Gender

Gender and Sociology

From birth, children are assigned a gender and are socialized to conform to certain gender roles based on their biological sex.

Learning Objectives

Explain how gender roles shape individual behavior and how society punishes those who don’t conform

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Gender roles are based on norms, or standards, created by society. In the U.S., masculine roles are usually associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles are associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination.
  • Gender socialization begins at birth and occurs through four major agents of socialization: family, education, peer groups, and mass media.
  • Repeated socialization over time leads men and women into a false sense that they are acting naturally, rather than following a socially constructed role.
  • The attitudes and expectations surrounding gender roles are typically based not on any inherent or natural gender differences, but on stereotypes about the attitudes, traits, or behavior patterns of women or men.
  • Gender stereotypes form the basis of sexism, or the prejudiced beliefs that value males over females.
  • Transgender, genderqueer, and other nonconforming-gender people face discrimination, oppression, and violence for not adhering to society’s traditional gender roles.

Key Terms

  • gender roles: A social and behavioral norm that is generally considered appropriate for either a man or a woman in a social setting or interpersonal relationship.
  • transgender: Having a gender that is different from the gender one was assigned at birth.
  • norm: A rule that is enforced by members of a community.
  • socialization: The process of learning one’s culture and how to live within it; the way people adopt ideas about social roles from other members of their society.

” Sex ” refers to physical or physiological differences between males, females, and intersex persons, including both their primary and secondary sex characteristics. “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with a given sex. When babies are born, they are assigned a gender based on their biological sex—male babies are assigned as boys, female babies are assigned as girls, and intersex babies are usually relegated into one category or another. Scholars generally regard gender as a social construct, meaning that it does not exist naturally but is instead a concept that is created by cultural and societal norms. From birth, children are socialized to conform to certain gender roles based on their biological sex and the gender to which they are assigned.

Gender Roles

As we grow, we learn how to behave from those around us. In this socialization process, children are introduced to certain roles that are typically linked to their biological sex. The term “gender role” refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to act and behave. Gender roles are based on norms, or standards, created by society. In American culture, masculine roles have traditionally been associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles have traditionally been associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination.

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Gender roles: The term “gender role” refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to act.

Gender Socialization

The socialization process in which children learn these gender roles begins at birth. Today, our society is quick to outfit male infants in blue and girls in pink, even applying these color-coded gender labels while a baby is in the womb. It is interesting to note that these color associations with gender have not always been what they are today. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, pink was actually more associated with boys, while blue was more associated with girls—illustrating how socially constructed these associations really are.

Gender socialization occurs through four major agents: family, education, peer groups, and mass media. Each agent reinforces gender roles by creating and maintaining normative expectations for gender-specific behavior. Exposure also occurs through secondary agents, such as religion and the workplace. Repeated exposure to these agents over time leads people into a false sense that they are acting naturally based on their gender, rather than following a socially constructed role.

Children learn at a young age that there are distinct expectations for them based on their assigned gender. Cross-cultural studies reveal that children are aware of gender roles by age two or three; at four or five, most children are firmly entrenched in culturally appropriate gender roles (Kane, 1996). Parents often supply male children with trucks, toy guns, and superhero paraphernalia, which are active toys that promote motor skills, aggression, and solitary play. Female children are often given dolls and dress-up apparel that foster nurturing, social proximity, and role play. Studies have shown that children will most likely choose to play with “gender appropriate” toys even when cross-gender toys are available, because parents give children positive feedback (in the form of praise, involvement, and physical closeness) for gender-normative behavior (Caldera, Huston, and O’Brien, 1998).

The drive to adhere to masculine and feminine gender roles continues later in life. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics; women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as childcare, healthcare, and social work. These occupational roles are examples of typical American male and female behavior, derived not from biology or genetics but from our culture’s traditions. Adherence to these roles demonstrates fulfillment of social expectations but not necessarily personal preference (Diamond, 2002).

