The Development of Gender in the Individual

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Gender refers to the psychological and emotional characteristics of individuals. Defined broadly, gender includes such aspects as personality traits but also involves psychological makeup, attitudes, beliefs and values as well as sexual orientation and gender-role identity.

In the following assignment I am going to take a look at socially imposed patterns in relation to gender, and in turn, their influence on Gender Role Identity and how they are interlinked. I will then discuss the three main psychological theories of gender development: Cognitive developmental theory, Social learning theory, Psychoanalytical theory and their evaluations. I will also take a look at child differences in terms of the games they play, their gender differences in terms of dualism and also group differences. I will then move on to how the educational system can also produce social gender structures.

There are many socially imposed patterns that we ourselves play a part in, in everyday life without our realization. We may understand that while we may have no control over the sex of a newborn child, we have much to do with the development or construction of the child’s gender. For example, when we find out the biological sex of a newborn, different expectations, attitudes and treatments – what are termed stereotypical “baggage” – are called up in our brains. Thus we see ourselves presenting the proud parents with pink or blue clothing, depending on the whether the baby is female or male respectively, and later on, while we give trucks and cars to boys, the girls receive dolls. People even talk to girl babies differently to boys.

Gender role identity refers to the way you view yourself and also how you see yourself relative to stereotypical feminine or masculine traits. While the gender role identity is affected by your sex and your gender, it is within your control to change this identity.

Most often the determination of strength depends on the individual, not the sex. Many times people are so completely stunned by a male emotional display that they don’t know how to react. Many men feel they are programmed to be strong, to mask or at least downplay what they are feeling, so they react emotionally only when they are alone, if in fact they do at all. Because of the pressure to ‘stay strong’, sometimes the emotion gets released through physical exertion or in destructive ways.

The old saying ‘big boys don’t cry’ which any of us would use without a second thought to comfort our son or younger brother is a basic example of socially imposed gender role identity. Perhaps this is also part of the reasoning behind why men commit suicide more often than women. Although women, the emotional beings, attempt suicide almost three times as often as men, it is men who succeed, perhaps they are more determined as they use more violent means such as shooting themselves or hanging themselves.

There are three main psychological theories of gender development: cognitive developmental theory, social learning theory, and psychoanalytic theory. These are all concerned with the notion of ‘identification’, the process through which girls come to identify with the feminine model and boys with the masculine model. However they vary in their assumptions about the age at which gender identity develops, whether gender identity leads to the adoption of a gender role or vice versa, and about the role of parents in the development of both gender identity and gender role.

Cognitive developmental theory

This theory maintains that gender is based on genital sex and is thus a physical property of people that has to be learned in the same way as other unchanging physical properties as for example, that ice is cold. It argues that children see the world in a radically different way from adults, and that their development involves the gradual learning of an adult perspective. Although a child of two or three can label itself accurately as a boy or a girl, it does not know at this age that a person’s gender is based on physical factors, nor that a person’s gender cannot change. A child of this age does not understand that physical objects have an unchangeable quality and that, for example, boys cannot become girls at will. By the age of six, however, a female child not only knows that she is a girl but that she will always be one. When this realization occurs, she begins to demonstrate a definite preference for activities and behaviour that are defined as ‘feminine’. When she adopts such behaviour she is rewarded, for instance, by parental approval. From this point onwards, according to the theory, children develop a conscious wish to be like the same-sex parent and other adults of the same sex parent.

This theory accounts for the fact that children know their gender and can describe themselves correctly as boys or girls and choose gender-appropriate toys and activities, before they are able to relate this to genital sex differences. It argues that gender identity happens before the idea takes root in the child’s mind that gender is fixed. This point is supported by Maccoby and Kacklin’s findings (1974) that the activities selected by children at nursery school are frequently at variance with those that their parents have encouraged at home.

