What is Gender Socialization?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Sept 12, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


beautiful happy caucasian children sitting in their room, boy with car, girl with doll

What is Gender Socialization?

  • Gender socialization is the process through which a culture’s gender-related rules, norms, and expectations are learnt.
  • This process often begins from a very early age for most people. It is thought that children are aware of their gender by the time they are 3 years old, long before they come to recognize any other type of group they may belong to (Stockard, 2006).
  • In gender socialization, it is important to distinguish between sex and gender. When referring to anatomical or reproductive differences between men and women, many social scientists use the term sex (Kretchmar, 2011). When referring to gender, this is a social construct which is believed to exist on a continuum and involves ideas about masculinity and femininity.
  • The central idea of gender socialization is that societies have their own ideas of what gender is. People and cultures throughout the world recognize that there are different gender groups and they have assigned roles and responsibilities.
  • Through gender socialization, people develop their own beliefs about gender and ultimately form their own gender identity. People may not be consciously aware of the gender norm decisions that they make. Gender roles and norms are often built into the script of what a man/woman should do or be.

Examples of Gender Socialization

An example of gender socialization is how toys are gendered, being marketed towards boys and girls. In many toy stores, there are often segregated ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys.’

The toys for boys may often be blue and come in the form of action figures, toy cars, and building blocks, whereas the toys for girls are often pink and come in the form of baby dolls, dress-up games, and toy cooking and cleaning sets.

The types of toys and activities are thought to reinforce what genders should do. For instance, the toys advertised to boys reinforce that to be male involves being adventurous, strong, and logic driven.

The toys advertised to girls reinforce that to be female means to be maternal, physically attractive, and to manage household tasks. The advertising for these toys is also usually targeted for specific genders. The boxes for ‘girl toys’ for instance may be various shades of pink and display a young girl playing with the toy on the packaging.

Thus, if a girl sees this, she will likely understand that this toy is targeted for her, rather than packaging which is blue and displays a young boy playing with the toy.

Agents of Gender Socialization

We normally refer to the people responsible for our socialisation as agents of socialisation and, by extension, we can also talk about agencies of socialisation (such as our family, the education system, the media and so forth).

Gender socialization is a form of primary socialization which is the process by which children and infants learn the norms and behaviors associated with their gender. It is thought to occur within the family, peer groups, mass media and school curriculum (Bhattacharjee, 2021).

Parent socialization

Parents are often the first socialization of gender that children experience.

Gender socialization can often begin as soon as parents find out whether they are expecting a boy or a girl. Before the child is born, they may begin painting the baby’s room a certain color and buy specific clothing which is ‘appropriate’ for their child’s gender. 

The language that parents use around their child can also reflect gender socialization. Girls may be referred to as ‘pretty’ or ‘delicate’, whereas boys may be described as ‘strong’ and ‘boisterous.’ Children learn from this language how they should be according to their gender. 

Often there are different expectations for children depending on their gender. Girls may be expected to help out their mother with cooking, shopping, and cleaning activities. Boys may be expected to have high job aspirations, engage in sports, and help their father with fixing things. 

Children tend to be especially attentive to same-gender models (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). Therefore, when children observe their same-sex parent exhibit specific behaviors or engaging in activities which differ from other genders, the child is more likely to exhibit the same behaviors. 

The way that parents behave with their child may differ depending on the child’s gender. Girls may be encouraged to play and behave in a polite and quiet manner, whereas boys may be encouraged to play louder and rougher. 

Even if parents try not to reinforce gender norms, if they have their own gendered socialization from when they were younger, these parents may be inadvertently reinforcing this onto their children. 

Peer socialization

Children can also be socialized by their peers in different ways, according to their gender.

It is thought that by the time children reach the age of three, they often prefer playing with other children of the same gender (Wharton, 2005). This is often found across a variety of cultures and continues until adolescence. They often prefer to play with peers who share similar interests and thus are more likely to be socialized by peers of the same gender. 

An explanation for gender-segregated play is that boys and girls play very differently and seek out others whose play style is similar (Stockard, 2006). Girls often form intimate friendships with a small number of other girls and they take turns speaking and expressing agreement. Boys often play in larger groups, engage in rougher activities, and use interruptions and boasts. 

When spending time with peers, boys and girls learn what is ‘appropriate’ for their gender. They may discuss with each other what boys and girls should do. 

Peers can ‘punish’ each other for engaging in activities that do not conform to their gender. Girls seem to face less pressure than boys to conform to gender norms than boys and are less likely to receive negative attention for participating in ‘cross-gender’ activities and games (Wharton, 2005). 

School socialization

Teachers and other educators may place expectations on children based on their gender. 

They could do this by labeling and organizing students in group activities or creating different activities for boys and girls. As with parents, teachers may use gendered language when speaking to and about boys and girls. 

Schools may encourage boys to engage in science or mathematics whereas they may be more forgiving if girls are not succeeding in these subjects. Teachers may also discipline students in different ways depending on their gender, which may reinforce children’s beliefs and assumptions. 

