance, parents tend to place more importance on norm compliance (e.g., avoiding juvenile misbehavior, such as drunkenness, drug use, and sexual promiscuity) as a sign of adulthood. In contrast, young adults often view their own biological changes and role transitions (e.g., getting married and finishing college) as evidence of their adulthood. Some sex differences emerge as well, with young women viewing relational maturity (e.g., becoming less self-centered) as a more important criterion for adulthood than young men (L. J. Nelson et al., 2007).

Emerging adulthood In Western industrialized nations, the period of life between ages 18 and 25 when people transition to more adult roles and responsibilities.


Do you consider yourself an adult? If so, what happened to turn you into an adult? If not, why not? What criteria do you use for determining whether or not you are an adult? Do you agree or disagree with your parents, family, and friends about when people become adults? Did you have a formal ritual to transition to adulthood, or did you know anyone who did? If so, do you think this ritual made the transition to adulthood easier? Why or why not?

When conflicts arise, parental tendencies to support or undermine adolescents’ expressions of autonomy can have long-term consequences for young adults’ functioning. In Western contexts, when parents negotiate conflicts by supporting adolescents’ autonomy (e.g., respecting their positions and accepting their input), adolescents display stronger relationship skills as they enter adulthood (Oudekerk, Allen, Hessel, & Molloy, 2015). Adolescents in Western and individualistic cultures often equate strict parental control with rejection and prefer permissive parenting. In contrast, in collectivistic cultures such as Mexico, China, Korea, and Russia, adolescents tend to expect and respect strict parental control, interpreting it as a sign of warmth and caring (Tamm, Kasearu, Tulviste, & Trommsdorff, 2016; Zimmer-Gembeck & Collins, 2003). For instance, let’s return to the study mentioned earlier in which traditional Mexican American parents treated daughters and sons differently. When these parents imbued in their children values of familism—collectivistic values of loyalty, support, and interdependence among family members—adolescent daughters were less likely to view their parents’ stricter control of them as unfair (McHale et al., 2005). This suggests that levels of parental control versus autonomy interact with cultural values to influence how adolescents react to this treatment.

Familism A set of collectivistic social values that promote loyalty, support, and interdependence among family members.

Friendship, Dating, and Social Networking

As discussed earlier, children across cultures tend to segregate themselves by sex until the age of 12 or so. Then, during adolescence, rates of cross-sex friendships increase, particularly in Western cultures. In one longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents, the proportion of students’ mixed-sex friendships increased from only 10% of all friendships in Grade 6 to 22% in Grade 9 (Molloy, Gest, Feinberg, & Osgood, 2014). In some cultures, however, adolescent cross-sex interactions are restricted or forbidden. For instance, a study of families in Delhi, India and Shanghai, China revealed that teens (and particularly girls) are sometimes punished with beatings for violating rules about cross-sex interactions (Basu, Zuo, Lou, Acharya, & Lundgren, 2017).

Cross-sex friendships Friendships with people who do not share one’s sex.

Around the ages of 12—13, Western adolescents’ involvement in dating relationships increases steadily. The percentage of U.S. adolescents who report experiencing a romantic relationship in the past 18 months increases from less than 30% at age 12 to about 70% by age 18. These dating rates are generally comparable across White, Black, Latinx, and Native American adolescents, while Asian teenagers are relatively less likely to report romantic relationships at each age (Carver, Joyner, & Udry, 2003). In contrast to heterosexual dating relationships, same-sex romantic relationships are statistically rare in adolescence. In the United States, only about 1%—2% of teenagers aged 16—18 report having had a same-sex romantic relationship in the past year (Kaestle, 2019). Similarly, across eight European countries, about 1%—2% of 15-year-olds reported dating a same-sex partner (Költo˝ et al. 2018). However, these lower rates of same-sex relationships in the general population likely reflect the relatively small numbers of sexual minority (LGB) adolescents. Looking only at U.S. sexual minority adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18, rates of same-sex romantic relationships are about 16.7% among boys and 8.1% among girls. Interestingly, sexual minority adolescents report dating other-sex partners more frequently than same-sex partners (Kaestle, 2019). These other-sex dating experiences may provide a context for sexual minority youths to explore their identity, gain self-awareness, and develop social competencies (Glover, Galliher, & Lamere, 2009). However, by the time they are in their early 20s, sexual minority youths report same-sex relationships at rates comparable to their heterosexual peers’ other-sex relationships (Kaestle, 2019).

