Many social scientists do not locate the cause of psychological gender differences in biological dispositions. Rather, they argue that these differences reflect social experiences. Explanations for how gender differences come about through experience include both social and cognitive theories.
Social Theories of Gender Three main social theories of gender have been proposed—social role theory, psychoanalytic theory, and social cognitive theory. Alice Eagly (2001, 2010, 2012; Eagly & Wood, 2012) proposed social role theory, which states that gender differences result from the contrasting roles of women and men. In most cultures around the world, women have less power and status than men, and they control fewer resources (UNICEF, 2011). Compared with men, women perform more domestic work, spend fewer hours in paid employment, receive lower pay, and are more thinly represented in the highest levels of organizations. In Eagly’s view, as women adapted to roles with less power and less status in society, they showed more cooperative, less dominant profiles than men. Thus, the social hierarchy and division of labor are important causes of gender differences in power, assertiveness, and nurturing.
The psychoanalytic theory of gender stems from Freud’s view that the preschool child develops a sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent. This is the process known as the Oedipus (for boys) or Electra (for girls) complex. At 5 or 6 years of age, the child renounces this attraction because of anxious feelings. Subsequently, the child identifies with the same-sexparent, unconsciously adopting the same-sex parent’s characteristics. However, developmentalists have observed that gender development does not proceed as Freud proposed. Children become gender-typed much earlier than 5 or 6 years of age, and they become masculine or feminine even when the same-sex parent is not present in the family.
The social cognitive approach provides an alternative explanation of how children develop gender-typed behavior. According to the social cognitive theory of gender, children’s gender development occurs through observing and imitating what other people say and do, and through being rewarded and punished for gender-appropriate and gender-inappropriate behavior (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). From birth onward, males and females are treated differently from one another. When infants and toddlers show gender differences, adults tend to reward them. Parents often use rewards and punishments to teach their daughters to be feminine (“Karen, you are being a good girl when you play gently with your doll”) and their sons to be masculine (“Keith, a boy as big as you is not supposed to cry”). Parents, however, are only one of many sources through which children learn gender roles (Leaper, 2013; Leaper & Bigler, 2011). Culture, schools, peers, the media, and other family members also provide gender role models. For example, children also learn about gender by observing the behavior of other adults in the neighborhood and on television (Bugental & Grusec, 2006). As children get older, peers become increasingly important. Let’s take a closer look at the influence of parents and peers.
Parental Influences Parents, by action and by example, influence their children’s gender development (Cookston & McHale, 2012; Hilliard & Liben, 2012; Leaper, 2013). Both mothers and fathers are psychologically important to their children’s gender development (Hyde & Else-Quest, 2013; Leaper, 2013). Cultures around the world, however, tend to give mothers and fathers different roles (Chen & others, 2011). A research review yielded the following conclusions (Bronstein, 2006):
• Mothers’ socialization strategies. In many cultures, mothers socialize their daughters to be more obedient and responsible than their sons. They also place more restrictions on daughters’ autonomy.
• Fathers’ socialization strategies. Fathers show more attention to sons than daughters, engage in more activities with sons, and put forth more effort to promote sons’ intellectual development.
Thus, according to Bronstein, “Despite an increased awareness in the United States and other Western cultures of the detrimental effects of gender stereotyping, many parents continue to foster behaviors and perceptions that are consonant with traditional gender role norms.”
Peer Influences Parents provide the earliest discrimination of gender roles, but before long peers join the process of responding to and modeling masculine and feminine behavior (Bukowski, Ittel, & Juang, 2012; Goble & others, 2012). In fact, peers become so important to gender development that the playground has been called “gender school” (Luria & Herzog, 1985).
Peers extensively reward and punish gender behavior (Leaper, 2013; Leaper & Bigler, 2011). For example, when children play in ways that the culture says are sex-appropriate, their peers tend to reward them. But peers often reject children who act in a manner that is considered more characteristic of the other gender (Handrinos & others, 2012; Matlin, 2012). A little girl who brings a doll to the park may find herself surrounded by new friends; a little boy might be jeered at. However, there is greater pressure for boys to conform to a traditional male role than for girls to conform to a traditional female role (Fagot, Rogers, & Leinbach, 2000). For example, a preschool girl who wants to wear boys’ clothing receives considerably more approval than a boy who wants to wear a dress. The very term “tomboy” implies broad social acceptance of girls’ adopting traditional male behaviors.
Gender molds important aspects of peer relations (Field & others, 2012; Zozuls & others, 2012). It influences the composition of children’s groups, the size of groups, and interactions within a group (Maccoby, 1998, 2002):
• Gender composition of children’s groups. Around the age of 3, children already show a preference to spend time with same-sex playmates. From 4 to 12 years of age, thispreference for playing in same-sex groups increases, and during the elementary school years children spend a large majority of their free time with children of their own sex (see Figure 8.1).
• Group size. From about 5 years of age onward, boys are more likely to associate together in larger clusters than girls are. Boys are also more likely to participate in organized group games than girls are. In one study, same-sex groups of six children were permitted to use play materials in any way they wished (Benenson, Apostolaris, & Parnass, 1997). Girls were more likely than boys to play in dyads or triads, while boys were more likely to interact in larger groups and seek to attain a group goal.
• Interaction in same-sex groups. Boys are more likely than girls to engage in rough-andtumble play, competition, conflict, ego displays, risk taking, and seeking dominance. By contrast, girls are more likely to engage in “collaborative discourse,” in which they talk and act in a more reciprocal manner.