Media socialization 

Gender socialization through media can include through movies, television, and literature. The media can reinforce gender stereotypes so that children have ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl. 

In a lot of movies and TV, men can often be seen as the heroes and going on adventures. In comparison, women are usually outnumbered by the number of male characters, are often portrayed as being physically attractive, and are frequently introduced as the love interest for the male characters. Female characters are often seen as passive characters who need to be rescued by men and dressed in a way which appeals to the male gaze.

Studies show that children who watch a lot of TV tend to have more sex-stereotypical views of men and women and that this influences their choice of toys, career aspirations, and self-esteem (Burn, 1996). 

While the media is beginning to portray males and females in non-stereotypical ways, a lot of older media shows them in traditionally gender-appropriate ways. For instance, women are shown doing housework or as being stay-at-home mothers, whereas men are shown engaging in a wider variety of activities. 

Theories to Explain Gender Socialization

Social learning theory 

Social learning theory is most closely associated with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. This theory relates to the behaviorist approach which defines learning in terms of stimulus and response. 

Social learning theory explains that gender socialization comes as a result of children being reinforced, both positively and negatively, for gender appropriate and inappropriate behavior (Wharton, 2005). 

For example, if a boy plays with a ‘gender appropriate’ toy such as a football, he may receive positive reinforcement from his father. Whereas, if the boy plays with a ‘gender inappropriate’ toy such as a doll, he may be ignored or receive negative attention from his father. 

According to this theory, children learn what is appropriate from noticing the behavior of their same-sex parent. A young girl may learn what it means to be female by observing her mother, whereas a boy learns what it means to be male by observing his father. 

Social learning theory can be discredited by research which has shown that parents who exhibit sex stereotypical behaviors are not more likely than other parents to have children who exhibit sex stereotypical behaviors (Stockard, 2006). Likewise, children are not thought to be passive learners as social learning theory makes them out to be. Instead, they are more actively engaged in their socialization than the theory suggests (Wharton, 2005). 

Cognitive development theory

Cognitive development theories for gender socialization builds on the research of psychologist Jean Piaget. 

These theories emphasize how the socialization process is developmental in nature. It also argues that children have an active role to play in the development of their gender identity (Stockard, 2006). 

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was one of the first to apply theories of cognitive development to gender identity. He argued that ‘children’s views of appropriate gender roles… change as they grow older, reflecting their changing cognitive development’. 

It is thought that younger children have the most rigid definitions of gender and are more likely to punish others for violating gender norms. As they get older and gain more cognitive flexibility, gender stereotypes and gender roles become more flexible for them. 

Kohlberg believed that once children develop gender constancy – the recognition that their gender is stable and unchanging – they become more motivated to demonstrate gender appropriate behavior (Wharton, 2005). 

Cognitive development theories expand on social learning theory as they acknowledge that children play an active role in the socialization process and suggest that ideas about gender change and develop over time. However, the fact that children can demonstrate gendered behavior as young as two or three years old, long before gender constancy, discredits Kohlberg’s theory (Martin & Ruble, 2004). 

Gender schema theory

Gender schema theory was introduced by psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981 who asserted that children learn about gender roles from the culture in which they live. According to Bem, in cultures where differences between genders are emphasized, children learn to use gender as a way to process information about the world. 

Gender schemas are thought to help children organize information and maintain a sense of consistency and predictability (Stockard, 2006). These schemas tend to be polarized so children come to understand what they believe is acceptable and appropriate for different genders. 

Gender schemas provide an efficient way to hold new information and make new situations more predictable. Children develop more elaborate gender schemas as they develop their gender identity and their understanding of gender roles. This theory suggests that the gender schemas are internalized in a way that males and masculinity are the norm and are more highly valued than females and femininity (Wharton. 2005). 

A limitation of gender schema theory is the issue of individual differences. The theory does not account for why children with much of the same environmental influences respond differently to gender appropriate behavior.

Psychoanalytic theory

The psychoanalytic theory of gender socialization is different from other theories as it is not a learning theory. Founded by Sigmund Freud, its application to gender socialization was outlined in the 1970s by Nancy Chodorow.

The theory suggests that some aspects of gender identity result from unconscious psychological processes and not from conscious processes such as modeling or schemas. 

A key factor of gender socialization according to psychoanalytic theory is the role of the mother as the primary caregiver. Chodorow argues that children’s first identification is with the feminine since they spend more time with their mothers early in life. 

Eventually, children need to develop a sense of themselves and their own gender identity. For girls, this process is easier since they have already identified with the mother. For boys, however, they must first reject their feminine identification and develop masculinity.

This masculinity is defined as being ‘not feminine’. During this process, boys also learn to often devalue femininity. 

Criticisms of psychoanalytic theory for gender socialization is that the theory is hard to empirically verify. It also reinforces gender stereotypes, places too much emphasis on the unconscious, and does not explain how children who were not raised by mothers develop their gender identity. 