In addition to face-to-face friendships and dating relationships, many adolescents today use online social networking sites to connect with larger networks of acquaintances. Sites like Instagram, Snapchat, and tumblr provide opportunities for young adults to experiment with different ways of presenting themselves and gain exposure to people with different backgrounds and worldviews. These platforms serve a unique purpose for young adults, with both women and men reporting that they use social networking sites for expressing ideas or beliefs that they would not feel comfortable expressing in face-to-face contexts (Norona, Preddy, & Welsh, 2016). So, do young women and men use social networking sites differently? In some ways, yes. For instance, women tend to discuss friends, relationships, and significant others in their online posts more often than men do, while men discuss society and abstract problems more often than women do (Magnuson & Dundes, 2008; Mazur & Kozarian, 2010; see Table 4.3). The images that people post also differ by sex—with women more likely to appear in photos with one other woman and men more likely to appear in photos of large, all-male groups—and this sex difference is evident around the world (David-Barrett et al., 2015). That said, there is also a lot of similarity in how young adults present themselves online. Women and men tend to use similar narrative and emotional tones, and they discuss similar content, such as daily activities, philosophical thoughts, and future goals (Norona et al., 2016).

Table 4.3

While some of the topics that adolescents and emerging adults discuss on social networking sites differ by sex, others show similarity across the sexes.

1Data are from Mazur and Kozarian (2010). Values are average percentages of blog entries that contained each topic within a 4-month period. Participants were adolescents, ages 15—19.

2Data are from Magnuson and Dundes (2008). Values are overall percentages of women and men, ages 17—29, whose online profiles contained each topic.

On social networking sites, men are more likely to appear in large, all-male groups, while women are more likely to appear in pairs.

Source: ©; ©

Gendered Self-Views Across Time and Cultures

By the time people enter emerging adulthood, their self-concepts tend to show some reliable sex differences. On average, women score higher than men do on measures of communal self-views (e.g., viewing the self as warm, kind, and understanding), while men score higher than women do on measures of agentic self-views (e.g., viewing the self as decisive, independent, and competitive). However, when examining changes in the gendered self-views of U.S. college students across the years of 1973 to 1994, Jean Twenge (1997) noticed a trend for sex differences in gendered self-views to decrease with time. This trend was driven primarily by women’s increases in agentic self-views: While U.S. women displayed large increases in agentic self-views over the two decades, men’s communal self-views increased by a smaller amount. A follow-up study that examined U.S. women’s and men’s self-concepts from 1993 to 2012 found that women’s communal traits decreased significantly over time, but the effect size was small (d = 0.26; Donnelly & Twenge, 2017). In contrast, women’s agentic traits did not change over this later time frame, and men did not change in either communal or agentic traits.

To summarize, U.S. college-aged women’s self-concepts grew increasingly more agentic from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, while their self-concepts grew slightly less communal from the mid-1990s to 2012. During these same time frames, men’s gendered self-views changed relatively little, showing only a small increase in communal traits between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. Why might this be the case? These questions are difficult to answer, and because these data are correlational, cause-and-effect explanations are not possible. Still, one possible explanation lies in the great social change that occurred in the United States from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, when women increasingly entered the workforce and gained economic and political power. These changes in women’s behaviors and roles likely led to increases in young women’s agentic self-views from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. But what about men’s communal self-views, which changed relatively little during the same time span? And why do you think women’s self-views have become less communal since the mid-1990s? A possible explanation for the relatively small change in men’s communal self-views is that men were relatively slow to embrace caregiving and domestic roles between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. However, men today assume more childcare and household responsibilities than ever before (Parker, 2015), so perhaps men’s self-views will become more communal over time. To explain the small decrease in women’s communal self-views since the mid-1990s, Donnelly and Twenge (2017) note that perhaps young people’s increasing preference for social media over face-to-face communication produces declines in interpersonal and other-oriented (i.e., stereotypically feminine) traits such as empathy and conflict resolution.

