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Gender Schema Theory

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Gender Schema Theory

Martin and Halverson proposed the gender schema theory in 1981. This gender theory suggests a child’s perception and development of gender identity stems from a particular thought pattern called a schema. It combines cognitive theory and social learning theory. It focuses on thought processes and how they can explain certain psychological phenomena.

Gender Schema Theory Gender symbols StudySmarterGender symbols, Flaticon

What is a schema?

A schema is our mental representation of a particular concept, an information package. Schemas are abstract cognitive structures, like a mental toolbox containing information about various things.

A child may develop a schema about dogs that contains the knowledge that dogs are furry creatures with four legs.

How do schemas relate to gender?

Martin and Halverson suggest that children begin to develop a schema regarding their gender around age 3, which is a basic gender identity. According to Kohlberg’s theory of gender development, children at this age develop the ability to name their gender and the gender of others. These designations enable children to 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 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.

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.

Gender Schema Theory Family Child StudySmarterFamily raising a child, Flaticon

Does this behaviour have an evolutionary basis?

A child’s desire to fit into their in-group may be an evolutionary trait. This could be because staying with like-minded people, such as members of your gender, was much safer than spending time with people very dissimilar to you (e.g., an unfamiliar group) because they would not have much incentive to raise you and help you survive.

If either gender adopts the right behaviours of their in-group, the in-group may allow them to join and behave with them.

As a result, a female will act like a girl to blend in with the other girls by adopting mannerisms typically associated with girls.

Evaluation of the gender schema theory

Let us look at the studies that have examined this theory.

Liben & Signorella (1993)

In this study, Liben & Signorella showed 106 primary school children photographs of adults engaged in either stereotypical (e.g., a female nurse) or unconventional (e.g., a male hairdresser) gendered activities.The researchers asked the children to look at the photos and then recall them. They found that most children remembered the photos showing stereotypical gendered behaviours better than the photos showing unconventional behaviours.This finding suggests children have certain assumptions about a person’s gender from a young age.

Gender Schema Theory Gender identity schemas StudySmarterGender identity schemas, Flaticon

Relation to Kohlberg’s theory

Gender schema theory helps fill in the gaps Kohlberg’s theory of gender development left behind, with which it largely agrees. One of the main problems frequently cited in Kohlberg’s theory is the lack of explanation for why the developmental stages of gender occur. Martin and Halverson’s theory helps explain why the gender labelling stage occurs and how the child develops gender identity, rather than just describing what that development looks like.

Methodological issues

Many studies supporting this theory interviewed their participants. One limitation of this theory is 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.

The problem with demand characteristics is that they make the results less faithful to reality, unreliable, and somewhat invalid.

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 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.

Campbell et al. (2002)

This study 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 schemas may be present, but they are not the main factor in overall gender development.

Reinforcing gender roles

This theory reinforces and, in some ways, promotes the idea of gender roles. It may discourage children from exploring activities outside of their gender.


Gender Schema Theory - Key takeaways

  • Gender schema theory, discovered by Martin and Halverson in 1981, states that a child’s perception and development of gender identity relies on a specific type of thought pattern called a schema.

  • A schema is our mental representation of a particular concept.

  • An example of a schema might be that a child thinks animals with four legs and fur are dogs.

  • Martin and Halverson suggest that children begin to develop a schema regarding their gender that is very basic (basic gender identity) around age three. These labels allow children to form in-groups and out-groups, in this case, boys and girls.

  • Because most children desire to belong, they begin to identify with their gendered group, view them favourably, and seek information on behaving more like members of their group.

  • Many studies supporting this theory involve interviewing their participants. One limitation of this theory is many methodological problems with interviewing young children.

  • However, studies have shown that children remember gender-stereotypical behaviours better when that gender performs it.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gender Schema Theory

Martin and Halverson proposed the gender schema theory in 1981. This gender theory suggests a child’s perception and development of gender identity stems from a particular thought pattern called a schema. It combines cognitive theory and social learning theory. 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.

Martin and Halverson (1981).

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

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.

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. 


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 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.

