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2.3: Module 5 – Gender Through a Developmental Psychology Lens

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  • Module 5: Gender Through a Developmental Psychology Lens

    Module Overview

    In this module, we will focus on various theories that have attempted to explain gender development. We will begin by taking a look back to the very beginning – psychoanalytic theories. We will then take a very detailed look at various factors that impact gender socialization while also uncovering two common social theories – social learning theory and social cognitive theory. Next, we will learn about Kohlberg’s cognitive development theory and how he explained gender development. We will also learn about gender schema theory. Finally, we will end by taking a brief, but important, glance at various biologically-based theories of gender development.

    Module Outline

    • 5.1. Psychoanalytic Theories
    • 5.2. Gender Socialization
    • 5.3. Cognitive Theories
    • 5.4. Etiological Theories

    Module Learning Outcomes

    • To become familiar with the basic principles of one of the first theories in psychology, psychoanalysis, and how it relates to gender development.
    • To learn about social theories and how socialization of gender occurs.
    • To understand cognitive theories of psychology and how they apply to gender.
    • To gain a basic understanding of biological factors as they relate to gender in psychology.

    5.1. Psychoanalytic Theories

    Section Learning Objectives

    • To gain a basic understanding of psychoanalytic theory.
    • To increase understanding of how Freud theorized gender and how his theory applies to gender in psychology.
    • To increase understanding of how Horney theorized gender and how her theory applies to gender in psychology.
    • To understand potential strengths as well as weaknesses and criticisms of these theories.

    You may remember learning about psychoanalytic theory in your Introduction to Psychology class. If not, no worries, we are about to have a crash course to catch you up! Psychoanalysis was one of the very first theories in psychology, and we have Sigmund Freud to thank for that. Sigmund Freud is often considered the father of psychology. For the purposes of this class, we are going to focus on how his theory specifically relates to gender development. But to allow for that, let’s be sure we have some important foundational knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, in general. Overall, psychoanalytic theory focuses on very early life experiences. Essentially, it was theorized that one’s psyche is impacted significantly by major and minor events, even in infancy. This later impacts one’s functioning as an adult, and is the cause of psychopathology that may be seen. Ultimately, Freud theorized that an individual’s psychosomatic distress (physical symptoms that occur due to psychological distress) distress was a manifestation of internal conflicts. Moreover, the internal conflict was often considered to occur in the subconscious, meaning one did not realize events had occurred and/or were impacting one’s current functioning. As such, the idea was that one must uncover these subconscious events through talk therapy. Freud and other psychoanalysts believed this was the only way to resolve the internal conflict in the subconscious, and to then alleviate the physical and psychological maladjustment that was presenting in the individual.

    5.1.1. Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Theory

    One thing that is not commonly mentioned about Freud is that he was one of the first theorists to really focus in on the fact that the two sexes may actually develop differently, meaning he was one of the first to focus on gender differences. However, he did assume that the male experience was the “norm” of development, which is evident in his theory and concepts. However, to his credit, he recognized that biology did not necessarily equal gender. As you have probably learned in many other courses, his theory comes under heavy criticism and is riddled with biases. However, there are some concepts that seem to have endured, including the concept of internal conflicts and how the unconscious motivates us, to some degree.

    Despite a few enduring concepts, there are other pieces of his theory that are, as I mentioned, heavily criticized. For example, his theory assumes that healthy and mature development results in heterosexuality with very strict conformity to one’s prescribed gender. In fact, his theory would suggest that someone that is not heterosexual experienced a fixation in one of his stages (described below) and thus did not resolve a primary conflict. As such, one would need to attempt to be “cured” of homosexuality. He also suggested that, although biology does not predict gender development, gender development is always related to sexuality.

    If you remember from your Introduction to Psychology course, Freud’s theory is well known for coining the constructs of id, ego, and superego and for centering much of his theory around the libido (or sex drive). For the crash-coursers here, the id can be thought of as our primal instincts – sex and aggression, the ego can be thought of as our logical thinking brain area – rational, practical thinking, and the superego can be thought of as our moral compass – the mediator between the id and ego. Ultimately, Freud indicated that the libido (sex drive, part of the id) was the driving factor that moved individuals through development, and the location of this libido moved throughout development. “The libido moved?”, you ask. Yes. In the beginning, the libido is centered in the oral area, known as the Oral Stage. An individual gets pleasure from feeding, swallowing, sucking, etc. If a child develops appropriately in this stage, they learn that they are loved by their mother, and their ego begins to develop, to deal with frustration from going from being breastfed to eating solid foods. If they do not resolve this stage appropriately, they may later have issues with over eating, smoking, etc. In each stage, there is a goal to resolve a conflict successfully. If the individual resolves the conflict, the child develops adaptively. According to Freud, if the individual does not resolve the conflict successfully, there are negative consequences to development. Below is a list of the stages pulled directly from (Table 8.1). In this class, we will focus on the Phallic Stage, as this is the area in which the Oedipus complex emerges and most directly relates to gender development from Freud’s theory.