Looking at gendered self-views across cultures, a counterintuitive pattern emerges: Sex differences in young adults’ gendered self-views are larger in cultures that have more gender equality. For example, although women score higher than men on warmth, and men score higher than women on competitiveness, these sex differences are larger in European and North American cultures than they are in African and Asian cultures (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001). Why do you think this occurs? To solve this puzzle, Serge Guimond and his colleagues propose that people learn about their standing on traits by comparing themselves with different groups of people (Guimond et al., 2007). In cultures characterized by greater gender equality, people are more likely to learn about their own traits by comparing themselves with peers of all sexes. Conversely, in cultures that are lower in gender equality, people tend to live more sex-segregated lives, and cross-sex social comparisons are relatively rare. Consider how this might influence people’s gendered self-views: In gender-egalitarian cultures, women decide how “aggressive” they are, for example, by comparing themselves to people of all sexes (rather than only comparing themselves to other women). Since men tend to be more aggressive than women, on average, a woman who determines her own aggressiveness by comparing herself with women and men may conclude that she is relatively low on aggression. In more traditional cultures, a woman who compares herself only with other women may end up concluding that she is average on aggression. The net result is that sex differences in gendered self-views appear exaggerated in more gender-egalitarian cultures. This hypothesis was confirmed across several studies in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, the United States, and Malaysia.


Do you the think the use of online social networking sites changes the way that people express their gender attributes and interests in comparison to face-to-face interactions? Would this differ for women, men, and nonbinary individuals? If so, how and why? In the long run, what impact, if any, will online networking sites have on people’s gendered self-views?


During adulthood, most people spend time engaging in paid or unpaid labor, building relationships and families, and bearing responsibility for major life decisions. What role does gender play in these life tasks? How do gendered self-views, expectations, stereotypes, and roles change as people mature? In what ways do gender roles prepare us—or fail to prepare us—for the later stages of life? We address these topics in this last section of the chapter.

Cultural Ideals of Womanhood and Manhood

As we discuss throughout this book, most societies rely on sex-based divisions of labor in which men tend to be more responsible for paid work in the public sphere, and women tend to be more responsible for unpaid domestic work, including housework and childcare (Eagly & Wood, 1999). Even in the contemporary United States and other nations higher in gender equality, where many women pursue workplace and leadership roles, “ideal” women are still expected to be mothers and caretakers. For instance, perceivers in one study rated agentic women leaders less favorably than they rated agentic male leaders, but this difference disappeared if perceivers learned that the agentic female leader had children (Heilman & Okimoto, 2007; see Figure 4.3). In other words, it is okay for a woman to be a leader, as long as she is a mother as well. This suggests that the motherhood mandate (Russo, 1976)—the norm dictating that women should have children—is still operative in the contemporary United States. In fact, women who are child-free by choice tend to be stereotyped as lacking warmth, and they tend to elicit feelings of envy, contempt, and moral outrage (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017; Bays, 2016). Another expectation of “ideal” women is that they will exert effort, time, and money into beautifying their faces and bodies (Gimlin, 2007). This expectation puts great pressure on women, and those who perceive themselves as not living up to ideal beauty standards report feelings of shame and low self-esteem (Clarke & Griffin, 2008). We will return to the topic of body image in Chapter 13 (“Gender and Psychological Health”).

Motherhood mandate The societal expectation that women should have children and invest significant time and energy in raising them.


Figure 4.3 Ratings of High-Status Female and Male Targets

Source: Heilman and Okimoto (2007).

What about “ideal” manhood? Culturally idealized themes of manhood (sometimes called hegemonic masculinity) include competition, aggression, success, toughness, and the avoidance of femininity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). In terms of roles, a core element of hegemonic masculinity across cultures is the expectation that men will work and earn enough to provide for family. As sociologist Michael Kimmel (2006) describes it, hegemonic masculinity in the United States is embodied by an “impossible synthesis of sober, responsible breadwinner, imperviously stoic master of his fate, and swashbuckling hero” (p. 173). Because hegemonic masculinity sets an almost impossible-to-achieve cultural standard, men often experience a sense of insecurity about their masculine adequacy. For instance, in China, hegemonic masculinity centers on the notion of chenggong, which refers to attaining an outstanding level of career accomplishment, such as becoming a billionaire entrepreneur or a scientist who makes world-changing discoveries (Liu, 2017). While many Chinese men realize that their likelihood of achieving such extreme work success is slim, they nonetheless feel driven by a sense of urgency combined with anxiety about the possibility of failure.