Sexism and Gender-Role Enforcement

The attitudes and expectations surrounding gender roles are not typically based on any inherent or natural gender differences, but on gender stereotypes, or oversimplified notions about the attitudes, traits, and behavior patterns of males and females. Gender stereotypes form the basis of sexism, or the prejudiced beliefs that value males over females. Common forms of sexism in modern society include gender-role expectations, such as expecting women to be the caretakers of the household. Sexism also includes people’s expectations of how members of a gender group should behave. For example, women are expected to be friendly, passive, and nurturing; when a woman behaves in an unfriendly or assertive manner, she may be disliked or perceived as aggressive because she has violated a gender role (Rudman, 1998). In contrast, a man behaving in a similarly unfriendly or assertive way might be perceived as strong or even gain respect in some circumstances.

Sexism can exist on a societal level such as in hiring, employment opportunities, and education. In the United States, women are less likely to be hired or promoted in male-dominated professions such as engineering, aviation, and construction (Blau, Ferber, & Winkler, 2010; Ceci & Williams, 2011). In many areas of the world, young girls are not given the same access to nutrition, healthcare, and education as boys.

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Gender stereotypes: Every time we see someone riding a motorcycle and assume, without looking closely, that they are male, we are engaging in gender stereotyping. This particular gender stereotype assumes that women are too timid or weak to ride a motorcycle.

Gender roles shape individual behavior not only by dictating how people of each gender should behave, but also by giving rise to penalties for people who don’t conform to the norms. While it is somewhat acceptable for women to take on a narrow range of masculine characteristics without repercussions (such as dressing in traditionally male clothing), men are rarely able to take on more feminine characteristics (such as wearing skirts) without the risk of harassment or violence. This threat of punishment for stepping outside of gender norms is especially true for those who do not identify as male or female. Transgender, genderqueer, and other gender-nonconforming people face discrimination, oppression, and violence for not adhering to society’s traditional gender roles. People who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer are also ostracized for breaking the traditional gender norm of who a person of a given sex “should” be attracted to. Even people who identify as cisgender (identifying with the sex they were assigned at birth) and straight (attracted to the opposite sex) face repercussions if they step outside of their gender role in an obvious way.

Gender as a Spectrum and Transgender Identities

Viewing gender as a spectrum allows us to perceive the rich diversity of genders, from trans- and cisgender to genderqueer and agender.

Learning Objectives

Describe the gender spectrum, the gender binary, and transgender identities

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Most Western societies operate on the idea that gender is a binary —that there are essentially only two genders (men and women) based on two sexes (male and female), and that everyone must fit one or the other.
  • The gender spectrum perceives gender as having many options; it is a linear model, ranging from 100% man to 100% woman, with various states of androgyny in between.
  • The gender continuum or matrix is a multidimensional extension of the gender spectrum that includes additional gender identities outside of the spectrum.
  • Individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex (for example, they are assigned male at birth but feel inwardly that they are a girl or a gender other than a boy) are called transgender.
  • The transgender identity umbrella includes many different and sometimes-overlapping categories, including transsexual, genderqueer, androgyne, bigender, agender, third gender, and two-spirit, among others.
  • Although many transgender individuals will physically transition from one gender to another with the help of surgery and/or hormones, not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies.

Key Terms

  • binary: A state in which there are only two conditions, which are perceived to be mutually exclusive, such as on or off, true or false, male or female, black or white.
  • cisgender: Identifying with or experiencing a gender the same as one’s biological sex or that is affirmed by society—e.g., identifying as a man while being biologically male.

The Gender Spectrum and Gender Continuum

Most Western societies operate on the idea that gender is a binary—that there are essentially only two genders (men and women) based on two sexes (male and female), and that everyone must fit one or the other. This social dichotomy enforces conformance to the ideals of masculinity and femininity in all aspects of gender and sex—gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. In contrast, some societies have “third gender” categories that can be used as a basis for a gender identity by people who do not identify with the gender that is usually associated with their biological sex. In other societies, membership of any of the gender categories is open to people regardless of their sex. In some cultures and subcultures, gender has traditionally been viewed as fluid, or existing along a spectrum.