    Table 8.1 Freudian Stages Directly Sourced


    Stage & Age Source of Libido & Pleasure Important Influences Consequences of Fixation
    Oral 0-1 The mouth. The child enjoys feeding, sucking, swallowing, putting things in mouth etc. The child equates its mother and feeding with love, so deprivation or forceful feeding can lead to later problems. In the latter half of this stage, the child is weaned onto solid food and starts having to wait to be fed. This causes frustration and aggression. In order to deal with these, the child develops an ego, and starts to differentiate itself from the people around it (especially the mother). Smoking, chewing pens & fingernails etc. Overeating & drinking. Sarcasm and verbal hostility.
    Anal 1-3 The anus. The child derives pleasure from expelling or withholding feces. Toilet training. The child is expected to expel feces only at the appropriate times and locations. It realizes that its parents’ approval/love depends on this, the first sign that love is not unconditional. However, it also realizes that it can control its parents by controlling its bowel movements. Toilet training that is too harsh or too lax can lead to problems. Anal-retentive: obsessive tidiness, neatness, intolerance, meanness and passive aggression.

    Anal expulsive: sloppiness, disorganization, untidiness, defiance, recklessness and excessive generosity.

    Phallic 3-5 The penis or clitoris. The child derives pleasure from masturbation. At this point, girls and boys diverge as the Oedipus complex begins (see below). If the Oedipus complex is successfully negotiated, then the child develops a superego by incorporating the morals and values of their same-sex parent. Men: feelings of anxiety and guilt about sex, fear of castration, possible vanity, self-obsession and narcissism.

    Women: feelings of inferiority and envy.

    Latent 5-Puberty Sexual drives are repressed. During this stage the child represses all of what has happened previously. It focuses on adjusting to its environment and acquiring the knowledge and skills it will need as an adult. Fixation does not happen in this stage.
    Genital Puberty-Death The genitals. The adult derives pleasure from masturbation and sexual intercourse. At puberty, the sexual drives from the id are re-awoken, and the remainder of adult life is dedicated to the pursuit of sex and sexual relationships. Fixation at this stage is what should happen, and indicates a well-adjusted adult.

    Oedipus complex. Ultimately, until the Phallic stage, Freud viewed development to be the same for both boys and girls. The penis, or absence of, is the differentiating factor here, as the libido moves to the penis or clitoris in the Phallic stage. He viewed this stage as the time in which ‘boys become men’.

    So why did Freud describe the conflict in the Phallic stage as the Oedipus complex? Well, let’s take a very brief look at Oedipus himself. Oedipus was a man that killed his father and married his mother in Greek mythology. As this isn’t a lesson in Greek mythology, we will keep the story extremely brief. Oedipus had an early life that separated him from his true mother and father. He later ended up killing his father in battle (not knowing it was his father). Events occurred and ultimately, he married. However, he nor his wife knew that his new bride was actually his mother. When this was learned, his mother/wife hung herself and Oedipus poked both of his eyes out, blinding him (McLeod, 2008).

    So, what does this have to do with Freud’s stages and theory? Great question! In the Phallic stage, the penis (or absence thereof) is the focus of the libido, and thus, will be the focus of the conflict that must be resolved in that stage. Ultimately, in this stage, boys begin to develop sexual desires for their mother and become jealous of their father. This desire then leads to a strong fear that his father will ultimately castrate him due to his attraction, which is known as castration anxiety. As always, there is a conflict in Freud’s stage, and here it is. To help manage this conflict, the superego develops and the boy transfers his desire for his mother onto other women, in general. Thus, the stage is resolved (McLeod, 2008; Sammons, n.d.).

    If you want to read more about a case that Freud worked on that directly deals with and outlines the Oedipus complex, has a nice summary of the story of Little Hans.

    So how does this work for girls if they do not have a penis to fear castration of? Excellent question. Sometimes referred to as the Electra Complex, Freud theorized that girls were upset and distressed that they had no penis (referred to as penis envy) and resented their mother for this. He theorized that girls begin desiring their father at this time and become jealous of their mother. Similar to boys, the development of the superego allows the girl to resolve this conflict. Ultimately, she begins to accept that she cannot gain a penis, nor have her father, and she transfers this desire onto other men and later transfers her desire for a penis to a desire for a baby (and maybe even more so, a baby boy; Sammons, n.d.).