Hegemonic masculinity A culturally idealized version of manhood that legitimizes men’s dominant position in societies.

While women who fail to meet ideal standards of womanhood are evaluated negatively, people do not typically question their very status as “real women.” In contrast, men across cultures experience chronic pressure to prove that they are “real men.” According to the precarious manhood hypothesis, there is a cross-cultural tendency to define manhood as a precarious social status that is hard to earn and easy to lose and that requires continual validation in the form of public action and risk-taking (Vandello & Bosson, 2013). Womanhood, by comparison, is more commonly conceptualized as a stable social status that emerges from biological changes (Gilmore, 1990). This has some consequences for how cultures define “ideal” manhood. First, ideal manhood requires social achievements, such as success in paid labor, that ideal womanhood does not. Second, when men fail to achieve ideal manhood standards, they risk losing their gender status in other people’s eyes. As a result, men often feel motivated to prove their masculinity by engaging in active and risky behavior and by avoiding anything that might be construed as feminine.

Precarious manhood hypothesis Hypothesis that manhood, relative to womanhood, is a social status that is hard to earn and easy to lose and that requires continual validation in the form of public action.

Men’s felt pressure to prove manhood can potentially illuminate sex differences in a wide range of domains, including physical health, aggression, risk-taking, occupational preferences, and relationship tendencies (Vandello & Bosson, 2013). For instance, given the centrality of paid work to the male gender role, men who experience involuntary job loss—in comparison with women who lose their jobs—expect others to view them much more negatively (Michniewicz, Vandello, & Bosson, 2014). Moreover, among unemployed adults, men who believe that others viewed them as “less of a man” at the time of their job loss experience more depression and anxiety. For unemployed women, there is no correlation between their beliefs about being seen as “less of a woman” and their psychological symptoms. While these correlational data cannot demonstrate that losing gender status causes men to feel depressed, they do indicate that gender status loss is linked closely to men’s mental health, a pattern not seen in women.

Gendered Self-Views

If the gendered self-views of men and women derive from their differential socialization into roles as paid laborers and caretakers, then might the strength of these self-views fade with time as children mature and leave home and as adults retire from the paid labor force? This should be true according to degendering theory, which proposes that gender becomes a less central aspect of the self as people grow older. However, one 20-year longitudinal study of women found just the opposite: As women aged from 39 to 59, they showed an average increase in both their communal and agentic self-views (Kasen, Chen, Sneed, Crawford, & Cohen, 2006). Another cross-sectional study that compared people’s gendered self-views across groups of young adults (ages 25—39), middle adults (ages 40—59), and older adults (60 or older) also found no evidence of degendering. Across all age groups, women rated themselves higher in communal than in agentic traits, and men rated themselves higher in agentic than in communal traits. Further, the strength of people’s gendered self-views did not differ across the age groups, indicating no overall trend for older people to become degendered (Lemaster, Delaney, & Strough, 2017). It is possible, however, that degendering occurs primarily among adults older than those examined in current studies. Alternatively, perhaps degendering primarily affects those who experience chronic illness or socioeconomic hardships that interfere with their ability to meet gendered expectations.

Degendering theory The theory that gender becomes a less central aspect of the self as people age.


Do you think that degendering theory makes intuitive sense? Why or why not? Do you think that the research described here does a convincing job of disproving degendering theory? Are there other ways of testing this theory that might yield different findings? If you were going to test degendering theory, what approach would you use? Which aspects of gender would you measure?

Women’s Gender Advantage?

