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The Cognitive Approach to Gender Differences

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My writing covers a wide array of subjects including but not limited to: religion, language learning, health, philosophy, and legal issues.

Read on to learn all about Kohlberg’s theory of gender development, as well as an overview of the research studies that support it. Finally, we’ll take a look at gender schema theory.

Read on to learn all about Kohlberg’s theory of gender development, as well as an overview of the research studies that support it. Finally, we’ll take a look at gender schema theory.

What Does the Cognitive Approach Say About Gender Differences?

The Cognitive Approach deals with the mind as if it was a computer. That is, it views humans as organisms that process information and develop in rigid and set ways. This general concept can be applied to gender differences and results in a compelling argument for how we acquire gender differences.

Of course, the cognitive approach to gender differences is not the only approach that offers a convincing argument. At the bottom of this piece, there is another article that is worth considering in order to get a well-rounded idea of why men and women are assigned different roles in society.

This article covers Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of cognitive development, as well as the work of numerous researchers whose studies support Kohlberg’s theory. Let's begin with an overview of Kohlberg’s understanding of gender differences.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Kohlberg believed, much like Freud did, that children go through three specific developmental stages in their lives. These stages relate to their age and understanding of gender. These stages are:

  1. Gender Identity
  2. Gender Stability
  3. Gender Constancy

Let's take a deeper look at each stage now.

Young children just don't have the cognitive ability to distinguish girls from boys in dresses. Can you tell whether this painting depicts a boy or girl?

Young children just don't have the cognitive ability to distinguish girls from boys in dresses. Can you tell whether this painting depicts a boy or girl?

Kohlberg’s Stage One: Gender Identity

What children can do:

  • Children begin to think about gender at 2 to 3 years of age.
  • They understand whether they are male or female.
  • They can make guesses at which sex and gender other people are.

What children can't do:

  • They don't understand what actually makes something a male or female. This means that they merely remember that people just are one or the other, much like they do when they learn names.
  • They also do not realise that their sex is fixed. For instance, a little boy might think he will become a mummy when he grows up, a girl a daddy.
  • They don't realise that they were always the same sex. For example, they might have thought they were a female when they were younger even though they realise that they are a male now.
  • Since they do not understand that genitals define someone's sex they will call boys in dresses girls and women wearing men's shoes boys.

Kohlberg’s Stage Two: Gender Stability

  • Children begin to understand that their own sex will not change over time at about 3 to 4 years of age.
  • They cannot apply this rule to other people, however, and might think that a person who changes into the clothing of traditionally the opposite gender will turn into the sex traditionally associated with that gender.
  • In addition, they do not fully understand the difference between gender and sex and although they know they are male or female (because of their genitalia) they will still believe they changed sex when they wear clothing of the opposite gender.
  • Therefore, in gender stability, the children realise that if circumstances do not change, neither will their sex. That said, their minds are still open to the idea that if circumstances do change then so can their sex (e.g., wearing different clothing).

Kohlberg’s Stage Three: Gender Constancy

  • At around the age of 5 children understand that other people’s sex won’t change over time.
  • Children identify males and females by their genitals (which they seek out).
  • They understand that changing your appearance does not affect your sex or gender unless you feel like that is more comfortable/more ‘you’ (e.g., a girl putting on boys’ shoes won’t declare that she is a boy or masculine—just wearing shoes she does not usually identify her gender with).
  • They have the ability to conserve. This means they realise that although a person is acting differently from how other people of the same sex do, they are not necessarily a different sex.

Gender Identity and then Gender Constancy

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Read More From Owlcation

Psychological Studies Supporting Kohlberg’s Theory

Marcus and Overton’s Gender Constancy Experiment (1978)

Children of different ages were tested on their ability to recognise that changing the appearance of a person does not change their sex.

  • They were given a puzzle in which they could change the haircut and clothing of a character.
  • They were also given the same characters but with other faces superimposed on them as well as photos of themselves imposed.
  • The conclusions found that young children could only identify no change in sex when dealing with pictures of their own sex (e.g., a girl would realise that the character was still a girl despite the boy’s haircut).
  • Older children realised that both sexes were constant despite appearance.

Slaby and Frey (1975)

  • Children were given a screen to watch with a male on one side and a female on the other performing the same action.
  • Young children would spend equal amounts of time studying each side.
  • Older children would study the model with the same sex as themselves (so they could model after them).