    The following link provides a nice summary of how the two genders move through the Phallic Stage: . Overall, for both genders, identification is the ultimate resolution of the internal conflict in the Phallic stage. This results in the individual identifying with the same-sex parent, and adopting that parent’s behaviors, roles, etc. (McLeod, 2008).

    Following the Phallic stage is the Latency stage, in which Freud indicated that no real psychosexual development is occurring, rather impulses are repressed. However, in the Genital stage, Freud theorized that this is a time in which adolescents experiment sexually, and begin to settle into romantic relationships. Freud theorized that healthy development leads to sexual drive being released through heterosexual intercourse; however, fixations or incomplete resolutions of conflict in this stage may lead to sexual atypicalities (e.g., preference for oral sex rather than intercourse, homosexual relations, etc.; McLeod, 2008). Again, you can see, very clearly, that there is an underlying assumption that healthy development equals heterosexuality, which is a major criticism of Freud’s theory (Sammons, n.d.).

    5.1.2. Karen Horney

    Horney developed a Neo-Freudian theory of personality that recognized some points of Freud’s theory as acceptable, but also criticized his theory as being overly bias toward the male. There is truth in this if you think about Freud’s theory. Ultimately, to really develop fully, one must have a penis – according to Freud’s theory. A female can never “fully” resolve penis envy, and thus, she is never fully able to resolve the conflict. As such, according to Freud’s theory, if taken literally, a female can never fully resolve the core conflict of the Phallic Stage and will always have some fixation and thus, some maladaptive development. Horney disputed this (Harris, 2016). In fact, she went as far as to counter Freud’s penis envy with womb envy (a man envying a woman’s ability to have children). She theorized that men looked to compensate for their lack of ability to carry a child by succeeding in other areas of life (Psychodynamic and neo-freudian theories, n.d.)

    The center of Horney’s theory is that individuals need a safe and nurturing environment. If they are provided such, they will develop appropriately. However, if they are not, and experience an unsafe environment, or lack of love and caring, they will experience maladaptive development which will result in anxiety (Harris, 2016). An environment that is unsafe and results in abuse, neglect, stressful family dynamics, etc. is termed by Horney as basic evil. As mentioned, these types of experiences (basic evil) lead to maladaptive development which was theorized to occur because the individual began to believe that, if their parent did not love them then no one could love them. The pain that was produced from basic evil then led to basic hostility. Basic hostility was defined as the individual’s anger at their parents while experiencing high frustration that they must still rely on them and were dependent on them (Harris, 2016).

    This basic evil and basic hostility ultimately led to anxiety. Anxiety resulted in an individual developing interpersonal strategies of defense (ways a person relates to others). These strategies are considered to fall in three categories (informed by Harris, 2016):

    Table 8.2: Interpersonal Strategies

    Interpersonal Strategy Key Direction Actions the Person Takes How This Presents in Their Personalities
    Compliant Solution Toward The individual moves toward people. They seek out another person’s attention. This is the people pleaser and dependent person. The person that avoids failure and always takes the “safe” option.
    Detachment Solution Away These individuals move away from others and attempt to protect themselves by eluding connection and contact with others. These individuals want independence and struggle with commitment. They often try to hide flaws
    Expansive Solution Against These individuals move against others. They seek interaction with others, not to connect with them, rather to gain something from them. They seek power and admiration from others, as well as being seen as highly attention seeking. This category is further split into three types of individuals:

    1. The Narcissist.

    2. The Perfectionist.

    3. The Arrogant-Vindictive person.

    Although Horney disputed much of Freud’s male biased theories, she recognized that females are born into a society dominated by males. As such, she recognized that females may be limited due to this, which then leads to developing a masculinity complex. This is the feeling of inferiority due to one’s sex. She noted that one’s family can strongly influence one’s development (or lack thereof) of this complex. She described that if a female was disappointed by males in her family (such as their father or brother, etc.), or if they were overly threatened by females in their family (especially their mothers), they may actually develop contempt for their own gender. She also indicated that if females perceived that they had lost the love of their father to another woman (often to the mother) then the individual may become more insecure. This insecurity then would lead to either (1) withdrawal from competing or (2) becoming more competitive (Harris, 2016). The need for the male attention was referred to overvaluation of love (Harris, 2016).

    5.2. Gender Socialization

    Section Learning Objectives

    • To gain a basic understanding of the theory of socialization
    • To increase understanding of how gender is socialized
    • To increase understanding of how socialization theories regarding gender.
    • To understand potential strengths as well as weaknesses and criticisms of these theories.

    It’s clear that even very early theories of gender development recognized the importance of environmental or familial influence, at least to some degree. As theories have expanded, it has become clearer that socialization of gender occurs. However, each theory has a slightly different perspective on how that may occur. We will discuss a few of those in brief detail, but will focus more on major concepts and generally accepted processes.