Women tend to have richer social networks than men do, meaning that women generally have larger sets of people on whom they can rely for both emotional support and practical assistance as they age (Dunbar, 2018). This sex difference may result from socialization processes that cultivate and encourage relational tendencies in girls and women more strongly than in boys and men. Similarly, as we have discussed throughout this chapter, gender socialization practices around the world train girls more consistently than boys in practical homemaking skills, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Later in life, these socialization practices may confer an advantage to women, who tend to care for themselves better and have more sources of assistance, compared with men. In fact, heterosexual men tend to rely more heavily on their spouses than heterosexual women do, and men’s well-being later in life depends more on their spouse than does women’s well-being (Cable, Bartley, Chandola, & Sacker, 2013). Heterosexual men who lose a spouse due to divorce or widowhood have a higher likelihood than heterosexual women of depression and even death (Lee, DeMaris, Bavin, & Sullivan, 2001; Shor, Roelfs, Bugyi, & Schwartz, 2012).

Poverty and traditional labor divisions can intensify sex differences in self-reliance later in life. One qualitative interview study of older adults living in poverty in Nairobi, Kenya, identified several themes of gender-based disadvantage in men’s reports (Mudege & Ezeh, 2009). Older retired men in these communities, who spent their adulthood doing paid work in the male-dominated public sector, often lacked knowledge of how to perform domestic chores at home. Those who lived alone therefore felt unable to care for themselves, ill prepared to face old age, and fairly useless. While some men had female relatives who helped them with housework on occasion, those who lacked such assistance reported elevated levels of stress and despondency. In general, both women and men in these communities viewed older men as idle, weak, and constantly worried, while they viewed older women as more resourceful and stronger than men. Thus, while the stresses of poverty and isolation negatively impact both women and men, there may be some ways in which women’s gender role socialization better prepares them to live independently in old age.

The Double Standard of Aging

Decades ago, writer and social critic Susan Sontag (1978) wrote about the double standard of aging. This refers to the idea that women’s social value tends to decline with age as their beauty and sexual appeal fade, while men’s value increases with age as their life experience and social status increase. Some findings are consistent with the idea of this double standard. For example, women are perceived to be “old” at a younger age than men are (Nolan & Scott, 2009), and evaluations of their likability take a bigger hit as women age than as men age (Kite, Stockdale, Whitley, & Johnson, 2005). Also, women tend to view aging as having a more negative impact on their appearance than men do: While women report feeling ever more invisible as their youth and physical beauty fade, men feel like their appearance becomes more distinguished with age (Clarke & Griffin, 2008; Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003). And yet, other research on the double standard of aging yields mixed findings: Evaluations of men’s competence decline more with age than do evaluations of women’s competence (Kite et al., 2005). This suggests that double standards of aging may affect both women and men in domains that are especially relevant to their gender roles: likability and appearance for women and competence for men. Moreover, men are not free from concerns about their physicality as they age. Men express concerns about declining physical health, failing eyesight and hair loss, and reductions in athletic prowess (Nolan & Scott, 2009). And, as noted in the prior section, men who are unpartnered later in life often have concerns about their ability to care for themselves and receive support from others.

Double standard of aging The idea that women’s social value declines with age as their beauty and sexual appeal fade, while men’s value increases with age as their life experience and social status increase.

As women age, they often report feeling invisible.

Source: ©

While many young people fear aging for these very reasons—declining health and fading of youthful beauty—we do not want to leave you with the message that gender development later in life is marked entirely, or even primarily, by feelings of loss. When researchers surveyed over 8,000 British adults about the advantages and disadvantages of being their age, between 40% and 50% of older adults (ages 60—69) identified “freedom” as a unique advantage associated with their life stage (Nolan & Scott, 2009). Whereas women tended to appreciate freedom from caregiving and family responsibilities, men tended to appreciate freedom from breadwinning responsibilities. Moreover, qualitative interview studies with older women reveal that feeling “invisible” as beauty fades is not always a bad thing: Many middle-aged women feel a sense of relief when the sexual objectification of their bodies declines with age (Montemurro & Gillen, 2013), and those in professional contexts report that their male colleagues take them more seriously and perceive them as more competent when their hair turns gray (Isopahkala-Bouret, 2017). Across several adult age groups, women in their 50s and 60s tend to accept and appreciate their bodies more than younger women do (Montemurro & Gillen, 2013). Thus, just as gender roles give people a sense of identity and meaning throughout life, there may also be some relief when gendered expectations and responsibilities decrease in salience in the later years.


