Gender-Role Development

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Gender-role development is one of the most important areas of human development. In fact, the sex of a newborn sets the agenda for a whole array of developmental experiences that will influence the person throughout his or her life.

The often controversial study of the development of gender is a topic that is inherently interesting to parents, students, researchers, and scholars for several reasons. First and foremost, one's sex is one of the most salient characteristics that is presented to other people. Second, who one is as a male or a female becomes a significant part of one's overall identity; it is one of the first descriptors people use about themselves. Labeling oneself as a "boy" or "girl" can begin as early as age eighteen months. Third, gender is an important mediator of human experiences and the way in which individuals interact with each other and the physical environment. Individuals' choices of friends, toys, classes taken in middle school, and vocation all are influenced by sex. Finally, the study of sex, gender development, and sex differences becomes the focal point of an age-old controversy that has influenced the field of developmental psychology: the nature-nurture controversy. Are gender roles and sex differences biologically determined? What are the effects of society and culture on gender and sex? How do biology (nature) and environment (nurture) interact and mutually influence each other in this significant dimension of human development?

When discussing gender-role development, the definitions of the terms "sex" and "gender" need to be understood. Referring to the nature-nurture controversy, scholars have found it important to distinguish those aspects of males and females that can be attributed to biology and those that can be attributed to social influences. The term "sex" denotes the actual physical makeup of individuals that define them as male or female. Sex is determined by genetic makeup, internal reproductive organs, the organization of the brain (such as in the control of hormone production), and external genitalia. By contrast, the behavior of individuals as males or females, the types of roles they assume, and their personality characteristics, may be as much a function of social expectations and interactions as their biological makeup. For example, in American culture, females are expected to be nurturing, and males aggressive. These behaviors and characteristics are dependent upon the social context. In order to differentiate social roles and behaviors from biological features, scholars refer to these as "gender" and "gender roles." Obviously, sex and gender are intertwined. Social expectations usually are enacted once body parts reveal the biological makeup of the individual.

The Development of Sex and Gender

Both sex and gender have a developmental story to tell that begins before birth (prenatal) and continues throughout the lifespan. Important developmental changes occur from conception through the adolescence years, and there are important theoretical perspectives and research studies that have tried to shed light on these developmental accomplishments.

Prenatal Development

Gender-role development begins at conception. If the fertilized cell has an XY chromosomal pattern, the baby will become a genetic male; an XX chromosomal pattern will lead to a genetic female. There cannot be a genetic male without that Y chromosome. Sometimes there are aberrations to these patterns, which can ultimately lead to a number of syndromes such as females with only one X chromosome (Turner's syndrome) or males with two Xs and one Y (Klinefelter's syndrome). Frequently these syndromes result in some form of cognitive and physical impairment.

At around week six of gestation, the hormone testosterone will stimulate the tissues into developing into the male internal organs; otherwise, the organs will become part of the female reproductive system. Then, by around three or four months, the external genitalia are formed. It is also during early prenatal development that the brain, bathed by the male and female hormones, may differentiate into a "female" or "male" brain (for example, female brains may be more symmetrically organized), but most of this research is still inconclusive.

Prenatal sex differentiation culminates at birth. When the proclamation of "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" is made, the complex process of socialization begins. It is important to recognize that the path of prenatal development may take significant deviations. Aside from the chromosomal abnormalities already mentioned, there are instances during prenatal development when females are bathed by the male hormones (androgens), and situations where male genital tissues are insensitive to the differentiating function of the male hormones. Both situations can lead to a baby born with ambiguous genitalia. In such situations, parents face agonizing decisions: whether to surgically "correct" the condition and whether to raise the baby as a female or as a male.


Overall, the sex differences between boys and girls in the first year of life are minimal. Boys may be a bit more active or fussier and girls more physically mature and less prone to physical problems, but that may be the extent of the significant differences. Yet, baby boys are bounced and roughhoused, whereas girls are talked to more. Mothers tend to ignore the emotional expressions of their infant sons, while fathers spend more time with their boys than with their girls. Even during infancy, their names, their clothing, the "sugar and spice" messages in baby congratulation cards, and their room furnishings shape girls and boys. According to Marilyn Stern and Katherine H. Karraker, adults will characterize the same baby as strong and hardy if they think it is a male, and delicate and soft if they think it is a female. In these and other ways, gender-role socialization has already begun in earnest.

