Gender Schema Theory

Updated on September 27, 2016

Gender schema theory is a theory which proposes that children learn what it means to be male or female from the culture in which they live. You may be surprised to learn that gender rules differ across the world. What is typically accepted in one culture may not be as accepted in another. Gender schema theory states that children adjust their behavior based on the norms of their particular culture; therefore, what it means to be male (or female) varies.

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Proposed in 1981 by Sandra Bem, gender schema theory suggests that children gradually form their gender identity gradually as they learn about the network of themes and associations within their own culture. In addition, gender schema is closely linked to self concept. Children, therefore, engage in gender appropriate behavior motivated by the desire to be "good" girls or "good" boys.

Gender schema is a theory that has been supported by many studies over the years. it is compelling for many reasons. It explains stereotyping and why these stereotypes persist in our society. As an example of this theory in action consider the following:

A young watches her mother cooking over a period of time. This association soon becomes part of her schema which she then begins to associate with her gender. This means this young girl will be more interested in cooking and even view it as a feminine behavior. She is more likely, then, to be interested in cooking after this experience than a young boys.

Examples of gender schema theory at work can also be seen as children develop and begin to identify certain toys as "boy toys" and "girl toys." Imagine a little boy and a little girl released into a room to play with nothing more than a truck and a doll. Chances are they will automatically gravity toward the "gender appropriate" toy and spend the majority of their time playing with that particularly toy. What's even more interesting about the experiments conducted regarding gender schema theory, is that children who are provided with toys which are actually gender neutral but are labelled as "girl toys" or "boy toys" will still play with those toys supposedly associated with their own genders.

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Negative Consequences of Gender Schema Theory

Gender schema theory requires the separation of males and females into two distinct and separate groups. This undoubtedly encourages stereotyping which can lead to generalizations about the expected behaviors within a gender. For example, women are quite often seen as emotional and men are often defined as aggressive. These traits are not seen in all women or in all men, yet the stereotype persists.

In addition, there are some that suggest that gender schema theory encourages the concept of male privilege. The separation and stereotyping place men in a higher status than women, suggesting that male characteristics are more desirable and that maleness is superior. Accomplishments by males are, therefore, often attributed to superior skill while female accomplishments are defined as luck.

When it comes to gender, socialization begins before a child is even born. Our naming practices are very much based on gender. The choices we make regarding clothing and décor are often made based on gender. This theme continues throughout life and is so ingrained in society that they are rarely thought about. Gender schema theory is a way of explaining these tendencies but is also a way of perpetuating stereotypes that many struggle to avoid.

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    • profile image

      Bekim Ahmeti 

      11 months ago

      So nice publication, thank you so much.

    • Virginia Matteo profile image

      Virginia Matteo 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for this insightful hub. I think it's of tremendous importance to recognise that gender behaviour is not "natural", but it is instilled in us from a very early age. Only then can we begin to challenge the gender stereotypes implicit in our culture.

    • profile image

      Camille 

      5 years ago

      Hi. Thank you for posting these information. May you help me look for literature of what are differences of sex roles and gender roles take into consideration the Gender-Schema Theory proposed by Sandra Bem in order to create her Bem Sex Role Inventory. Thank you. God bless.

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