· 4.1 Explain how gender stereotypes influence expectant parents and early child development.

Adults create binary, gendered worlds for infants before they are even born. Parents often want to know the sex of fetuses so as to prepare gender-typical room décor, select names, and buy gender-typical clothes. The first thing that others ask about newborn infants is typically their sex. Despite having few distinguishing characteristics, infant girls and boys tend to be treated differently by adults. Parents usually attribute sex-based traits to infants and begin to apply gender stereotypes to them shortly after birth. Sex is also one of the first social categories that infants recognize, and it serves as a powerful schema that guides how children interpret the world.

· 4.2 Differentiate social learning and cognitive theories of gender development.

Social learning theories of gender development propose that children learn gendered beliefs (gender identity, stereotypes, and self-views) and preferences (play preferences and interests) by observing and imitating models and by receiving reinforcement and punishment from others. Parents, siblings, teachers, peers, and the media all provide children with messages about gender, including rewards (such as praise, encouragement, or attention) and punishment (such as scolding, teasing, or withdrawal of attention) for certain sex-typed behaviors.

Cognitive theories of gender development propose that children learn gender via a predictable series of cognitive changes. By age 2 or 3, most children tend to recognize that they belong to a sex category and then use this to guide their performance of sex-related behavior and their understanding of gender stereotypes and roles. Gender schema theory proposes that people develop elaborate networks of knowledge about gender that guide how they interpret, process, and remember gender-relevant information. People vary in the extent to which they rely on gender schemas to make sense of the world, with gender schematic people noticing and using gender a lot and gender aschematic people paying less attention to it.

A main distinction between social learning and cognitive theories is the direction of causation they posit between sex-typed behaviors and cognitions. Whereas social learning theories propose that performing sex-typed behaviors causes children to develop gendered cognitions (identity, stereotypes, and self-views), cognitive theories propose that developing gendered cognitions causes children to learn sex-typed behaviors and preferences. The evidence suggests that children develop gender through both social learning processes (imitation, modeling, and reinforcement) and active cognitive processes (using schemas as flexible guides).

· 4.3 Describe the experiences of gender-nonconforming children and the factors underlying gender nonconformity in childhood.

Childhood gender nonconformity may involve displaying cross-sex toy and play preferences or developing a gender identity that does not match the sex one is assigned at birth. While both types of nonconformity show moderate heritability, little is known about the specific social factors that contribute to transgender identity. One theory proposes that such identity emerges from social comparisons that children make between themselves and the groups “boys” and “girls.” When children display a strong transgender identity early in childhood, their gender identity is very similar to that of same-sex cisgender children. However, transgender individuals experience a lot of variety in the development of their identity, with some realizing their gender identity early in life and others making a more gradual transition. Gender-nonconforming children tend to experience much higher rates of rejection, bullying, and abuse from parents and peers than gender-conforming children, and this treatment can have long-term consequences for mental health. Gender-nonconforming boys, in particular, receive harsh treatment and rejection.

· 4.4 Explain how sex and gender influence biological, social, and identity changes in adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Many cultures celebrate puberty as an important transition into young adulthood. In the United States, girls who enter puberty at earlier ages are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Boys who enter puberty early also experience some negative outcomes, but early maturing boys experience some social benefits as well. During adolescence and emerging adulthood, relationships with parents may become destabilized as young people seek more autonomy. In families with more traditional views of gender, parents allow adolescent daughters fewer privileges than sons. How children respond to strict or permissive parenting differs by culture. In individualistic cultures, adolescents perceive permissive parenting more favorably, whereas in collectivistic cultures, adolescents expect and appreciate stricter parental control.

Adolescents spend increasing time with mixed-sex friend groups, and most U.S. adolescents enter dating relationships by the time they are 18. Young people rely heavily on social media as a platform for presenting themselves in different ways, gaining exposure to people from different backgrounds, and expressing things that they do not feel comfortable expressing in face-to-face contexts. While there is a lot of similarity in how people of different sexes use social media, young women are more likely to discuss friends and relationships, and young men are more likely to discuss society and abstract problems online.

