What Is Gender Schema Theory?

Puzzle pieces representing gender schema
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A Brief Definition: Gender schema theory refers to the theory that children learn about what it means to be male and female from the culture in which they live. According to this theory, children adjust their behavior to fit in with the gender norms and expectations of their culture.

A Closer Look at Gender Schema Theory

How do children learn gender differences? Are these characteristics biologically programmed or does society exert a greater influence?

Gender schema theory suggests that cultural influences largely influence how children develop their ideas about what it means to be a man or woman. The theory was first introduced during the early 1980s by psychologist Sandra Bem.

Bem’s theory was influenced by the cognitive revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and by her desire to remedy what she viewed as the shortcomings of the psychoanalytic, developmental, and social learning theories. Freudian theories, she suggested, were too focused on the influence of anatomy on gender development. Instead, she proposed, a child’s cognitive development combined with societal influences was what led to the development of gender schema.

Cultural Influences on Gender Schema

Bem suggested that children form their gender identities from the associations they develop from their culture. Society's beliefs about what constitutes "male traits" and "female traits" influence this development of a gender schema.

These gender schemas then have an impact not only on how people process social information, but also on their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. People engage in behaviors that are consistent with their schema for gender appropriate behavior.

According to Bem, individuals observe the people and culture around them, learning the various associations with masculinity and femininity.

This includes not just the physical differences between men and women, but also the societal roles that men and women take, the characteristics of each gender, and how society treats each gender. Cultural influences that can have an effect on gender schemas include peers, schools, parenting, and the media.

For example, a child that lives in a very traditional culture might learn that a woman’s role is in the caring and raising of children while a man’s role is in work and industry. Through their observations, children form schema related to how men and women should behave, and these schemas then inform how they think, process information, and view the world around them.

A girl raised in a traditional culture might believe that the only path open to her as a woman is to get married and raise children. A girl raised in a more progressive culture where she has regular opportunities to see women engaged in a variety of activities may decide to pursue a career in technology, science, health care, or some other field.

The schemas these children formed early on create a sort of gender lens that influences how they think people should behave and even what they believe is possible for themselves.

Bem believed that these gender schema were limiting for men, women, and society as a whole. Raising children free from these gender schema and gender stereotypes would lead to greater freedom and fewer restrictions.

Bem also suggested that individuals could fall into one of four different gender categories.

  • Sex-typed individuals identify with their gender and process information through the lens of that gender schema.
  • Cross-typed individuals, she suggested, process information through the lens of the opposite gender.
  • Androgynous individuals exhibit both masculine and feminine thinking.
  • Undifferentiated individuals do not show a consistent use of sex-typed processing.

Criticisms of Bem's theory suggest that she portrayed individuals simply as passive bystanders in the development of gender schemas rather and ignores the complex forces that contribute to the construction of gender.

Bem’s Sex-Role Inventory

Bem’s gender role theory served as an early influence in the development of the psychology of gender. Since then, more modern theories that focus on the societal influences on gender have largely replaced gender schema theory.

In addition to her theory, Bem also created a questionnaire known as the Bem Sex-Role Inventory. The inventory consisted of 60 different words that were either masculine, feminine, or neutral. Respondents are then asked to rate how strongly they identify with each characteristic. Rather than simply categorize people as either masculine or feminine, the inventory presents both traits as a continuum. Individuals can rank high on one gender or low on another (sex-typed), but they may also rank high on both masculine and feminine traits (androgynous).

The BSRI was first developed in 1974 and has since become one of the most widely used instruments in the world. In her 1998 autobiography, Bem wrote that she was shocked and how popular and widely used the inventory had become but suggested that she had not been adequately prepared to develop the instrument.

References

Ashmore, R.D. (1990). Sex, gender, and the individual. In L.A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of Personality Theory and Research. New York: Guilford Press.

Bem, S. L. (1974). The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 42, 155-162.

Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 354–364.

Bem, S. L. (1983). Gender schema theory and its implications for child development: Raising gender-aschematic children in a gender-schematic society. Signs, 8(4), 598–616.

Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hoffman, R.M., & Borders, L.D. (2001). Twenty-five years after the Bem Sex-Role Inventory: A reassessment and new issues regarding classification variability. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 34, 39-55.

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