    Before we get started, I want you to ask yourself a few questions – When do we begin to recognize and label ourselves as boy or girl, and why? Do you think it happens very young? Is it the same across countries? Let’s answer some of those questions.

    Theories that suggest that gender identity development is universal across countries and cultures (e.g., Eastern versus Western cultures, etc.) have been scrutinized. Critics suggest that, although biology may play some role in gender identity development, the environmental and social factors are perhaps more powerful in most developmental areas, and gender identity development is no different. It is the same “nature versus nurture” debate that falls on the common response of both nature and nurture playing important roles and to ignore one is a misunderstanding of the developmental process (Magnusson & Marecek, 2012). In this section, we are going to focus on the social, environmental, and cultural aspects of gender identity development

    5.2.1. Early Life

    Infants do not prefer gendered toys (Bussey, 2014). However, by age 2, they show preferences. (Servin, Bhlin, & Berlin, 1999). Did you know that infants can differentiate between male and female faces and voices in their first year of life (typically between 6-12 months of age; Fagan, 1976; Miller, 1983)? Not only that, they can pair male and female voices with male and female faces (known as intermodal gender knowledge; Poulin-Dubois, Serbin, Kenyon, & Derbyshire, 1994). Think about that for a moment – infants are recognizing and matching gender before they can ever talk! Further, 18-month old babies associated bears, hammers, and trees with males. By age 2, children use words like “boy” and “girl” correctly (Leinbach & Fagot, 1986) and can accurately point to a male or female when hearing a gender label given. It appears that children first learn to label others’ gender, then their own. The next step is learning that there are shared qualities and behaviors for each gender (Bussey, 2014).

    By a child’s second year of life, children begin to display knowledge of gender stereotypes. Research has found this to be true in preverbal children (Fagot, 1974), which is really incredible, if you think about it. After an infant has been shown a gendered item (doll versus a truck) they will then stare at a photograph of the “matching gender” longer. So, if shown a doll, they will then look at a photograph of a girl, rather than a boy, for longer (when shown photographs of both a boy and girl side by side). This is specifically true for girls as young as 18-24 months; however, boys do not show this quite as early (Serbin,Poulin-Dubois, Colburne, Sen, & Eichstedt, 2001). Although interpretations and adherence to gender stereotypes is very rigid, initially, as children get older, they learn more about stereotypes and that gender stereotypes are flexible and varied. We actually notice a curved pattern in how rigid children are to stereotyped gender behaviors and expectations (Bussey, 2014). Initially, children are very rigid in stereotypes and stereotyped play. As they reach middle childhood, they become more flexible. However, in adolescents, they become more rigid again. And, generally, boys are more rigid and girls are more flexible with gender stereotypes, comparatively (Blakemore et al., 2009).

    There are many factors that may lead to the patterns we see in gender socialization. Let’s look at a few of those factors and influencers.

    5.2.2. Parents

    Parents begin to socialize children to gender long before they can label their own. Think about the first moment someone says they are pregnant. One of the first questions is “How far along are you?” and then “Are you going to find out the sex of the baby?” We begin to socialize children to gender before they are even born! We pick out boy and girl names, we choose particular colors for nurseries, types of clothing, and decor, all based on a child’s gender, often before they are ever born (Bussey, 2014). The infant is born into a gendered world! We don’t really give infants a chance to develop their own preferences – parents and the caregivers in their life do that for them, immediately. Parents even respond to a child differently, based on their gender. For example, in a study in which adults observed an infant that was crying, adults described the infant to be scared or afraid when they were told the infant was a girl. However, they described the baby as angry or irritable when told the infant was a boy. Moreover, parents tend to reinforce independence in boys, but dependence in girls. They also overestimate their sons’ abilities and underestimate their daughters’ abilities. Research has also revealed that prosocial behaviors are encouraged more in girls, than boys (Garcia & Guzman, 2017).

    Parents label gender even when not required. When observing a parent reading a book to their child, Gelman, Taylor, & Nguyen (2004) noted that parents used generic expressions that generalized one outcome/trait to all individuals of a gender, during the story. For example, “Most girls don’t like trucks.” Essentially, parents provided extra commentary in the story, and that commentary tended to include vast generalizations about gender. Initially, mothers engaged in this behavior more than the children did; however, as children aged, children began displaying this behavior more than their mothers did. Essentially, mothers modeled this behavior, and children later began to enact the same behavior. Further, as children got older, mothers then affirmed children’s gender generalization statements when made.

