The Case for Nurture: Empirical Evidence on Social/Environmental Influences on Gender



I.                    Three perspectives on gender socialization [“socialization” = the processes by which people, particularly children, learn the customs, practices, ideas, and behavior of their culture and immediate social groups; important kinds of socialization studied by developmental psychologists include gender socialization (how people learn the gender roles and gender-related behaviors of their culture), the socialization of morality (how people learn the moral rules and moral principles of their culture), and learning rules of conventional social behavior (e.g., learning not to pick your nose in public; learning to say, “thank you”).]

A.     Socialization of children by parents: the direct tuition approach

B.     Self-socialization: children as active information processors who infer their own rules about gender

C.     Peer socialization: the influence of other children and the related process of childhood gender segregation


II.                 Parental treatment and the social learning of gender

A.     Three kinds of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and modeling and observational learning

B.     How differently do parents treat their sons and daughters? – Lytton & Romney’s (1991) meta-analysis examined differences in parental warmth, restrictiveness, encouragement of achievement, and encouragement of sex-typed play directed at sons and daughters

C.     Other possible ways in which parents treat boys and girls differently: roughhousing and physical play, talking and emotional discourse, encouraging children to express vs. inhibit emotions and their expression, sex segregation in adult-child relationships; research suggests parents punish boys more than girls

D.     Leaper’s (2000) study: observed mother-son, mother-daughter, father-son, and father-daughter pairs as preschool children played with masculine or feminine toys; Results: parents treated their sons and daughters with equal warmth and directiveness; however, fathers tended to be more assertive than mothers with children; mother tended to be warmer than fathers with children; and children were more assertive with their mothers than with their fathers; study also found that parents were warmer and more directive during feminine “plate play” than during masculine “car play”

E.      “Baby X” experiments: adults and children asked to interact with babies that are labeled to be either male or female; Results: bigger effects on children’s than on adults’ interaction with babies

F.      A number of studies suggest that fathers may “police” gender in children more than mothers; parents may police boys more than girls; and parents may be more upset with cross-sex behavior in sons than in daughters; all of this suggests more “gender policing” by males and toward boys than by females and toward girls


III.               Teacher and education influences on children’s gender-related behaviors

A.     Are classrooms “feminine” environments? – i.e., do they encourage and value feminine behaviors more than masculine behaviors? Are classrooms, particularly at the lower grade levels, mostly directed by female teachers?

B.     Ways in which classrooms may be biased against boys: they frown upon male-typical kinds of interaction; they require boys to behave in “feminine” ways

C.     Ways in which classroom may be biased against girls: teachers may pay more attention to boys, call on them more, and encourage greater participation; teachers may hold stereotypes (e.g., that boys excel in math and science) that encourage boys but discourage girls; teachers may hold different expectations for boys and girls (e.g., a boy is encouraged to go to college and become a doctor because he needs “to support a family”; a girl is discouraged from going to college because she “will just get married and have children”); boys may “hog” resources such as lab space and gym equipment and get resources (e.g., funding for athletics) that girls do not

D.     Do teachers treat boys and girls differently, and why?  Teachers may respond differently to very young children; however, by the time children are in preschool and in school, they show substantial sex difference in behaviors such as rough-and-tumble play, assertiveness, and verbal-dyadic interaction, and thus it’s not clear how much teachers cause sex difference in children’s behavior vs. how much teachers are simply responding to boys’ and girls’ different behaviors

E.      Studies that attempt to influence and alter children’s sex-typed behavior: Bigler’s 1999 review—general conclusion: interventions have produced only weak and short-term effects, and when interventions end, children quickly revert back to their typical sex-typed behavior


IV.              Peer influences on children’s gender-related behaviors

A.     Beverly Fagot’s (1985) study of preschool children: boys actively encourage masculine behaviors and discourage feminine behaviors in other boys; girls are not as concerned with other girls’ sex-typed behaviors; boys didn’t respond much to influence attempts from teachers or girls

B.     The role of sex segregation in children’s gender-related behavior: sex segregation seems largely induced by children themselves; starts in the third year of life; sex segregation may amplify boy-typical and girl-typical styles of interaction and behavior, and it may produce childhood cultures of gender; Reasons for sex segregation: differing play styles of boys and girls; greater assertiveness/aggressiveness of boys and girls’ frustration in not being able to influence boys via verbal-social negotiation; boys’ preference for hierarchical group interaction vs. girls’ preference for more egalitarian dyadic interaction; different interests of boys vs. girls (e.g., active, aggressive athletics vs. doll play); greater preference for arousal by boys than by girls; in-group, out-group feelings and the labeling of one’s own and others’ gender