· 4.5 Evaluate how cultural ideals and gender shape people’s experiences in middle and late adulthood.

“Ideal” women are expected to be mothers and to put effort into beautifying themselves. “Ideal” men are expected to perform paid labor and provide for family. Both women and men who fall short of cultural ideals tend to experience insecurity, but manhood is often conceptualized as a more precarious social status than womanhood. This means that men feel extra pressure to prove their masculinity and may experience negative psychological outcomes if they feel that they do not meet cultural expectations. Degendering theory proposes that as people age, gender becomes a less central aspect of the self, but research does not show declines in gendered self-views or traits with age. Among older adults who live alone, women’s gender socialization may give them an advantage over men because women often have larger social networks and more homemaking skills. Sex differences in self-reliance are especially pronounced in cultures characterized by poverty and more traditional labor divisions. The aging double standard refers to the idea that women’s social value declines with age, while men’s increases. There is some evidence that aging affects women more negatively than men in domains of appearance and likability, but aging affects men more negatively than women in the domain of competence. Older adults of both sexes identify failing health as a disadvantage, but they also identify freedom from responsibilities as a unique advantage of their age. Despite feeling more invisible, older women sometimes feel relieved to “age out” of cultural expectations regarding beauty and sexiness.

Test Your Knowledge: True or False?

· 4.1. Parents are generally accurate in their perceptions of sex differences in their infants’ physical abilities. (False: Parents tend to overestimate the physical abilities of boys, when, in fact, there are no sex differences in infants’ physical competencies.) [p. 124]

· 4.2. By calling attention to the sex binary in the classroom (e.g., referring to “girls and boys” rather than “children”), teachers can increase children’s gender stereotyping. (True: Simply labeling children by their sex category can increase children’s endorsement of sex stereotypes, as well as their favoritism for their own sex over other sexes.) [p. 135]

· 4.3. Children who display cross-sex play preferences in childhood (e.g., girls who prefer rough-and-tumble play and boys who prefer dolls) are more likely than other children to identify as gay or lesbian later in life. (True: Children who display cross-sex play preferences are substantially more likely to identify as gay or lesbian in adolescence and adulthood.) [p. 137]

· 4.4. In general, children’s levels of conflict with parents tend to be highest in early childhood and then decline by adolescence. (False: Children’s levels of conflict with parents tend to be highest during early and middle adolescence.) [p. 143]

· 4.5. As people enter middle and late adulthood, gender becomes a less central part of the self. (False: Counter to the degendering hypothesis, there is no evidence that gender becomes less central to the self as people age.) [p. 151]

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The x axis shows the various categories of roles as follows:

· Animal

· Human

· Monster/ etcetera

· Plant/ Object

· Robot/ etcetera.

The y axis ranges from 0 percent to 100 percent in increments of 25 percent. The distribution of male and female are listed as follows:


· Animal: 25.3 percent

· Human: 37.3 percent

· Monster/ etcetera: 20.8 percent

· Plant/ Object: 12.6 percent

· Robot/ etcetera: 16.3 percent.


· Animal: 74.7 percent

· Human: 62.7 percent

· Monster/ etcetera: 79.2 percent

· Plant/ Object: 87.2 percent

· Robot/ etcetera: 83.7 percent.

Back to Figure

The x axis labeled salience condition shows low and high. The y axis labeled hashtag both ranges from 0 to 20 in increments of 4.


· Pretest: 14.42

· Posttest: 13.57


· Pretest: 15.34

· Posttest: 9.90.

Back to Figure

The x axis is separated into two sections: likable and hostile. Each section has high-status female target and high-status male target. The y axis ranges from 1 to 9 in increments of 1. The distribution for parenting status unknown and has children are listed below:


· High-status female target:

o Parenting status unknown: 5.29

o Has children: 6.66

· High-status male target:

o Parenting status unknown: 6.26

o Has children: 6.40


· High-status female target:

o Parenting status unknown: 5.35

o Has children: 4.13

· High-status male target:

o Parenting status unknown: 4.58

o Has children: 4.61.