    Boys are more gender-typed and fathers place more focus on this (Bvunzawabaya, 2017). As children develop, parents tend to also continue gender-norm expectations. For example, boys are encouraged to play outside (cars, sports, balls) and build (Legos, blocks), etc. and girls are encouraged to play in ways that develop housekeeping skills (dolls, kitchen sets; Bussey, 2014). What parents talk to their children about is different based on gender as well. For example, they may talk to daughters more about emotions and have more empathic conversations, whereas they may have more knowledge and science-based conversations with boys (Bussey, 2014).

    Parental expectations can have significant impacts on a child’s own beliefs and outcomes including psychological adjustment, educational achievement, and financial success (Bvunzawabaya, 2017). When parents approach more gender-equal or neutral interactions, research shows positive outcomes (Bussey, 2014). For example, girls did better academically if their parents took this approach versus very gender-traditional families.

    5.2.3. Peers

    Peers are strong influences regarding gender and how children play. As children get older, peers become increasingly influential. In early childhood, peers are pretty direct about guiding gender-typical behaviors. As children get older, their corrective feedback becomes subtler. So how do peers socialize gender? Well, non-conforming gender behavior (e.g., boys playing with dolls, girls playing with trucks) is often ridiculed by peers and children may even be actively excluded. This then influences the child to conform more to gender-traditional expectations (e.g., boy stops playing with a doll and picks up the truck).

    We begin to see boys and girls segregate in their play, based on gender, in very early years. Children tend to play in sex-segregated peer groups. We notice that girls prefer to play in pairs while boys prefer larger group play. Boys also tend to use more threats and physical force whereas girls do not prefer this type of play. Thus, there are natural reasons to not intertwine and to instead segregate (Bussey, 2014). The more a child plays with same-gender peers, the more their behavior becomes gender-stereotyped. By age 3, peers will reinforce one another for engaging in what is considered to be gender-typed or gender-expected play. Likewise, they will criticize, and perhaps even reject a peer, when a peer engages in play that is inconsistent with gender expectations. Moreover, boys tend to be very unforgiving and intolerant of nonconforming gender play (Fagot, 1984).

    5.2.4. Media and Advertising

    Media includes movies, television, cartoons, commercials, and print media (e.g., newspapers, magazines). In general, media tends to portray males as more direct, assertive, muscular, in authority roles, and employed, whereas women tend to be portrayed as dependent, emotional, low in status, in the home rather than employed, and their appearance is often a focus. Even Disney movies tend to portray stereotyped roles for gender, often having a female in distress that needs to be saved by a male hero; although Disney has made some attempts to show women as more independent and assertive in more characters. We have seen a slight shift in this in many media forms, although it is still very prevalent, that began to occur in the mid to late 1980s and 1990s (Stever, 2017; Torino, 2017). This is important, because we know that the more children watch TV, the more gender stereotypical beliefs they have (Durkin & Nugent, 1998; Kimball 1986).

    Moreover, when considering print media, we know that there tends to be a focus on appearance, body image, and relationships for teenage girls, whereas print media tends to focus on occupations and hobbies for boys. Even video games have gender stereotyped focuses. Females in videogames tend to be sexualized and males are portrayed as aggressive (Stever, 2017; Torino, 2017).

    5.2.5. School Influences

    Research tends to indicate that teachers place a heavier focus, in general, on males – this means they not only get more praise, they also receive more correction and criticism (Simpson & Erickson, 1983). Teachers also tend to praise boys and girls for different behaviors. For example, boys are praised more for their educational successes (e.g., grades, skill acquisition) whereas girls are acknowledged for more domesticate-related qualities such as having a tidy work area (Eccles, 1987). Overall, teachers place less emphasis on girls’ academic accomplishments and focus more on their cooperation, cleanliness, obedience, and quiet/passive play. Boys, however, are encouraged to be more active, and there is certainly more of a focus on academic achievements (Torino, 2017).

    The focus teachers and educators have on different qualities may have a lasting impact on children. For example, in adolescence, boys tend to be more career focused whereas girls are focused on relationships (again, this aligns with the emphasis we see placed by educators on children based on their gender). Girls may also be oriented toward relationships and their appearance rather than careers and academic goals, if they are very closely identifying with traditional gender roles. They are more likely to avoid STEM-focused classes, whereas boys seek out STEM classes (more frequently than girls). This may then impact major choices if girls go to college, as they may not have experiences in STEM to foster STEM related majors (Torino, 2017). As such, the focus educators place on children can have lasting impacts. Although we are focusing on the negative, think about what could happen if we saw a shift in that focus!

    Okay, so we talked above about how children are socialized to gender – but how? Well there are a few areas we should discuss. We will cover social theories, cognitive theories, social cognitive theories, and biological theories.

