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Discuss the formation and development of gender roles

Gender role theories

1. Evolutionary theory


  • Biological and psychological differences in men and women are natural and result in different gender roles. Men are naturally more competitive and aggressive because this increases chances of attracting a partner and providing resources for offspring. Women are nurturing because this is needed to attract a partner and take care of offspring.


  • Evaluation The theory is controversial. There are cross cultural differences as well as similarities in gender roles so it is more logical to assume that gender roles should be seen as an interaction of biological and sociocultural factors.


2. Theory of psychosexual differentiation

  • Gender role identity is related to genetic sex determined by chromosomes (XX for girls and XY for boys). During prenatal development, sex hormones are released. These prenatal hormones cause the external genitals of the fetus and the internal reproductive organs to become masculine or feminine. It’s the presence or absence of male hormones (androgens) that makes a difference in psychosexual differentiation.
  • Androgens (e.g. testosterone) in the male fetus stimulate the development of male sex characteristics and have a masculinizing effect on the brain of the developing boy.
  • In this theory humans are born with innate predispositions to act and feel female or male due to the presence or absence of prenatal androgens. Socialization plays a subsidiary role.


3. The biosocial theory of gender role development

  • Money and Ehrhardt (1972) claim that children are gender neutral at birth. Development of gender identity and adherence to gender role is primarily a consequence of socialization.
  • The theory is based on case studies of individuals born with ambiguous genitals called intersex in medical literature. Money found children who had been born as females genetically but were raised as boys and thought of themselves as boys. Money theorized that humans are not born with a gender identity and therefore it is possible to reassign sex within the first two years of life.
  • The theory is supported by animal research. Female rat fetuses injected with testosterone tend to behave like male rats as adults. They do not exhibit normal female sexual behavior in adulthood even if they are injected with the female hormone estrogen at that time.

Case study

  • David Reimer was a twin boy who accidentally lost his penis under a routine circumcision, when he was 8 months. Dr. John Money suggested that the parents change the sex of the boy through surgery, hormone replacement and raise him as a girl. David Reimer was changed into a girl, Brenda.


  • Money used the identical twin as a matched control and believed that this case would support the biosocial theory. In Money’s scientific articles the sex change seemed to be a success but he failed to publish evidence that went against his theory. Brenda (David) was not happy and felt different from the other girls.


  • At the age of 15 her parents revealed the truth. Brenda decided to become a male again and had reconstructive surgery to create a penis.


  • Evaluation: This case study seriously questions the biosocial theory that socialization can override biological make-up. In fact, it rather lends support to the theory of hormonal psychosexual differentiation.


4. Social learning theory

Bandura’s (1977) theory assumes that gender roles are learned through the observation of same-sex models, direct tuition, and modeling.

  1. Modeling of gender role behavior by same-sex models: the child observes how others behave and then imitates (models) that behavior.
  1. Direct tuition: Acceptable gender behavior is rewarded (social approval) by significant others (parents, peers) and gender inappropriate behavior is discouraged (social disapproval).

Smith and Lloyd (1978): the Baby X experiment asked adults to interact with infants dressed in unisex snowsuits of either blue or pink. The snowsuits were randomly distributed and not always in line with the infants’ true sex. The adults played with the infants according to what they believed was the gender of the child (color of snowsuit). This indicates that a baby’s perceived gender is part of the baby’s social environment because people treat the child according to perceptions of gender. This could influence the child’s own perception of gender and become a determining factor in the development of the child’s gender role identity.

Sroufe et al. (1993) observed children around the ages of 10 and 11 and found that those who did not behave in a gender-stereotyped ways were the least popular. These studies indicate that children establish a kind of social control in relation to gender roles very early and it may well be that peer socialization is an important factor in gender role development.

5. Gender schema theory

  • Gender schemas are generalized ideas about what is appropriate behavior for males and females. People are categorized as either male or female and given specific gender attributes (gender stereotypes). Gender schemas thus organize knowledge and information processing.
  • Gender schema theory is based on the assumption that cognitive processes play a key role in the development of gender identity and gender roles.
  • The most important factor in the development of gender role identity is children’s ability to label themselves as boys or girls, i.e. the establishment of gender identity. Gender schemas guide subsequent information processing.
  • Children are motivated to be like others in their group (conformity) and they tend to observe same-sex role models more carefully. Cultural beliefs about female and male gender roles are included in gender schemas and influence the way children think about themselves and their possibilities.

Martin and Halvorson (1983) performed an experiment with boys and girls aged between five and six years. They saw pictures of males and females in activities that were either in line with gender role schemas (e.g. a girl playing with a doll) or inconsistent with gender role schemas (e.g. a girl playing with a gun). A week later, the children were asked to remember what they had seen on the pictures. The children had distorted memories of pictures that were not consistent with gender role schemas. They remembered the picture of a girl playing with a gun as a boy playing with a gun. This shows how information may be distorted to fit with existing schemas.

  • Martin and Halvorson found that children actively construct gender identity based on their own experiences. The tendency to categorize on the basis of gender leads them to perceive boys and girls as different.
  • According to Martin and Halvorson, children have a gender schema for their own sex (the ingroup) and for the opposite sex (the outgroup).
  • Gender schemas determine what children pay attention to, whom they interact with, and what they remember. Gender schemas thus serve as an internal, self-regulating standard. This could be the reason that gender schemas may become a self-fulfilling prophecy or a stereotype threat.