Social learning theory as applied to gender development - Gender

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

Social learning theory as applied to gender development


Social learning theory (SLT) sees gender development as occurring through the observation and imitation of influential models, such as parents and peers. Behaviour seen to be reinforced for being gender-appropriate is copied and that which is punished for being gender-inappropriate is not copied. From such observational learning children acquire their gender roles. SLT sees girls and boys learning different gender roles, as parents only reinforce gender-appropriate behaviour. Children, through a gradual process of immersion, take on their parents’ gender schemas. Peers act as role models for gender-role stereotypes, with children more likely to imitate same-sex models. Children soon show a preference for same-sex groups, with peers policing gender behaviour by reinforcing gender-appropriate behaviour and punishing, through ridicule, gender-inappropriate behaviour. The media is also a powerful socialising agent, with TV, magazines, social media, etc. portraying both sexes in gender-stereotypical ways. There is an argument, though, that the media could also be used as an efficient tool to break down stereotypical gender behaviour by providing examples of, and reinforcing, non-gender stereotyped behaviour. Studying cultural influences on gender roles allows psychologists to assess whether gender is biological or a social construct. If gender is biological, then different cultural influences would have no impact on gender development: it will be the same in all cultures.


Fig 10.5 Does TV portray females as scientists?

Focal study

Steinke et al. (2008) assessed gender stereotyping in portrayals of scientist characters in TV programmes popular with children. 14 TV programmes with a scientific element, watched by 12—17 year olds, were selected, with 8 episodes of each programme randomly selected for analysis — in all, 112 episodes. 196 scientist characters were identified, with each coded for gender-stereotypical and non-gender-stereotypical behaviour. It was found that 113 (58 per cent) of scientist characters were male and 83 (42 per cent) female, with male scientists more likely to be portrayed as higher status and as having masculine qualities of independence and dominance. Female scientist characters were no more likely than males to be portrayed with feminine qualities of dependence, caring and romanticism. It was concluded that males are more likely to be portrayed as scientists and with typically masculine qualities, but that progress has been made in presenting scientist characters in TV programmes in a less gender-biased way.


• Quiery (1998) found that fathers interact in a more achievement-orientated way and give more attention to sons, while mothers attend equally to sons and daughters. This suggests that fathers reinforce sex typing more than mothers do.

• Lamb & Roopnarine (1979) found peers reward sex-appropriate play in preschool children and ridicule sex-inappropriate play, demonstrating the influence that peers have in reinforcing gender behaviour.

• La Fromboise et al. (1990) found gender roles among North American Indian tribes different from those in Western cultures. Women were often ’warriors’, illustrating that aggressive roles are not universally male, indicating gender to be more of a social construction.

• Williams & Best (1990) found universal agreement across cultures about which characteristics were masculine and which were feminine, with men perceived as dominant and independent and women as caring and sociable, and children from these cultures exhibiting the same attitudes. This suggests gender roles are universal and biological in nature.

Positive evaluation

Image Studies of SLT tend not to be gender biased, as they consider the different effects of peers, parents and the media upon gender development of both boys and girls.

Image Although parents exert a strong influence when children are young, peers probably have a stronger role in shaping gender development, as children interact more with peers in social situations and police gender behaviours more, for example ridiculing children displaying non-gender-stereotypical behaviour.

Image As gender stereotypes and gender roles are fairly consistent across human populations, it seems that gender is more biological. However, there is also evidence of gender roles varying considerably across cultures, indicating some influence of social learning.

Negative evaluation

Image SLT cannot explain gender changes with age; indeed, SLT assumes there are no developmental stages, while evidence suggests there are.

Image It is simplistic to regard children as passive recipients of media. Children actively select characters and events to respond to, suggesting more of a cognitive input than a purely social learning effect.

Image Cross-cultural research is often prone to the problem of an imposed etic, where researchers, in assessing other cultures, use research methods and tools which are applicable only to their own cultures, resulting in flawed conclusions.

Practical application

If media influences have a negative effect on gender stereotyping, they should also be able to create and promote positive non-gender stereotypes, such as successful female scientists, business women and sports stars.