    5.2.6. Social Theories Social learning theory. Do you remember Albert Bandura from Introduction to Psychology? He’s the guy that had children watch others act aggressively toward a doll (the BoBo doll), and then observed children’s behaviors with the same doll. Children that watched aggressive acts then engaged in aggression with the doll. Essentially, a behavior was modeled, and then they displayed the behavior. Here is a link to a video with Albert Bandura and footage from his experiment: Let’s think about this in a current-life example. You walk into a gym for the first time. It is full of equipment you aren’t sure how to use. What do you do if you want to know how to use it (let’s assume the nice little instructions with pictures are not posted on the equipment)? The most likely thing, if there is no trainer/employee around to ask, is to watch what someone does on the machine. You watch what how they set it up, what they do, etc. You then go to the equipment and do the same exact thing! This is modeling. You modeled the behavior the person ahead of you did. The same thing can happen with gender – modeling applies to gender socialization.

    We receive much of our information about gender from models in our environment (think about all the factors we just learned about – parents, media, school, peers). If a little girl is playing with a truck and looks over and sees three girls playing with dolls, she may put the truck down and play with the dolls. If a boy sees his dad always doing lawn work, he may too try to mimic this, in the immediacy. Here is the interesting part: modeling does just stop after the immediate moment is over. The more we see it, the more it becomes a part of our socialization. We begin to learn rules of how we are to act and what behavior is accepted and desired by others, what is not, etc. Then we engage in those behaviors. We then become models for others as well! Now, some theories question modeling; although, further research has shown that modeling appears to be imperative in development, but the level of specificity or rigidity to gender norms of the behavior being modeled is also important (Perry & Bussey, 1979). Other’s incorporate modeling into their theory with some caveats. Kohlberg is one of those theorists, and we will learn about later. Social cognitive theory. Another theory combines the theory of social learning with cognitive theories (we will discuss cognitive theories below). While modeling in social learning explains some things, it does not explain everything. This is because we don’t just model behavior, we also monitor how others react to our behaviors. For example, if a little girl is playing with a truck her peers laugh at her, that is feedback that her behavior is not gender-normative and she then may change the behavior she engages in. We also get direct instruction on how to behave as well. Again, girls don’t sit with their legs open, boys don’t play with dolls, girls don’t get muddy and dirty, boys don’t cry – you get the point. When peers or adults directly instruct another on what a girl or boy is or is not to do, although not modeling, is a heavily influential socializing factor. To explain this, social cognitive theory posits that one has enactive experiences (this is essentially when a person receives reactions to gendered behavior), direct instruction (this is when someone is taught knowledge of expected gendered behavior), and modeling (this is when others show someone gendered behavior and expectations). This theory posits that these social influences impact children’s development of gender understanding and identity (Bussey, 2014). Social cognitive theories of gender development explain and theorize that development is dually influenced by (1) biology and (2) the environment. Moreover, the theory suggests that these things impact and interact with various factors (Bussey & Bandura, 2005). This theory also accounts for the entire lifespan when considering development, which is drastically different than earlier theories, such as psychodynamic theories.

    5.3. Cognitive Theories

    Section Learning Objectives

    • To gain a basic understanding of cognitive theories
    • To increase understanding of how Kohlberg theorized gender, and how his theory applies to gender in psychology
    • To increase knowledge about gender schema theory

    5.3.1. Kohlberg’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

    Lawrence Kohlberg theorized the first cognitive developmental theory. He theorized that children actively seek out information about their environment. This is important because it places children as an active agent in their socialization. According to cognitive developmental theory, a major component of gender socialization occurs by children recognizing that gender is constant and does not change which is referred to this as “gender constancy”. Kohlberg indicated that children choose various behaviors that align with their gender and match cultural stereotypes and expectations. Gender constancy includes multiple parts. One must have an ability to label their own identity which is known as gender identity. Moreover, an individual must recognize that gender remains constant over time which is gender stability and across settings which is gender consistency. Gender identity appears to be established by around age three and gender constancy appears to be established somewhere between the ages of five and seven. Although Kohlberg’s theory captures important aspects, it fails to recognize things such as how gender identity regulates gender conduct and how much one adheres to gender roles through their life (Bussey, 2014).

    Although Kohlberg indicated that modeling was important and relevant, he posited that it was only relevant once gender constancy is achieved. He theorized that constancy happens first, which then allows for modeling to occur later (although the opposite is considered true in social cognitive theory). The problem with his theory is children begin to recognize gender and model gender behaviors before they have cognitive capacities for gender constancy (remember all that we learned about how infants show gender-based knowledge?!).

    5.3.2. Gender Schema Theory

    Gender schema theory, although largely a cognitive theory, does incorporate some elements of social learning as well. Schemas are essentially outlines – cognitive templates that we follow, if you will. Thus, a gender schema is an outline about genders – a template to follow regarding gender. The idea is that we use schemas about gender to guide our behaviors and actions. Within this theory, it is assumed that children actively create their schemas about gender by keeping or discarding information obtained through their experiences in their environment (Dinella, 2017).