Early Childhood

The years from about age two to age six are crucial years in the development of gender roles. It is during these years that children become aware of their gender, where play styles and behaviors begin to crystallize around that core identity of "I am a girl" or "I am a boy," and that the social context of family, school, the peer group, and the media exert potent messages in stereotyped ways. Because of the centrality of gender-role development during these years, most theories of social and personality development highlight the early childhood years. For example, in the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, in the third stage of psychosexual development a male child encounters the Oedipal Crisis, a time when the only way in which he can cope with his desire for his mother and fear of his father is to completely identify and incorporate his father's characteristics within himself. Freud posited a similar process for girls' desires for their fathers (the Electra complex). Although many contemporary psychologists do not agree with this theory in general, Freud is credited with highlighting the development of gender and gender-role behaviors very early in childhood and their link to identification with parents.

Social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura, emphasizes the importance of children's imitation of the behavior of others (models). The theory posits that boys learn how to behave as boys from observing and imitating masculine behaviors, especially from their fathers, and girls learn from imitating females, especially their mothers. When children imitate same-sex behaviors, they are rewarded, but imitating the other sex may carry the threat of punishment. Although the research indicates that most parents value the same behaviors for their sons and daughters, some rewards or punishments are given on the basis of gender typing, particularly during play. This is even more true for boys than for girls, with fathers being the most punitive if, for example, they observe their sons playing with Barbie dolls or sporting red fingernail polish.

Finally, cognitive developmental theory underscores the importance of understanding what it means to be a boy or girl in the development of gender roles. In 1966 Lawrence Kohlberg conceived of gender development as a three-stage process in which children first learn their identity ("I am a boy"), then gender stability ("I will always be a boy and grow up to be a man"), and finally gender constancy ("Even if I wore a dress, I would still be a boy"), all by about six years of age. A newer version of this approach, formulated by Carol Martin and Charles Halverson in 1981, emphasized the development of gender schemas— children's ideas of gender that help them categorize experiences as relevant to one sex or the other.

Regardless of which theoretical explanation of gender roles is used, the early acquisitions of such ideas and behaviors make for very stereotyped youngsters. Because young children see the world in black- and-white terms, they may go as far as to insist that only men could be physicians, even when their own pediatrician is a woman!

Middle Childhood

Whereas parents play a significant role in gender socialization when their children are very young, when most Western boys and girls enter school they separate into gender-segregated groups that seem to operate by their own set of peer-driven rules. Gender segregation is such a widespread phenomenon that boys and girls seem to work and play together only when there is a coercive adult present. During unstructured free time, the lapse into the "two cultures of childhood" (Maccoby 1998, p. 32) is quite obvious—the other sex becomes "toxic." A typical boys' group is large, competitive, hierarchical, with one or two boys at the top of the pecking order, and organized around large group outdoor activities such as sports. Rough-and-tumble play and displays of strength and toughness frequently occur. In contrast, girls' groups tend to be smaller and dependent on intense, intimate conversations where the emphasis is upon maintaining group cohesion. Girls try very hard to be "nice" to one another, even as they attempt to covertly promote their own agenda. In her 1998 book The Two Sexes, Eleanor Maccoby stated her belief that this segregation, hints of which may be seen as early as age four or five, begins when girls shy away from their exuberant, active male playmates, who do not rely as much upon language for persuasion and influence. The boys' groups ultimately evolve into a strict order that avoids anything perceived as feminine. Girls have much greater latitude in American society to cross that sacred border. Maccoby contended that these interaction styles, to some extent, continue throughout adolescence and adulthood.


Erik H. Erikson believed that adolescence represented a crucial turning point in the development of a sense of identity. All of the physical, social, and cognitive changes of these years lead to frequent soul-searching about "Who am I?" Such uncertainty and insecurity also can further promote conformity into one's gender role, or "gender intensification." During early adolescence, boys may emulate "macho" role models and be quite homophobic; girls may adhere to strict dress codes (e.g., that which is "in") and play down their intellectual talents and abilities. The timing of puberty may also have significant implications for adolescent gender development. Girls are more likely to encounter social difficulties when they mature early, but for boys the opposite is true.

For many adolescents, the uncertainties, conflicting demands, and withdrawal of adult and community support are predictors of significant problems. Much has been written about how difficult the adolescent years are for girls, as they are more likely than boys to experience depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. This may vary, however, according to the ethnicity of the girl, as African-American teenagers do not seem to express such negative views about themselves. In his 1998 book Real Boys, William Pollack emphasized the realization that gender-role socialization makes life hard for boys. Because Western culture provides boys little opportunity for self-expression and close emotional relationships, the suicide rate and rate of violence in teenage boys is far greater than for girls.

By the end of adolescence, both sexes usually become more tolerant of themselves and others in terms of their consideration of gender-related behaviors. Individuals' evolution as men and women continues throughout the lifespan, however, as each person encounters major life transitions such as marriage, parenthood, middle age, and old age. It is important to recognize that although humans emphasize the differential paths of boys and girls in the development of gender roles, the fundamental dimensions of humanity—male and female—are more similar than different.



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Illene C.Noppe