Cognitive explanations for gender development - Gender

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

Cognitive explanations for gender development


Cognitive explanations of gender focus on how children’s thinking about gender occurs in qualitatively different stages. Kohlberg’s (1966) theory of gender constancy sees children developing an understanding of gender in stages, with gender-role behaviour apparent only after an understanding emerges that gender is fixed and constant. In the gender labelling stage (18 months—3 years), children’s recognition of being male or female allows them to categorise and understand their world, though mistakes are made, such as not realising that boys become men. In the gender stability stage (3—5 years), children realise their gender is for life but rely on superficial, physical signs to determine gender. Therefore a girl who cuts her long hair short could be mistaken for having changed her gender. In the gender constancy stage (6—7 years), children recognise gender is permanent over time and across situations.

Gender schema theory sees gender identity alone as providing children with motivation to assume sex-typed behaviour patterns. Gender schema begins to develop at 2—3 years when children organise accumulated knowledge about the sexes into schemas that provide a basis for selecting gender-appropriate behaviours and therefore children’s self-perceptions become sex-typed. Children now have expectations about male and female behaviour.


Fig 10.3 A child with gender constancy understands that a woman with a shaved head is still female

Focal study

Slaby & Frey (1975) assessed Kohlberg’s theory of gender constancy by giving questions to 55 children aged between 2 and 5.5 years to assess their level of gender constancy and then several weeks later showed them a film of a man and woman performing gender-stereotypical activities. It was found that 97 per cent had achieved gender identity, 75 per cent gender stability and 50 per cent gender consistency. Children with high levels of gender constancy paid more attention to same-sex models than children with low levels of gender constancy, which suggests that high-gender-constancy children watch their own gender to acquire information about gender-appropriate behaviour, supporting Kohlberg’s theory that gender development is an active process. The results show that the stages of development are sequential, as Kohlberg stated, and also support Kohlberg’s claim that gender constancy is a cause of the imitation of same-sex models, rather than an effect.


• McConaghy (1979) found that if a doll was dressed in transparent clothing so that its genitals were visible, children of 3—5 years judged its gender by its clothes, not its genitals, supporting Kohlberg’s belief that children of this age use superficial physical indicators to determine gender.

• Martin & Halverson (1983) asked children to recall pictures of people, finding that children under the age of 6 years recalled more gender-consistent ones — for example, a male footballer — than gender non-consistent ones — for example, a male nurse — in line with gender schema theory predictions.

• Campbell (2000) found that even the youngest infants between 3 and 18 months had a preference for watching same-sex babies and by 9 months boys demonstrated an increasing tendency to pay attention to ’boy toys’. This shows that young children pay more attention to their same-sex group, supporting the idea of gender schemas forming early on.

Positive evaluation

Image Research evidence suggests that the concepts of gender identity, stability and constancy occur in that order across many cultures, lending support to Kohlberg’s theory and suggesting a biological mechanism.

Image Kohlberg’s theory is an holistic explanation, as it combines social learning and biological developmental factors.

Image Gender schema theory explains why children’s attitudes and behaviour concerning gender are rigid and lasting. Children focus only on things that confirm and strengthen their schemas, ignoring behavioural examples that contradict the theory.

Image Gender schema theory explains why children are more likely to model gender-appropriate behaviour rather than imitating a same-sex model demonstrating non-gender appropriate behaviour.

Negative evaluation

Image Kohlberg’s theory concentrates on cognitive factors and overlooks cultural and social factors, such as the influence of parents and friends.

Image Kohlberg’s theory is descriptive — it outlines the process of gender development but does not explain how these developments occur and so lacks depth of explanation.

Image When children perform activities not normally stereotypical of their gender, like a boy cooking, they adjust their thinking so the activity becomes acceptable. This implies that thinking is affected by behaviour, while gender schema theory predicts the opposite, weakening the theory.

Image Gender schema theory is reductionist, as it neglects the influence of biological factors, assuming that all gender-orientated behaviour is created through cognitive means.

Practical application

A practical application of cognitive explanations is that they permit a universal indication of how gender identity develops, giving guidelines to practitioners, such as teachers and parents, as to what activities and materials will be suitable for boys and girls to interact with at different ages.