Sex and gender - Gender

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Sex and gender


Sex concerns whether an individual is biologically male or female, while gender concerns the social and psychological characteristics of males and females. Sex-role beliefs concern the types of qualities and characteristics that are expected of males and females, with these beliefs becoming sex-role stereotypes when they are seen as ’rules’ to be obeyed by all individuals. Therefore individuals are born biologically male or female, but sex-role stereotypes teach what qualities are masculine and feminine and create norms for individuals to conform to. Sex-role expectations are taught from an early age, with different-sex children being handled differently and taught different games, and this continues at school with gender-specific subjects. The ways in which males and females are portrayed in the media are also powerful sources of sex-role stereotyping.

Androgyny involves the idea that male and female characteristics can co-exist in the same person, with Olds (1981) arguing that androgyny is a higher developmental state reached by only a few individuals. Androgyny can be achieved by individuals only when they perceive the world without gender stereotypes. Bem (1975) developed the androgynous hypothesis, which saw androgyny as a positive state, and devised the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), a 60-item self-report to measure androgyny.


Fig 10.1 Androgyny involves having both male and female characteristics

Focal study

Burchardt & Serbin (1982) assessed whether androgyny was associated with positive health in normal and psychiatric populations. 106 female and 84 male undergraduates and 48 female and 48 psychiatric patients were given the BSRI and a personality questionnaire in order to be classified as masculine, feminine or undifferentiated personalities. It was found that androgynous females scored lower for depression and social introversion than feminine females, and in the college sample also scored lower on schizophrenia and mania scales than masculine females. In the male psychiatric patients, this pattern was generally sustained, with androgynous and masculine participants less deviant than feminine males and lower on depression. Within undergraduate males, androgynous males scored lower on social introversion than feminine males. It was concluded that being androgynous is positively correlated with good mental health, especially concerning depression levels, although masculine types scored equally well, which suggests masculinity also aids mental health.


• Langlois & Downs (1980) compared peers’ and mothers’ reactions to pre-schoolers playing with opposite-gender toys. When boys played with girls’ toys, mothers accepted it, but male peers ridiculed and even hit such boys, demonstrating the intolerance of male peers towards cross-gender behaviour and therefore the strength of their influence on establishing gender roles.

• Eccles et al. (1990) reported that children were encouraged by their parents to play with gender-typical toys, supporting the idea that parents reinforce sex-role stereotypes. This was supported by Lytton & Romney (1991) finding that parents praised sex-role stereotypical behaviour in boys and girls, such as what activities they participated in.

• Flaherty & Dusek (1980) found androgynous individuals have higher degrees of self-esteem, greater emotional wellbeing and more adaptable behaviour, supporting the idea of psychological androgyny indicating psychological wellbeing. Lubinski et al. (1981) also found that androgynous individuals report greater emotional wellbeing.

Positive evaluation

Image The fact that sex-role stereotypes can differ substantially cross-culturally suggests that the characteristics associated with sex roles are culturally transmitted, which implies that environmental learning experiences are stronger than biological forces in determining sex-role stereotypes.

Image The BSRI test has good test—re-test reliability, as it produces consistent results when used on different occasions with the same participants.

Image It may be that because of masculine bias in Western cultures, where masculine qualities, such as independence and competitiveness, are more valued than feminine ones, like co-operation and nurturing, masculine qualities are seen as superior even within androgynous individuals.

Negative evaluation

Image Categorising behaviours, occupations, etc. as masculine or feminine may place restrictive barriers on positive roles that males and females can play in society, such as males nurturing children (only 3 per cent of nursery teachers are male) or females being scientists (only one British woman has ever won a Nobel prize for science).

Image Although the BSRI has good test—re-test reliability, there are doubts about its validity, due to it being created from data from 1970s’ American students about what they perceived as desirable characteristics in men and women. The test may therefore lack external validity in terms of being relevant to people today and to people from other cultures.

Practical application

Because evidence suggests sex-role stereotypes are mainly learned from experience, it suggests that negative sex-role stereotyping could be countered by giving positive learning experiences that reinforce positive sex roles as equally applicable to males and females.