What Is Gender Socialization? Definition and Examples

Boy playing with baby carriage in kitchen
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Gender socialization is the process by which we learn our culture's gender-related rules, norms, and expectations. The most common agents of gender socialization—in other words, the people who influence the process—are parents, teachers, schools, and the media. Through gender socialization, children begin to develop their own beliefs about gender and ultimately form their own gender identity.

Sex vs. Gender

  • The terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably. However, in a discussion of gender socialization, it’s important to distinguish between the two.
  • Sex is biologically and physiologically determined based on an individual's anatomy at birth. It is typically binary, meaning that one's sex is either male or female.
  • Gender is a social construct. An individual's gender is their social identity resulting from their culture's conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Gender exists on a continuum.
  • Individuals develop their own gender identity, influenced in part by the process of gender socialization.

Gender Socialization in Childhood

The process of gender socialization begins early in life. Children develop an understanding of gender categories at a young age. Studies have shown that children can discern male voices from female voices at six months old, and can differentiate between men and women in photographs at nine months old. Between 11 and 14 months, children develop the ability to associate sight and sound, matching male and female voices with photographs of men and women. By age three, children have formed their own gender identity. They have also begun to learn their culture’s gender norms, including which toys, activities, behaviors, and attitudes are associated with each gender.

Because gender categorization is a significant part of a child's social development, children tend to be especially attentive to same-gender models. When a child observes same-gender models consistently exhibit specific behaviors that differ from the behaviors of other-gender models, the child is more likely to exhibit the behaviors learned from the same-gender models. These models include parents, peers, teachers, and figures in the media.

Children’s knowledge of gender roles and stereotypes can impact their attitudes towards their own and other genders. Young children, in particular, may become especially rigid about what boys and girls "can" and "cannot" do. This either-or thinking about gender reaches its peak between the ages of 5 and 7 and then becomes more flexible.

Agents of Gender Socialization

As children, we develop gender-related beliefs and expectations through our observations of and interactions with the people around us. An "agent" of gender socialization is any person or group that plays a role in the childhood gender socialization process. The four primary agents of gender socialization are parents, teachers, peers, and the media.

Parents

Parents are typically a child’s first source of information about gender. Starting at birth, parents communicate different expectations to their children depending on their sex. For example, a son may engage in more roughhousing with his father, while a mother takes her daughter shopping. The child may learn from their parents that certain activities or toys correspond with a particular gender (think of a family that gives their son a truck and their daughter a doll). Even parents who emphasize gender equality may inadvertently reinforce some stereotypes due to their own gender socialization.

Teachers

Teachers and school administrators model gender roles and sometimes demonstrate gender stereotypes by responding to male and female students in different ways. For example, separating students by gender for activities or disciplining students differently depending on their gender may reinforce children’s developing beliefs and assumptions.

Peers

Peer interactions also contribute to gender socialization. Children tend to play with same-gender peers. Through these interactions, they learn what their peers expect of them as boys or girls. These lessons may be direct, such as when a peer tells the child that a certain behavior is or is not "appropriate" for their gender. They can also be indirect, as the child observes same- and other-gendered peers' behavior over time. These comments and comparisons may become less overt over time, but adults continue to turn to same-gendered peers for information about how they are supposed to look and act as a man or a woman. 

Media

Media, including movies, TV, and books, teaches children about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Media conveys information about the role of gender in people’s lives and can reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, consider an animated film that depicts two female characters: a beautiful but passive heroine, and an ugly but active villain. This media model, and countless others, reinforces ideas about which behaviors are acceptable and valued (and which are not) for a particular gender.

Gender Socialization Throughout Life

Gender socialization is a lifelong process. The beliefs about gender that we acquire in childhood can affect us throughout our lives. The impact of this socialization can be big (shaping what we believe we are capable of accomplishing and thus potentially determining our life's course), small (influencing the color we choose for our bedroom walls), or somewhere in the middle.

As adults, our beliefs about gender may grow more nuanced and flexible, but gender socialization can still affect our behavior, whether in school, the workplace, or our relationships.

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