Gender Schema Theory

How do we determine gender? What cognitive processes determine what we would consider to be an object or behaviour associated with being a male or female? Gender schema theory plays out in our minds in our earliest ages, helping us to navigate the world and how we interpreted those around us.

Gender Schema Theory Gender Schema Theory

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore gender in the context of schema theory. First, we will define gender schema theory in psychology.
    • Then, we will discuss an example of gender theory in psychology, referencing typical gender roles in society.
    • After, we will evaluate the gender schema theory, analysing its strengths and weaknesses.
    • Lastly, we will further elaborate on the criticisms of gender schema theory.

    Gender Schema Theory, multicoloured floral male and female icons, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Gender schema theory explores how children develop their gender identities.

    Gender Schema Theory in Psychology: Definition

    Gender schema theory in psychology, developed by Martin and Halverson (1981), refers to how children learn about appropriate gender behaviour through observation. Children add information they learn to their gender schema by watching adults and peers behave in gender-appropriate ways and developing a gender identity based on these observations.

    A schema is an organising structure that helps clarify and categorise new information in our memory.

    Gender schema theory states that individuals tend to focus more on information relevant to their gender. This gender information is stored in our memory to make it more consistent with existing gender schemas.

    Gender Schema Theory in Psychology: Martin and Halverson (1981)

    Martin and Halverson (1981) suggest that children develop a schema regarding their gender around age three, which is a basic gender identity, as we mentioned above. Children form in-groups and out-groups, in this case, boys and girls.

    As children grow older, they expand their gender schemas through observation.

    Because most children desire to belong, they begin to identify with their gendered group, view it positively, and seek information about behaving more like members of their group. This helps the child develop gender identity – learning from others in their group about the norms of their gender and how to behave accordingly.

    The construction of in-group and out-group also leads children to view the out-group as unfavourable and avoid behaviours associated with that group.

    Martin and Halverson note that this desire to connect with one’s in-group and learn from others within that group is why young children begin to develop their gender identity and gender expression.

    The gender schema theory has two types of gender-related schemas -- superordinate and own-sex schemas.

    A superordinate schema helps young minds of children categorise the bounds of new information that are new to them, such as objects, traits, and characteristics that are associated with socially considered male and female categories.

    Common examples of these schemas are girls having long hair or boys playing with cars and trucks.

    Gender Schema Theory, a photo of a person with long hair, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Gender-related schemas help children develop gender identities.

    The second schema type is the own-sex schema. When an individual learns more in-depth information consistent with their own sexual identity, this is considered their sex schema.

    Superordinate and own sex schema allows individuals to process information about attitudes, roles, or behaviours that categorize these aspects as feminine or masculine.

    Gender schemas affect which information is noticed, encoded, and remembered. Information inconsistent with the existing schema is often overlooked.

    Research also shows that gender schemas guide children's preferences, toy choices, and play partner choices.

    Gender Schema Theory: Example

    We can see various gender schema theory examples in society. A child living in a very traditional culture might believe that a woman's role is caring for and raising children, while a man's role is in work and industry. Through these observations, children form a schema about what men and women do within their cultures.

    Another example of gender schema theory can be seen in how boys may watch their peers at school engage in sports typically deemed as masculine, such as rugby. They may then want to join other boys in playing these sports and attempt to join the in-group.

    Alternatively, girls may watch their peers engage in sports that are deemed more feminine, and they will then seek to join the in-group and avoid joining sporting activities that are deemed masculine. Examples include sports such as netball.

    Gender Schema Theory Evaluation

    Genders schema theory has its strengths and weaknesses, so what are they? It's important to evaluate a theory before applying it.

    Strengths

    First, let's explore the strengths of gender schema theory.

    • Martin and Little (1990) found that children under the age of four showed no signs of gender stability, let alone signs of gender constancy. However, they did display strong gender stereotypes about what girls and boys were "allowed or permitted" to do. But what does this mean? This suggests that they had acquired information about gender roles before Kohlberg suggested it.
    • Bussey and Bandura (1992) found that boys and girls aged four said they felt good when playing with "gender-appropriate" toys and badly about playing with "gender-inappropriate" ones. What would Kohlberg say? Kohlberg would say that this wouldn't happen until later, suggesting that the gender schema theory could be considered a more accurate explanation of gender development in a child's mind.
    • A study by Bradbard et al. (1986) shows how gender schemas relate to our memory. Bradbard et al. (1986) told four to nine-year-olds that gender-neutral items were boy/girl items. The children took a greater interest in the items labelled as their in-group (one week later, they could remember more details about in-group objects).