Social learning theory

The social learning theory argues that the learning of gender roles takes place first through observation, then by imitation. Parents play a crucial role in this process because of the amount of time they spend in close contact with their children, and because of the emotional relationship children have with them. Parents reward children for behaviour they consider to be gender-appropriate; children learn to anticipate what will produce approval and behave accordingly. Parents and other adults distinguish between males and females in terms of their interaction with them. The child learns the label ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ appropriate to the behaviour that is rewarded, learns to apply that label to him or herself, and to positively value the label. According to this theory, gender identity develops after gender role behaviour has been established. It does not occur at a particular age.

This theory does not concern itself with the origins or content of definitions of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. It claims that children learn gender identity and gender roles in much the same way that they learn other things. Parents and others, through the giving of rewards and sanctions, encourage children to adopt what they consider to be the appropriate gender role; indeed, the assumption that parents clearly differentiate between boys and girls is central to this theory. There are, however, contradictory findings from studies on how much parents differentiate between male and female children. Kessler and McKenna (1982) state that social learning theory is a useful way of describing the development of gender identity. Even though a daughter may not wear makeup when she is an adult, she does learn, because the label is differentially applied, that she is a girl, and that girls are expected to behave differently to boys.

Psychoanalytical theory

Based on the work of Freud, this theory maintains that a child’s awareness of the differences in boys and girls’ genitals is of crucial importance in the development of gender identity. At first, the development of boys and girls is similar; both focus their love on the person who spends most time with them – the mother. Around the age of five, boys become aware that they have a penis and girls that they do not, and this leads to their developing a fantasy involving their genitals and their parents, as a result of which they come to identify with the same-sex parents.

In the Oedipal phase, a boy feels threatened by the discipline and autonomy, which his father demands of him, fantasizing that the father wishes to remove his penis. Partly consciously, but mostly on an unconscious level, the boy recognizes his father as a rival for the affections of his mother. In repressing erotic feelings towards the mother and accepting the father as a superior being, the boy identifies with the father and becomes aware of his male identity. The boy gives up this love out of the unconscious fear of being castrated by his father. Girls, on the other hand, supposedly suffer from ‘penis envy’ because they do not possess the visible organ that distinguishes boys. The mother becomes devalued in the little girl’s eyes, because she is also seen to lack a penis and to be unable to provide one. When the girl identifies with the mother, she takes over the submissive attitude involved in recognition of being ‘second best’. Imitation follows identification, and the gender role behaviour develops.

Very little recent work has supported Freud’s theory’s basic assumption that physical sex differences are the most important determinant of gender identity for children. Gender identity is fixed before children are aware of genital differences.

Chodorow argues that the breaking process – Freud’s Oedipal transition – occurs in a different way for boys and girls. Girls remain closer to the mother -able, for example to continue hugging and kissing her, and imitating what she does. The little girl stays attached to her mother for longer than the boy. Because there is no sharp break from the mother, the girl, and later the adult woman, has a sense of self, which is more continuous with others. Her identity is more likely to be merged with and/or dependant on another’s; first her mother, later a man.

Also, contrary to Freud’s theory, children continue to learn gender roles throughout life rather than ceasing to develop with the resolution of their childhood fantasy. Recent work has also suggested that identification with a parental model is not the most powerful influence in establishing adult gender identity.

Feminists have criticised all three theories for their concentration on male development, and have pointed out that many of those responsible for the theories are male. This concentration has resulted, according to Kessler and McKenna (1982), in a relative inability to understand how girls develop.

Moving on from these psychological theories on gender development of difference lets now look at child sex differences in relation to toys and games; gender dualisms and group differences. Toys and games can be seen as imposing gender identities, as I mentioned earlier when describing gifts we would give to different sexes. Girls are not usually given guns or soldiers to play with and boys are not normally offered dolls or doll’s houses.

Goodman (1972) found in an American study that children under two were given very similar presents, for example cuddly toys, building blocks, and rattles, but from then on gender-appropriate toys were selected by buyers (mainly parents). In the department store where the research was based, Goodman found that buyers choosing presents spent more time doing so for boys rather than for girls. Major influences on buyers were the packaging of toys and advice given by sales assistants. More money was spent on boys’ presents, and they were more likely to receive toys and games, whereas girls were more likely to be given clothes or furniture. Goodman argues that girls’ toys prepare them for motherhood and domesticity, while boys’ toys offer fantasy, excitement, and intellectual stimulation.