V.                 Social learning after early childhood

A.     Do parents restrict girls more than boys?

B.     Are girls and boys assigned to do different kinds of work and household chores?

C.     Dependence and independence training

D.     Do parents hold different expectations for their sons’ and daughters’ academic achievement and performance? – Jacqueline Eccles research


VI.              Do children model gender-related behaviors, particularly in their parents?

A.     Research suggests that children’s personalities tend to resemble the personality of their most dominant or attractive parent, not necessarily that of their same-sex parent

B.     Research on links between parents’ gender-related attitudes (e.g., whether parents encourage traditional gender roles or hold more liberal, egalitarian views about gender) and the sex-typed behaviors of their children

C.     Research on the effects on children of not having a father present

D.     Research on the children of gay and lesbian parents

E.      Research on sibling effects: Recent research (Rust, Golombok, Hines, Johnston, & Golding, 2000) suggests that having an older brother masculinizes boys’ behavior somewhat, and similarly, having an older sister feminizes girls’ behavior somewhat


VII.            Media influences on gender

A.     Much research documents gender-stereotypic content in the mass media

B.     There is much gender-stereotypic content in children’s cartoons; furthermore, children seem to be aware of these differences

C.     Heavy TV viewing in children tends to be associated with stronger gender stereotypes

D.     The “Notel,” “Unitel,” and “Multitel” quasi-experiment: towns in the Canadian Rockies that received cable TV after having no TV reception; children’s gender stereotypes grew stronger after the introduction of TV


VIII.         Self-socialization of gender and gender cognitions

A.     Development of gender concepts: children can correctly identify their own gender by age 2 ˝ ; by age 3 ˝ most children understand that being male or female is stable over time; between age 4 and 7 most children achieve “gender constancy,” the understanding that being male or female is a stable trait that does not change over time, across situations, or with superficial changes of appearance   

B.     Development of gender stereotypes over time: As children move to middle childhood, they can more strongly agree with common gender stereotypes; at the same time, their gender stereotypes become more flexible – i.e., not as “black and white” and not applied to all males and all females

C.     When does gender labeling of oneself influence children’s gender-related behaviors?  Some research suggests that boys with a high level of gender understanding watch male models and activities more on TV; gender labeling may tip the balance in toy preferences, for example when an attractive toy is labeled as a “girl’s toy” to a boy; in young children, self-labeling as male or female may sometimes increase preferences for same-sex playmates

D.     Bussey and Bandura (1999) study: showed a big difference between 3- and 4-year-old children; the older children evaluated cross-sex play much more negatively than the younger children did; between ages 3 and 4 children seem to acquire internal gender standards and attach emotions such as pride and shame to meeting or not meeting these standards; the book uses the metaphor of an internal “gender gyroscope”


IX.              How gender stereotypes influence gender-related behaviors

A.     Enacting stereotypes, particularly in situations that make them salient: women sometimes “dumb down” and primp and act femininely in the presence of attractive men; women may underestimate their ability and act less aggressively in public settings; men may help more in emergencies and conform less to group pressure in group settings

B.     Possible effects of being a token

C.     Research on self-fulfilling prophecies and behavior confirmation

1.      The Skrypnek and Snyder (1982) study on how expectations influence whether college students chose masculine or feminine tasks

D.     Stereotype threat: research on how making gender stereotypes salient may influence women’s performance on math tests


X.                 Social role theory: some evidence

A.     Three central components of gender roles: a) women as homemakers and men as breadwinners, b) different occupational roles assigned to women and men, c) lower status of women than men.

B.     Eagly and Steffen (1984) found that people in high-status roles  – regardless of whether they are male or female – are judged to be more assertive, independent, and dominant (i.e., instrumental); Implication: it’s status differences, not innate personality differences, that lead to common stereotypes about women’s and men’s personality traits

C.     Research on eye contact, status, and gender: Men tend to engage in more eye contact while talking, whereas women tend to engage in more eye contact while listening; is this a function of gender or of status?


XI.              Why is gender so overwhelmingly important in so many domains of our lives?  For example, gender has a large impact on: the clothes we wear, the decorations of out rooms, our grooming, the way we move our bodies, our interests and hobbies, our work and careers, the subjects we study in school, the way we interact with friends and family members, our family roles, our sexuality.  The learning, socialization, and social psychological perspective says gender is so important because it is ceaselessly drilled into us; all the rewards, punishments, and contingencies of society are structured by gender; men and women are assigned differing roles in society; institutions are often partriarchal; from a very early age we internalize gender stereotypes, and we develop self-concepts that are structured by gender. Most social situations are structured by gender.   An “environmental gender juggernaut” continually influences our behavior as men and women.