    Interestingly, there are two variations of gender schema theory. Bem created one theory while Martin and Halverson created another. We won’t get into too many details about the variations for the purposes of this class (Dinella, 2017).

    Overall, it is widely accepted that there are two types of schemas that are relevant in gender schema theory – superordinate schemas and own-sex schemas. Essentially, superordinate schemas guide information for gender groups whereas own-sex schemas guide information about one’s own behaviors as it relates to their own gender group (Dinella, 2017).

    So why have schemas? Well, it’s a cheat sheet that makes things easier and quicker, essentially. Think about it, if you have an outline for a test that told you that the shortest answer is always the right answer, you wouldn’t even have to study. Heck, you don’t even have to ‘read’ the question options. You can simply find the choice that has the least amount of words, pick it, and you’ll ace the test (wouldn’t that be nice?!). So, gender schemas make it easier to make decisions in the moment, regarding gendered behavior. Here is an example. If a child has created a schema that says boys play with trucks, when the boy is handed a truck, he will quickly choose to play with it. However, if the truck is handed to a girl, she may quickly reject it (Dinella, 2017)

    So how do children develop schemas? Well, it likely occurs in three different phases. First, children start recognizing their own gender groups and begin to build schemas. Then, a rigid phase occurs in which things are very black or white, (or, girl or boy, if you will). Things can only be one or the other, and there is very little flexibility in schemas. This occurs somewhere between ages five and seven. Lastly, a phase in which children begin to recognize that schemas are flexible and allow for a bit more of a “gray” area occurs (Dinella, 2017).

    Let’s think of how schemas are used to begin to interpret one’s world. Once a child can label gender of themselves, they begin to apply schemas to themselves. So, if a schema is “Only girls cook”, then a boy may apply that to themselves and learn he cannot cook. This then guides his behavior. Martin, Eisenbud, and Rose (1995) conducted a study in which they had groups of boy toys, girl toys, and neutral toys. Children used gender schemas and gravitated to gender-normed toys. For example, boys preferred toys that an adult labeled as boy toys. If a toy was attractive (meaning a highly desired toy) but was label for girls, boys would reject the toy. They also used this reasoning to predict what other children would like. For example, if a girl did not like a block, she would indicate “Only boys like blocks” (Berk, 2004; Liben & Bigler, 2002).

    5.4 Biological Theories

    Section Learning Objectives

    • To gain a basic understanding of biological theories
    • To increase understanding of how biology may impact gender development through evolution, genetics, epigenetics, and learning.

    In regard to biological theories, there tends to be four areas of focus. Before we get into those areas, let’s remember that we are talking about gender development. That means we are not focusing on the anatomical/biological sex development of an individual, rather, we are focusing on how biological factors may impact gender development and gendered behavior. So, back to ‘there are four main areas of focus.’ The four areas of focus include (1) evolutionary theories, (2) genetic theories, (3) epigenetic theories, and (4) learning theories (don’t worry, I’ll explain how this is biology related, rather than cognitively or socially related).

    5.4.1. Evolution Theories

    Within evolution-based theories, there are three schools of thought: sex-based explanations, kinship-based explanations, and socio-cognitive explanations. Sex-based explanations explain that gendered behaviors have occurred as a way to adapt and increase the chances of reproduction. Ultimately, gender roles get divided into females focusing on rearing children and gathering food close to home, whereas males go out and hunt and protect the family. To carry out the required tasks, males needed higher androgens/testosterone to allow for higher muscle capacity as well as aggression. Similarly, females need higher levels of estrogen as well as oxytocin, which encourages socialization and bonding (Bevan, 2017). Although this may seem logical at surface level, it does not account for what we see in more egalitarian homes and cultures. This theory does seem to explain everything, doesn’t it?

    Then, there is kinship-based explanations that rationalize that very early on, we lived in groups as a means of protection and survival. As such, the groups that formed tended to be kin and shared similar DNA. Essentially, the groups with the strongest DNA that allowed for the best traits for survival, survived. Further, given that this came down to “survival of the fittest” it made sense to divvy up tasks and important behaviors. Interestingly, this was less based on sex and more on qualities of an individual, essentially using people’s strengths to the group’s advantage. This theory tends to be more supported, than sex-based theories (Bevan, 2017).

    Lastly, socio-cognitive explanations explain that we have changed our environment, and that, thus, we have changed in the environment in which natural selection occurs. Essentially, when we use our cognitive abilities to create things, such as tools, we thus change our environment. We are then changing the environment that defined what behaviors/assets were necessary to survive. For example, if we can now use tools to hunt more effectively, the traditional needs of a male (as explained in sex-based theories) may be less critical in this task (Bevan, 2017).