Most research on children and gender involves search either for individual or group differences. Both approaches conceptualise gender in terms of dualisms.

In studies on ‘individual sex differences’ tradition typically set out to explore possible statistical correlations between individuals’ sex/gender (usually understood as unproblematic male/female dichotomy) and specific piece of behaviour of measure of personality.

The pieces that have been studied range widely, including such personality traits as self-esteem, intellectual aptitudes like verbal or spatial ability, such motivational structure as need for affiliation, and specific behaviour, for example amount of time spent in rough-and-tumble play. Extensive research has also studied whether parents and teachers interact (for example touch or talk) differently with boys and girls.

When dealing with group differences, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists of gender have studies social relations of children, and have primarily relied on a model of group differences that is founded on the prevalence of gender separation in the children’s friendships and daily encounters. Every observational study of children’s interactions in pre-schools, elementary schools and junior high schools in the United States has found a high degree of gender separation in seating choices and in the group’s children form. In a study of sixth and seventh graders in a middle school whose enrolment was half black and half white, Schofield found that while racial separation among the students was extensive, gender separation was even greater.

After documenting widespread gender separation in children’s social relations, most researchers have compared the separate worlds of boys and girls. The result is by now familiar litany of generalized contrasts, usually framed as a series of dualisms: boys’ groups are larger, and girls’ groups smaller; “buddies” v “best friends”; boys play more often in public, girls in more private places; boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play, physical conflict than do girls; boys play more organized team sports, girls engage in turn-taking play; with same-gender groups, boys continually maintain and display hierarchies while girls organize themselves into shifting alliances.

There are problems with this separate worlds approach. Much literature, like that on individual sex differences, suffers from endrocentrism: the “boys’ world” is usually described first and more extensively making the “girls’ world” seem explicitly or implicitly lacking. Even other literature such as legal acts and legislation, are usually termed using male titles.

This gender bias can also be seen more simply in relation to education. The pattern of subjects studied varies between single sex schools at secondary level. For example the percentage of boys studying science is approximately one third higher than girls, while for the home economics subject, approximately one percent of boys in single sex schools studied it as opposed to over fifty percent of girls in single sex schools.

Lynch (1989) suggests that boys and girls schools differ considerably in their ‘social climates’. While girls’ schools do have strong academic climates, emphasis is also put on the development of qualities such as ‘caring, sincerity, gentleness and refinement’. Boys’ schools put less emphasis on personal and social development studies and concentrate more on progress and achievement in either sporting or academic fields. Girls are also subject to more strict controls on dress and behaviour. It would appear that girls’ schools are continuing to seek to replicate ‘traditional Irish women’.

It could be said that there is an underlying contradiction in the expectations being made of girls. Boys are expected to see education as a basis for planning employment and career paths. Girls are expected to complete and succeed in academic terms but on the other hand, to retain their role as unselfish and non assertive bearers and transmitters of culture and tradition within the family and community. To boys it is made clear that they are expected to be in paid employment for most of their adult life, and education is to prepare them for this. Girls are also expected to use education in this fashion but also receive strong messages about the other roles and responsibilities they will be expected to undertake as women.

Stereotypes remain about certain types of occupation. Male occupations are seen as dirty, physical to do with power and strength, while women’s occupations express aspects of femininity such as caring, dexterity and communication skills. Men are also still obtaining more high powered and higher paying jobs.

From this assignment we have learned that gender is not only a biological factor but has many other influences ranging from socially imposed patterns to psychological development, toys and games, and also different sex orientated education.

Most cultures elaborate the biological distinction between male and female into a sprawling network of beliefs and practices that permeate virtually every domain of human activity. Different cultures may define the socially correct behaviours, roles and personality characteristics differently from one another, and these may change over time within culture. But whatever its current definition, each culture still strives to transform male and female infants into “masculine” and “feminine” adults.

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