How Does Gender Socialization Affect Society?

Women are devalued

In many societies, tasks and behaviors that are associated with femininity and being female are often devalued. Women often complete more unpaid labor such as housework and childcare since this is seen as a feminine role and is not appreciated by being paid. 

Inequalities in the workplace 

Since women are often devalued, many employers may have the gender bias that women will be weaker workers, especially if they have extra labor to do at home. 

Women can still experience a wage gap for completing the same work as men. Women-dominated jobs such as those in healthcare are often underpaid in comparison to male-dominated roles. Women who have children also find they may experience a ‘penalty’ in the workforce and are not afforded the same opportunities as men who have children. 

Negative attitudes about different genders

Children often favor their own gender in their attitudes and show gender discriminatory behaviors to other genders. 

Gender segregated behavior may be supported by adults and may become a problem when children need to be able to function in gender-integrated settings such as school. Children may find that they are not able to effectively relate with other genders which can further separate them and enhance differences. 

Both boys and girls tend to associate positive characteristics with their own gender. However, after the age of 6, it is found that many girls stop showing this pattern and mostly consider that something that requires a lot of intelligence should preferably be done by a male (Bian et al., 2017). Thus, girls can often develop negative feelings and attitudes towards their own gender and their own abilities. 

Moreover, if society has very strict ideas about gender, this can negatively affect individuals who identify as non-binary, transgender, or anyone who does not subscribe to their assigned gender at birth. It can be hard for these individuals to be their true selves in a society that sees gender as being on a strict binary. 

Limitations for men

Gender socialization is limiting to both men and women in a society. Boys and men can experience gender role conflict and pressure to succeed and dominate in their careers. They may feel like a failure if this is not what they want to or cannot do.

Men and boys may also intentionally avoid expressions of affection with their peers, believing that anger is the only appropriate expression of emotion for them. They often view more vulnerable emotions and crying as being feminine and would not be comfortable displaying these in front of others. If a boy were to express typically ‘feminine’ traits, they would be at risk of being bullied so they learn to not display these traits. 

Likewise, if men are pushing down their vulnerable emotions, this can eventually damage their mental health and they could be less likely to reach out for help if they were struggling. Finally, if men are socialized into being more aggressive, they may be more likely to commit crimes and specifically display acts of violence against women.

How does gender socialization relate to gender stereotypes?

Gender stereotyping is where a set of gender attributes, characteristics, or roles are ascribed to people by reason of their membership to their gender. People are thought to be socialized to have gender stereotypes.

If society has specific ideas about what each gender should be and these are socialized to children, this can lead to them having stereotypes about other genders or adhering to their own gender stereotypes.

Although gender stereotypes tend to become more flexible later in childhood with the development of cognitive flexibility, in many instances, they can persist throughout life and continue to influence behavior (Solbes-Canales et al., 2020).

Interestingly, gender stereotyping is less restrictive for female stereotypes than for male stereotypes, meaning that females are less scrutinized for not adhering to gender stereotypes, but males are.

How does gender socialization relate to sexism?

The persistence of traditional gender roles exacerbates gender inequalities, encourages rigid behaviors, and maintains unbalanced power relations within societies in favor of men (Marcus, 2018).

With society having the attitude that women are weaker or less competent than men at the same work, this can lead to discriminatory behavior towards women.

The roots of prejudices, discrimination, and violence against women can be traced back to widespread gender stereotypes, which come from gender socialization (McCarthy et al., 2018).

Is gender socialization important?

Gender socialization is thought to be important since it helps individuals to develop their gender identity - deeply held internal perception of one’s gender.

Being aware of gender socialization and gender roles means that individuals can choose what they most identify with and develop their own identities.

Can gender socialization occur throughout life?

Although a lot of gender socialization occurs during childhood, it is a lifelong process. The beliefs about gender that are acquired in childhood can affect people throughout their lives.

Many new ideas about gender can be learnt well into adulthood, meaning that new expectations can be learnt. Through gender socialization, people have shaped ideas about what they believe they can achieve.

For instance, a man may believe he is capable of being successful in his career compared to a woman who may think she will have less success due to being a woman.

Can gender socialization be tackled?

It can be useful to become more aware of how individuals have been socialized based on their assigned gender. In this way, people can consider whether they behave or make decisions based on how they have been socialized, or whether it is because it is their own choice.

Since there are a lot of issues with gender socialization, parents and educators can put things in place to ensure children are not restricted by their gender.

They can use gender neutral terms when speaking to the children, ensuring that boys and girls are being spoken to in similar ways.

Parents can encourage children to play with a wide range of toys and activities during early childhood and can help to create playful environments where children interact with a mix of genders.

Also, parents and teachers can discuss and challenge gender stereotypes with children and not put so much emphasis on gender differences. In this way, children should have an understanding that they do not need to be stuck in their traditional gender roles.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Sept 12). What is Gender Socialization? Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/gender-socialization.html

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