Final Gender Schema Theory Quiz

Question

who created the gender schema theory?

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Answer

Martin and Halverston

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Question

when was the gender schema theory created

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Answer

1981.0

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Question

what is the gender schema theory?

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Answer

it is a psychological theory that suggests that a child's perception and development of their gender identity comes from a certain type of thought pattern called a schema.

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does the gender schema theory support kohlberg's theory?

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Answer

it agrees with his theory and adds some explantion to the development of gender identity throughout childhood, however it does not provide any research evidence for kohlberg's theory

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Question

what type of theory is the gender schema theory?

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Answer

This theory is a cognitive theory, meaning that it focuses on our thought processes and how they can explain certain psychological phenomena.

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Question

who first proposed the idea of a schema?

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Answer

frederick bartlett

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Question

describe the schema children first develop about their gender

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the first, basic schema a child develops about their gender is made up of external, superficial information and helps them understand who is part of their gender in-group and out-group

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what is an in group?

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an in group is a social group or type of person that someone identifies with

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what is an out group?

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an out group is a social group of type of person that someone does not identify as part of

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how do in groups and out groups help children develop their gender identities?

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as children begin to identify with their gendered in group, they learn from those around them within their in group about how their gender behaves, and can emulate these behaviours to develop their gender identity.

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Question

name a study that supports the gender schema theory

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Liben & Signorella 1993

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when do martin and halverston suggest that gender identities begin to form?

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Answer

from age 2 onwards

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what is a methodological issue associated with conducting interviews with child participants

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Answer

demand characteristics

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which of these groups of people do children tend to consider more favourable than the other?

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Answer

in group

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Question

Who proposed Gender Schema Theory?

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Answer

Martin and Halverson.

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Question

What does Gender Schema Theory suggest about a child’s perception and development of their gender identity?

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Answer

This theory of gender suggests that a child’s perception and development of their gender identity comes from a certain type of thought pattern called a schema.

Show question

Question

What is a schema?

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Answer

A schema is our mental representation of a particular concept, an information package. Schemas are abstract cognitive structures, like a mental toolbox containing information about various things.

Show question

Question

At what age do Martin and Halverson state children begin to develop a schema regarding their gender?

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Answer

3

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Question

According to Kohlberg’s theory of gender development, what do children develop at the age of three?

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Answer

According to Kohlberg's theory of gender development, this 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.

Show question

Question

As they grow, children add (through observation) to their gender schemas. True or false?

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Answer

True.

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How do children develop their gender identity in their in-group?

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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 a gender identity.

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What do out-groups suggest about others not in the in-group?

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Answer

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.

Show question

Question

Does this behaviour have an evolutionary basis?

Show answer

Answer

A child’s desire to fit into their in-group may be an evolutionary trait. This could be because staying with like-minded people, such as members of your gender, was much safer than spending time with people very dissimilar to you (e.g., an unfamiliar group) because they would not have much incentive to raise you and help you survive.

Show question

Question

What did Liben and Signorella (1993) find in their study?

Show answer

Answer

They found that the majority of children recalled photos displaying stereotypical gendered behaviours more accurately than photos displaying unconventional behaviours.  

Show question

Question

Does the Gender Schema Theory help fill in the gaps of Kohlberg’s theory of gender development?

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Answer

Yes. Martin and Halversonvs theory helps explain why the gender labelling stage occurs, and how the child develops their gender identity, as opposed to just describing what that development looks like. 

Show question

Question

Are there methodological issues with this theory?

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Answer

Somewhat, yes. A limitation of this theory (and studies investigating it) is many methodological issues with interviewing young children. One is that they are more likely than adults to display demand characteristics. 

Show question

Question

What are demand characteristics?

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Answer

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

Show question

Question

What did Martin and Halverson (1983) find in their later study?

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Answer

In a later study, Martin and Halverson (1983) found that children absorb and retain more information when it fits their gender schema.

Show question

Question

What did Campbell et al. (2002) find in their study?

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Answer

This study 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 schemas may be present, but they are not the main factor in overall gender development.

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