In the United States, the gender spectrum was formed as an extension of the limiting gender binary that viewed man and woman as the only two gender options. It is a linear model, ranging from 100% man to 100% woman with various states in between. The gender continuum (sometimes referred to as the gender matrix) is an extension of this gender spectrum that includes additional gender identities. A continuum is multidimensional, allowing third gender, fourth gender, fifth gender, agender, or genderless options, as well as many other possibilities and combinations; it is thus a more accurate reflection of the true diversity of human genders. The continuum approach to gender identity provides individuals with more personal freedom in which to express themselves.

Transgender Identities

In Western cultures, those who identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth based on their biological sex (for example, they are assigned male at birth and continue to identify as a boy) are called cisgender. Individuals who identify with a gender that is different from the one they were assigned based on their biological sex (for example, they are assigned male at birth but feel inwardly that they are a girl, or a gender other than a boy) are called transgender. Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to the state of one’s gender identity (in other words, one’s self-identification as woman, man, neither, both, or something different) not matching one’s assigned sex (their identification by others as male, female, or intersex, based on genetic and biological characteristics). Transgender is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual, or any other kind of sexuality, just like cisgender people do. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of transgender people in society; however, it is estimated that 2–5% of the U.S. population is transgender (Transgender Law and Policy Institute 2007).

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Transgender pride: Those that identify with a gender that is different from the biological sex they were assigned at birth are called transgender. The flag above is the marker of transgender pride.

The umbrella of transgender identities includes many different and sometimes-overlapping categories. The term “transsexual,” though used less often these days, refers to transgender people who alter their bodies through medical interventions, such as surgery and hormonal therapy, so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity. They may also be known as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM). “Genderqueer” and “gender fluid” typically signify gender experiences that do not fit into binary concepts; they suggest nonconformity and challenge existing constructions and identities. In addition, people may identify as androgynous, bigender, pangender, ambigender, non-gendered, agender, intergender, third gender, or another identity altogether. “Two-spirit” is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities.

Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies or physically transition from one sex to another. Many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as a different gender, often by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristics typically assigned to a certain gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress, or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to the opposite gender—such as transvestites, drag kings, and drag queens—do not necessarily identify as transgender (though some do). People often conflate the term “transvestite” (the practice of dressing and acting in a style or manner traditionally associated with the other sex) with “transgender”; cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and not necessarily an expression about one’s gender identity.

Development of Gender Identity

Gender identity is a person’s subjective experience of their own gender; how it develops is a topic of much debate.

Learning Objectives

Apply social-learning theory and gender-schema theory to the context of gender identity development and the gender spectrum

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Gender identity is the extent to which one identifies as being a man, a woman, or another gender, and is often shaped early in life.
  • Those that identify with the gender that corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth are called cisgender. Individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex are called transgender.
  • Recent terms such as “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” “gender variant,” and “gender nonconforming” are used by individuals who do not identify within the gender binary as either a man or a woman; instead they identify somewhere along a spectrum of genders, often in a way that is continuously evolving.
  • Although the formation of gender identity is not completely understood, many factors have been suggested as influencing its development, including biological factors, social factors, language, and social and economic power.
  • According to social-learning theory, children develop their gender identity through observing and imitating the gender-linked behaviors of others and then being rewarded or punished depending on what they imitate.
  • According to gender-schema theory, gender-associated information is transmitted through society by way of schemata, or networks of information that allow for some information to be more easily assimilated than others.
  • According to proponents of queer theory, gender identity is not a rigid or static identity but can continue to evolve and change over time.

Key Terms

  • cisgender: Identifying with or experiencing a gender the same as one’s biological sex or that is affirmed by society—e.g., being assigned male at birth and identifying as a boy/man.
  • gender identity: A person’s sense of self as a member of a particular gender.
  • queer theory: A field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of LGBT and feminist studies.
  • gender binary: A view of gender whereby people are categorized exclusively as either men or women, often based on biological sex; the concept that only two genders exist.