    5.4.2. Genetic-based Theories

    We can be “genetically predisposed” to many things, mental illness, cancer, heart conditions, etc. It is theorized that we also are predisposed to gendered behavior and identification. This theory is most obvious when individuals are predisposed to a gender that does not align with biological sex, also referred to as transgender. Research has actually revealed that there is some initial evidence that gender involves somewhat of a genetic predisposition. Specifically, twin studies have shown that nonconforming gender traits, or transgender, is linked to genetic gender predispositions. More specifically, when one twin is transgender, it is more likely that the other twin is transgender as well. This phenomenon is not evidenced in fraternal twins or non-twin siblings to the same degree (Bevan, 2017).

    Genetic gender predisposition theorists further reference case studies in which males with damaged genitalia undergo plastic surgery as infants to modify their genitalia to be more female aligned. These infants are then raised as girls, but often become gender nonconforming. David Reimer is an example of one of these cases (Bevan, 2017). To learn more about this case, you can read his book, As Nature Made Him. I’ve also attached an educational YouTube video that does a decent job summarizing David’s case (linked here: as well as a short clip from an Oprah show in which David’s family appears on (linked here:

    5.4.3. Epigenetics

    This area of focus does not look at DNA, but rather things that may impact DNA mutations or the expression of DNA. Really, this area falls into two subcategories: prenatal hormonal exposure and prenatal toxin exposure.

    Let’s quickly recap basic biology. It is thought that gender, from a biological theory stance, begins in the fetal stage. This occurs due to varying levels of exposure to testosterone. Shortly after birth, boys experience an increase in testosterone, whereas girls experience an increase in estrogen. This difference has actually been linked to variations in social, language, and visual development between sexes. Testosterone levels have been linked to sex-typed toy play and activity levels in young children. Moreover, when females are exposed to higher levels of testosterone, they are noted to engage in more male-typical play (e.g., preference for trucks over dolls, active play over quiet), rather than female-typical play compared to their counterparts (Hines et al., 2002; Klubeck, Fuentes, Kim-Prieto, 2017; Pasterski et al., 2005). Although this has been found to be true predominantly utilizing only animal research, it is a rather simplified theory. What we have learned is that, truthfully, things are pretty complicated and other hormones and chemicals are at play. However, for this class, we will not get into the nitty gritty details (Bevan, 2017).

    Prenatal toxin exposure appears to be relevant when examining diethylstilbestrol (DES), specifically. DES was prescribed to pregnant women in late 1940’s through the early 1970’s. DES was designed to mimic estrogen, and it does; however, it has many negative side effects that estrogen does not. One of the negative side-effects is that it mutates DNA and alters its expression. The reason it was finally taken off the market was because females were showing higher rates of cancer. In fact, they found that this drug had cancer-related impacts out to three generations! While there was significant research done on females, less research was done on males. However, recent studies suggest that 10% of registrants (in a national study) that were exposed to DES reported identifying as transgender or transsexual. For comparison, only 1% of the general population identifies as transgender or transsexual. Thus, it is theorized that gender development in those exposed to DES, particularly males, were impacted (Bevan, 2017).

    5.4.4. Learning

    Okay, before we get too far, you are probably wondering how learning is related to biological theories. Well, really, it is due to the areas of the brain that are impacted. So, as we very briefly review this, focus on the different brain structures that impact the learning capacities of each area. Within learning-based biological theories, there are five types of learning theorized to occur. First, declarative episodic learning is learning that occurs by observing or modeling behavior, which requires an individual to be able to verbally recall what has been observed. The verbal recall component is the declarative component and the individual actually experiencing the events (not simply being told about them) is the episodic component. Next, declarative fact learning, is simply learning by being presented factual information. Third is nondeclarative motor learning, which heavily involves the cerebellum. This is learning essentially done through motor practice. Fourth is declarative procedural learning. This learning relies on subcortical striatum structures. This focuses on learning sequencing for behaviors. And lastly, nondeclarative emotional learning involves the amygdala and hypothalamus. This is learning in which we get behavioral feedback from people and our environment and incorporate this (Bevan, 2017).

    Module Recap

    In this module, we created a foundational knowledge of several theories of gender development. We learned about the beginning theories, with psychodynamic theories from Freud and Horney. We then jumped into learning about social-based theories of social learning and social-cognitive theory. We took a detailed look into various socializing factors that children encounter. Then we uncovered two cognitive-based theories – Kohlberg’s theory and gender schema theory. And lastly, we took a brief look at various biological explanations of gender development.

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