    Weaknesses

    Now, let's examine the weaknesses of gender schema theory.

    • Hoffman (1998) found that children whose mothers work have less stereotyped views of what men do. But why would that be so? This construct showed that children are not entirely fixed on gender schemas and can take on some gender-inconsistent ideas.
    • Gender schema theory cannot explain why children with much of the same environmental influences respond differently to gender-appropriate behaviours. Gender schema theory, for example, cannot explain why some girls prefer action figures and some boys prefer dolls. Researchers speculate this may be due to possible biological differences such as genes and hormones.
    • Campbell et al. (2002) found that although children had an idea of their gender and the stereotypical behaviours associated with it, this did not prevent them from engaging in nonstereotypical behaviours.

    Gender Schema Theory: Criticism

    One limitation of this theory is the many methodological problems with interviewing young children. One of these is that they are more likely to exhibit demand characteristics than adults.

    Demand characteristics refer to when a participant behaves the way they think the researcher expects them to behave rather than to behave naturally.

    Martin and Halverson (1983)

    In a later study, Martin and Halverson (1983) found that children absorb and retain more information when it fits their gender schema. They showed 48 five- and six-year-old children pictures of males and females performing stereotypical or nonstereotypical actions of their respective genders. One week later, they had to recall the activities and the sex of the person in the pictures. Children were more likely to correctly identify the gender and activity of the person in the picture if that person performed the stereotype-matching action. This finding suggests an internal schema for appropriate gendered behaviour.


    Gender Schema Theory - Key takeaways

    • Gender schema theory in psychology, developed by Martin and Halverson (1981), refers to how children learn about appropriate gender behaviour through observation. They combine cognitive theory and social learning theory. Martin and Halverson (1981) suggest that children develop a schema regarding their gender at around age three.
    • Children add information they learn to their gender schema by watching adults and peers behave in gender-appropriate ways and developing a gender identity based on these observations.
    • Children form in-groups and out-groups, in this case, boys and girls. Children desire to belong, and they begin to identify with their gendered group, view it positively, and seek information about behaving more like members of their group. This helps the child develop gender identity.
    • The construction of in-group and out-group also leads children to view the out-group as unfavourable and avoid behaviours associated with that group.
    • Various studies support gender schema theory, such as Martin and Little (1990), Bussey and Bandura (1992), and Bradbard et al. (1986), whereas other studies dispute gender schema theory, such as Hoffman (1998) and Campbell et al. (2002). One limitation of gender schema theory is the methodological problems with interviewing children.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gender Schema Theory

    What is gender schema theory?

    Martin and Halverson (1981) proposed the gender schema theory. They suggested a child’s perception and development of gender identity stems from a particular thought pattern called a schema. It combines cognitive developmental theory and social learning theory. Because most children desire to belong, they begin to identify with their gendered in-group, view it positively, and seek information about behaving more like members of their group whilst viewing out-groups negatively.

    Who gave the gender schema theory?

    Martin and Halverson (1981).

    What are the four types of schema?

    Role schema, object schema, self schema, and event schema. 

    What is gender schema theory based on?

    Gender schema theory has been influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, in which he described schemas for the first time as small ‘pockets’ of information that we have regarding certain subjects. It combines cognitive developmental theory and social learning theory to understand gender development.

    Which example best illustrates gender schema theory?

    A good example of gender schema theory is when children develop the ability to label their gender and the gender of others. These labels allow children to form in-groups and out-groups, in this case, boys and girls. #


    This helps the child develop a gender identity – learning from others in their group about the norms of their gender and how to behave accordingly. This construction of in-group and out-group also leads children to view the out-group as negative and avoid behaviours associated with that group.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was the gender schema theory developed?

    Who first proposed the idea of a schema?

    What is a methodological issue associated with conducting interviews with child participants?

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