Gender Identity

Gender identity is the extent to which one identifies with a particular gender; it is a person’s individual sense and subjective experience of being a man, a woman, or another gender. It is often shaped early in life and consists primarily of the acceptance (or non-acceptance) of one’s membership into a gender category. In most societies, there is a basic division between gender attributes assigned to males and females. In all societies, however, some individuals do not identify with some (or all) of the aspects of gender that are assigned to their biological sex.

Those that identify with the gender that corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth (for example, they are assigned female at birth and continue to identify as a girl, and later a woman) are called cisgender. In many Western cultures, individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex (for example, they are assigned female at birth but feel inwardly that they are a boy or a gender other than a girl) are called transgender. Some transgender individuals, if they have access to resources and medical care, choose to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as surgery and hormonal therapy so that their physical being is better aligned with their gender identity. Recent terms such as “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” “gender variant,” “androgynous,” “agender,” and “gender nonconforming” are used by individuals who do not identify within the gender binary as either a man or a woman; instead they identify as existing somewhere along a spectrum or continuum of genders, or outside of the spectrum altogether, often in a way that is continuously evolving.

Gender Identity Development

While gender identity is very fluid among young children, it is usually believed to form between ages 3 and 6. However, many transgender, genderqueer, or genderfluid individuals are not able to embrace their true gender identity until much later in life, largely due to both societal pressure to conform to the gender binary and the societal stigma associated with transgender identities. Studies suggest that children develop gender identity in three distinct stages:

  1. As toddlers and preschoolers, children learn about defined characteristics and socialized aspects of gender.
  2. Around age 5–7, gender identity becomes rigid in a process known as consolidation.
  3. After this “peak of rigidity,” fluidity returns and socially defined gender roles relax somewhat.

Factors that Influence Gender Identity

Although the formation of gender identity is not completely understood, many factors have been suggested as influencing its development. Biological factors that may influence gender identity include pre- and post-natal hormone levels and genetic makeup. Social factors include ideas regarding gender roles conveyed by family, authority figures, mass media, and other influential people in a child’s life. Children are shaped and molded by the people surrounding them, who they try to imitate and follow. According to social-learning theory, children develop their gender identity through observing and imitating the gender-linked behaviors of others; they are then rewarded for imitating the behaviors of people of the same gender and punished for imitating the behaviors of another gender. For example, male children will often be rewarded for imitating their father’s love of baseball, but punished or redirected in some way if they imitate their older sister’s love of dolls.

Another factor that has a significant role in the process of gender identity is language; while learning a language, children learn to separate masculine and feminine characteristics and unconsciously adjust their own behavior to these predetermined roles. Competition for economic and social power can also influence one’s gender identity, as gender is highly stratified (with men having more societal and economic power and privilege than women and other genders) in our culture.

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The development of gender identity: The formation of gender identity is influenced by social factors, such as family. Fathers tend to be more involved when their sons engage in gender-appropriate activities such as sports.

Gender-Schema Theory

Gender-schema theory was formally introduced by Sandra Bem in 1981 as a cognitive theory to explain how individuals become gendered in society. It describes how sex-linked characteristics are maintained and transmitted to other members of a culture. According to gender-schema theory, gender-associated information is predominantly transmitted through society by way of schemata, or networks that allow for some types of information to be more easily assimilated than others. Bem argues that there are individual differences in the degree to which people hold these gender schemata. These differences are manifested via the degree to which individuals are sex-typed. Bem refers to four categories into which an individual may fall:

  1. Sex-typed individuals process and integrate information that is in line with their assigned gender.
  2. Cross-sex-typed individuals process and integrate information that is in line with the gender opposite to the one they were assigned.
  3. Androgynous individuals process and integrate traits and information from both genders.
  4. Finally, undifferentiated individuals do not show efficient processing of sex-typed information.

Queer Theory

According to proponents of queer theory, gender identity is not a rigid or static identity but can continue to evolve and change over time. Queer theory developed in response to the perceived limitations of the way in which identities are thought to become consolidated or stabilized (for instance, gay or straight), and theorists constructed queerness in an attempt to resist this. In this way, the theory attempts to maintain a critique rather than define a specific identity. While “queer” defies a simple definition, the term is often used to convey an identity that is not rigidly developed, but is instead fluid and changing.