Munroe et al. (1984)

  • Tested children in a variety of countries (Kenya, Belize, Samoa and Nepal).
  • Found that all the children went through Kohlberg’s stages.

Damon (1977)

  • Children were told a story about a boy who played with dolls.
  • Young children responded that it was acceptable.
  • Older children responded that it was unusual and/or wrong.
  • The older children must have had a greater understanding of gender roles.

McConaghy (1979)

  • Showed children images of characters with see-through clothing that revealed the characters’ genitals
  • Younger children could not identify the sex of the characters by their genitals and used their clothes instead.
  • Older children could recognise the genitals and associate it with the correct sex.
  • If a character had a penis but wore a dress, young children would claim he was a girl whilst older children realised that he was still a boy.

Gender Understanding at Different Ages

Around the ages of 5 and 6, children develop a very good understanding of what their own gender should do and how they should respond to given situations. Only between the ages of 8 and 10, however, do they know the same information for the opposite gender.

Gender Schema Theory

  1. Kohlberg’s theory states that children begin developing and internalising the gender-specific behaviours of their models only after they have reached gender constancy (age 5).
  2. Gender schema theory states that children begin to seek gender-specific information immediately after reaching gender identity (age 2 to 3). This usually occurs as soon as they realise that they fit into a group: boy or girl, they start thinking about how they should behave according to this.
  3. They use the information they receive to develop a schema: an internal representation of how the world works, which they will later use to process gender-related information.
  4. Gender schemas are essentially gender stereotypes that children develop. For instance, girls should play with X toys but not with Y toys, and boys should play with Y toys but not X toys.
  5. They then develop gender scripts, or sets of actions reserved for each gender: cooking dinner is for girls because they saw mummy do it, and DIY is for boys because daddy does it.
  6. After these gender schemas and scripts have been developed, children lose interest in anything they have learned to be for the other gender. Instead, they focus on things that are ‘meant’ for their gender.
  7. What is important to note is that after the schemas and scripts are developed it is very difficult to change them. If children see information that agrees with their scripts, they will use it as part of their future thinking, but if they see something that does not co-operate with their gender schemas, they may not encode the information at all (resulting in no change). This preserves their stereotypes into adulthood.

Psychological Studies Supporting Gender Schema Theory

Bradbard et al. (1986) and the Neutral Toy Experiment

  • Children were given a variety of neutral toys to play with.
  • Some of the neutral toys were said to be for boys and some of them for girls.
  • Children were far more likely to spend time playing with the toys they were told were for their own sex than those for the opposite sex.
  • Therefore, this experiment supports the idea that children are very much inclined to use their gender schemas when faced with a given gender-related situation.

Martin and Halverson’s Study of Schema Inconsistency and Memory (1983)

  • Children were shown differing pictures that would be either gender consistent (like a boy playing with a toy gun) or gender inconsistent (a boy playing with dolls).
  • A week later, they were asked if they could recall the images they saw.
  • The gender-consistent ones were far more likely to be remembered than the gender-inconsistent pictures.
  • The gender-inconsistent pictures were distorted in the memory so that they became gender consistent. For instance, a girl playing with a toy gun was remembered as a boy playing with a gun instead.

Another Slaby and Frey (1975) Experiment

  • Children were asked several questions.
  • Children were then shown pictures or dolls and asked whether what they saw were male or female.
  • Gender stability was tested by asking the children what they thought they were when they were younger and what they would be when they were older.
  • Gender constancy was tested by asking if the boy or girl would be a different gender if they changed clothing or haircut to that of the opposite gender.
  • Results showed that Kohlberg’s stages were applicable to those children.

Sources and Further Reading


Keri OCreene on May 22, 2015:

Hi DK,

Thank you for your article. I too am familiar with the different theories in which gender is acquired. I supported Sandra Bem's gender schema theory in my essay 'Gender Differences in Film Noir, U.S. Film, and Gender Schema theory'. She believes that the only reason male/female sex typing occurs by a child is when a culture holds gender at its core. This would explain why indigenous tribes which have not been exposed to westernized cultures do not even recognize or adhere to male/female categories. Also, although children who have been exposed to sex-typing can remember things better, I believe this is merely indicative of schematic employment to enhance memory, and is done in countless ways. Furthermore, a study was done where gender-consistent and gender inconsistent individuals were asked to identify people over a telephone and match them to their pictures. The gender-consistent invoked stereotypes and were more often wrong, than those who were not. This demonstrates how it is not beneficial to peoples perceptions when they employ schemata related to gender in order to enhance memory.

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