Gender Schema Theory Explained

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Gender schema theory is a cognitive theory of gender development that says that gender is a product of the norms of one’s culture. The theory was originated by psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981. It suggests that people process information, in part, based on gender-typed knowledge.

Key Takeaways: Gender Schema Theory

  • Gender schema theory proposes that children create cognitive schema of gender that they derive from the norms of their culture.
  • The theory accounts for four gender categories, which can be measured with the Bem Sex Role Inventory: sex-typed, cross-sex typed, androgynous, and undifferentiated.

Origins

In her article introducing gender schema theory, Sandra Bem observed that the gender binary between male and female had become one of the basic organizational structures in human society. As a result, children are expected to learn about their culture’s conceptions of gender and incorporate those conceptions into their self-concept. Bem noted that many psychological theories speak to this process, including psychoanalytic theory and social learning theory. However, these theories don’t account for what is learned about gender and how it’s utilized when new information is encountered. It was this shortcoming that Bem sought to address with her theory. Bem’s approach to gender was also influenced by the cognitive revolution that took place in psychology in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gender Schemas

As children learn about gender-specific attributes, they form gender schemas. Children learn whatever gender schemas are available in their culture, including whatever divisions exist between the two sexes. These cognitive structures enable people to apply the subset of schemas that match their own sex to themselves, which influences their self-concept. In addition, their sense of adequacy may be based on their ability to live up to the appropriate gender schemas.

Bem cautioned that gender schema theory was a theory of process. The theory does not account for the specific content of gender schemas, as they may differ between cultures. Instead, it focuses on the way people process and utilize the information their culture provides about masculinity and femininity.

For example, a traditional culture may maintain strict divisions between men and women, such that women are expected to take care of the household and raise children while men work outside the home and support the family. Children raised in such a culture will develop gender schema in line with what they observe, and through their schema, will develop an understanding of what they can do as a boy or girl.

Meanwhile, in a more progressive culture, the distinctions between men and women might be less obvious, such that children see both men and woman pursuing careers and dividing chores at home. Still, children will look for cues about the differences between men and women in these cultures. Perhaps they’ll notice that people respect powerful men but are dismissive of women who strive for power. This will impact children’s gender schema and their understanding of the way their culture views appropriate roles for men and women. 

Gender Categories

Bem’s theory suggests that people fall into one of four gender categories:

  • Sex-typed individuals identify with the gender that corresponds to their physical sex. These individuals process and integrate information according to their schema for their gender.
  • Cross-sex typed individuals process and integrate information according to their schema for the opposite gender.
  • Androgynous individuals process and integrate information based on their schema for both genders.
  • Undifferentiated individuals have difficulty processing information based on any gender schema.

Bem Sex Role Inventory

In 1974, Bem created an instrument to place people into the four gender categories called the Bem Sex Role Inventory. The scale presents 60 attributes, such as assertive or tender, that respondents rate based on how well each attribute describes them. Twenty of the attributes correspond to a culture’s idea of masculinity, twenty correspond to the culture’s idea of femininity, and the final twenty are neutral.

Individuals are scored on masculinity and femininity on a continuum. If they score above the mid-point on the scale that conforms to their sex and below it on the scale that doesn’t conform to their sex, they fall into the sex-typed gender category. The opposite is true for cross-sex typed individuals. Meanwhile, androgynous individuals score above the mid-point on both scales and undifferentiated individuals score below the mid-point on both scales.

Gender Stereotypes

Bem didn’t directly address gender stereotypes or discrimination based on noncomformity to gender schema in her theory. However, she did question society’s over-reliance on gender distinctions. Thus, research by other scholars on gender schema theory has investigated the ways gender stereotypes are communicated in society. For example, studies have explored the way children’s coloring books communicate gender stereotypes and how these stereotypes may influence children’s gender schema and cause them to conform to gender stereotypes.

Gender schemas and the gender stereotypes incorporated into them enable people to understand the social difficulties they may encounter if they fail to conform to their culture’s gender norms. For example, a man who cries at a wedding may be mocked for being less masculine, while a woman who does the same is thought to be exhibiting gender-appropriate behavior. Meanwhile, a woman who speaks forcefully during a company meeting may be seen as bossy or too emotional by her employees, but a man who does the same is considered authoritative and in control.

Critiques

Gender schema theory provides a useful framework for understanding how knowledge structures of gender are formed, however it has not avoided all criticism. One weakness of the theory is that it fails to account for the ways biology or social interactions impact gender development. In addition, the content of gender schema remains unclear. While the theory is meant to account for the process—not the content—of these schema, it's difficult to measure schema with no understanding of their content. Finally, cognitive schemas about gender have been shown to predict thinking, attention, and memory, but they are less predictive of behavior. Therefore, one’s gender schema may not match the behavior one exhibits.

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