As a child, have you ever been told not to wear a piece of clothing or play with certain toys because they’re not “gender appropriate”? As you grew up, did your expectations of gender evolve with the changing times?
Elham Hoominfar, a professor at Utah State University’s Department of Sociology, Social Work & Anthropology, writes that gender socialization “is the process by which individuals develop, refine, and learn to ‘do’ gender.” We learn our culture’s gender-related norms and expectations, ‘do’ gender by performing tasks based on our gender assumed by society, and refine our gender identity through others’ feedback and our consequent interpretations.
While one’s sex may be biologically and physiologically determined as male, female, or intersex at birth, gender develops in response to cultural conceptions of masculinity and femininity and exists on a spectrum.
Primary agents of gender socialization include schools, peer groups, and media. However, the astonishingly early ability to distinguish gender points to family as the first agent. A study on the development of gender schemas found that by 1.5 years of age, children could not correctly classify photos of people according to gender, and yet, by 2.25 years, half of the children could. Those who could correctly identify gender also demonstrated gender-specific play.
The reason for these ‘early labellers’ are their parents, who were more likely to positively or negatively respond to gender-typed play.
How do parents socialize gender in children?
The influence of parents on children’s gender development can occur in three forms: gender-stereotypical expectations, gender-role modelling, and differential treatment of daughters and sons.
Despite the increasing gender equality in the past several decades, gender stereotypes about personality traits, abilities, activities, and roles persist. Parents commonly reinforce gender roles with essentialist statements and descriptive stereotypes. Instead of prescriptive stereotypes stating what behaviour should occur, parents describe general patterns about each gender, like “girls like reading” or “boys like math,” and rarely challenge them.
Parents’ behaviours are even better predictors of children’s gender-role attitudes than parents’ ideologies. For example, parents modelling divisions of household labour and childcare can influence children’s ideas of gender-specific roles. A 2018 study published in the Universal Journal of Education Research found that children whose fathers were more involved in childcare engaged in less gender-based stereotyping, as the fathers demonstrated that the adult male role may include nurturing alongside instrumental activities.
One might wonder what dynamics are present in same-gender parents’ households. Research found that while children of same-gender parents are generally less likely to endorse certain gender stereotypes, children of same-gender couples where one was designated as the primary caregiver and the other as the primary breadwinner were more likely to express gender stereotypes about adult roles and occupations. Even here, the stereotype that nurturing is strictly a feminine quality — and, by extension, a quality of women — persists.
Parents also tend to encourage gender-stereotyped activities, which, in turn, may also influence children’s learning of cognitive and socioemotional skills, as well as their interaction styles. When parents give boys building blocks, toy guns, and action figures, they may promote logical-mathematical skills, motor skills, aggression, and solitary play. When parents give girls dolls, kitchen sets, and dress-up apparel, they may foster nurturing, aesthetic values, and social proximity.
Another 2018 study found that parents’ positive feedback for gender-normative behaviour encourages children to play with “gender-appropriate” toys, even when cross-gender options are available. Even with changing gender norms, stereotypically feminine qualities are being devalued. Research finds that parents are more flexible about activities considered acceptable for daughters than sons: for their sons, most parents encourage masculine-stereotyped activities, like athletic participation, while few parents encourage feminine-stereotyped activities, like doll play.
By encouraging a mixture of activities and cross-gender group play and modelling gender egalitarian behaviour in the household, parents can offer more flexibility in children’s gender identities, a broader repertoire of social and cognitive skills, and ultimately, a freer self-concept.
Gender socialization doesn’t stop with childhood. In later life, education, peer groups, and media take more precedence in shaping gender identity. However, the effects of early gender socialization can carry on into our adulthood. With women comprising about 91 per cent of registered nurses but only about 43 per cent of physicians in Canada, we should raise questions about gender roles fostered at a young age.
If more boys could see themselves as nurturing and more girls could see themselves as equally capable of logical problem-solving, would these numbers change?
Many well-known research and theories about early gender socialization are a bit outdated, ignoring LGBTQ+ identities — particularly those who identify as transgender, non-binary, or gender fluid. With a growing understanding of gender development, gender diversity, gender expression, and gender dysphoria, parents of gender nonconforming children will have the resources to guide them — and one day, we may be able to deconstruct gender identity entirely.