Gender Schema Theory

Gender Schema Theory

A schema is an organised cluster of information that allows us to identify things in our environment. Schemas develop through environmental interaction and experience. It has been suggested by Martin and Halverson that gender schemas drive gender behaviours.

Link with gender identity: Martin and Halverson agree with Kohlberg to some extent, believing children are active in acquiring information about gender. Unlike Kohlberg, they think that children only need a basic gender identity to start this process. Gender development therefore happens before gender constancy is achieved, starting at around age 2-3.

Link with behaviour and self-understanding: Once a child knows their gender identity, this leads them to form schemas, which are quite basic at first. This explains why young children appear to have very fixed, rigid, stereotypical ideas about gender. Their environment helps them to develop these schemas, which become more complex over time. Information that does not fit with their existing schema is ignored or misremembered (for example, seeing a picture of a male nurse, but remembering it as a female nurse).

Ingroups and outgroups: There are two groups- boys and girls- and a child belongs to one of them. Their group is the in-group. The opposite sex is the out-group. Children then actively search for info about how members of their group should behave. This includes: toys, games, activities and so on. The child ignores those which do not relate to their group, until they get older, when more detailed schemas can be formed for both genders.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 1


  • Martin and Little (1990) found that children as young as 2-3 demonstrated strongly sex-typed behaviours and attitudes, supporting the prediction that only gender identity is needed to develop a sense of gender, and weakening Kohlberg’s theory.
  • Martin and Halverson (1983) found that children were more likely to remember photographs of gender-consistent behaviour (e.g. a male firefighter) than inconsistent (e.g. a female firefighter), and they often misremembered the picture, saying that the firefighter was male when they were female. This supports the predictions of gender schema theory.
  • Similar to the criticism of Kohlberg, there are methodological issues with interviewing children to investigate cognitive theories. Children may be more subject to demand characteristics, giving the answer they think will please the researcher, which might not be what they actually believe. This weakens the evidence for gender schema theory.

Psychodynamic Explanation of Gender Development

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory suggests that gender development occurs during the phallic stage of the psychosexual stages of development, at ages 3-6. Before this stage, children have no concept of gender identity- they are pre-phallic. Pre-phallic children were described by Freud as ‘bisexual’, meaning neither masculine nor feminine. When the id impulse focuses on the genitals during the phallic stage, children experience the Oedipus or Electra complex- this shapes gender identity.

Oedipus complex: During the phallic stage, boys develop sexual desires for their mother, and become jealous of their father, seeing them as a rival for the mother’s affections. Because the father is more powerful, they become afraid that they will find this out and respond by castrating them (castration anxiety). To resolve this conflict, boys give up their love for their mother, and identify __with their father, taking on the gender identity of the father (__internalisation). Gender identity is therefore formed at the end of the phallic stage.

Electra complex: During the phallic stage, girls experience penis envy, resenting their mother for having removed their penis, and also for possessing their father (who they develop sexual desires for). Carl Jung suggested that girls eventually accept that they do not have a penis, and substitute this desire for the desire to have children. Girls also identify with their mother as a means of resolving the Electra complex, taking on the gender identity of the mother (internalisation). Gender identity is therefore formed at the end of the phallic stage. Freud suggested that women never really progress beyond the phallic stage and there remains some fixation- they maintain a sense of envy and inferiority to men.

Little Hans: This case study was used by Freud as evidence for the Oedipus complex. Hans was a 5-year-old boy who had a fear of horses, apparently gained after seeing one collapse in the street. Freud suggested that the horse represented his father, and his fear of his father finding out about his desire for his mother was displaced onto horses via a defence mechanism.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 1


  • Blakemore and Hill (2008) found that boys with more liberal, less harsh fathers were more secure in their gender identity than boys who had fathers that were strict. This weakens the psychodynamic approach, as according to the approach boys of strict fathers should be more anxious during the Oedipus complex and should therefore develop stronger identifications with the father.
  • Freud’s theories have been criticised as being unscientific and unfalsifiable, for example concepts such as the unconscious conflicts that drive the Oedipus/Electra complex. This weakens the explanation of gender development as the explanation has little or no empirical evidence to back it up.
  • Golombok et al (1983) found that children from single-parent families went on to develop normal gender identities. This weakens the prediction of the psychodynamic explanation, namely that children from non-nuclear families will not be able to resolve the Oedipus/Electra complex successfully so will have a weaker sense of gender identity.

SLTApplied to Gender Development

This theory suggests gender behaviour (like other behaviour) is learned, from interacting with and observing things in the environment. Sources of social influence include parents, peers, school and the media. This influence occurs in the following ways:

Direct reinforcement: Children are directly rewarded for certain behaviours and punished for others (differential reinforcement). This leads them to repeat the behaviours that were rewarded and avoid the behaviours that were punished. For example, a boy may be told off by a parent for asking to play with dolls, so learning that this is not a masculine behaviour.

Indirect/vicarious reinforcement: Children observe the behaviour of others and learn the consequences of the behaviour (vicarious reinforcement). This information is stored as an expectancy of future outcome. For example, a girl sees her mother being complimented for ‘looking nice’, so learning that caring about appearance is part of what it means to be feminine.

Identification and Modelling: Children identify with people they see as role models- people who they would like to resemble. These may be a parent or figures seen in the media. Modelling involves remembering the precise demonstrations of behaviour from people children see as role models, and who are the same sex as them. For example, a girl tries to copy putting on make-up, like her mother.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 1

Mediational processes: These processes affect the likelihood of a child repeating a behaviour:

  • Attention (a boy watching a footballer)
  • Retention (remembering what has been seen)
  • Motivation (wanting to emulate the famous footballer role model)
  • Motor reproduction (being able to physically recreate the action)


  • Smith and Lloyd (1978) found that infants were treated differently by adults according to what gender they were dressed as. When dressed as boys, they were encouraged to be active and adventurous. When dressed as girls, they were encouraged to be more passive. This shows the potential influence of adults on a child’s sense of gender.
  • SLT can explain the differences in gender-role expectations now compared to decades ago, as the result of changing norms, beliefs and therefore social influences. Biological explanations would find this much harder to explain.
  • The case of David Reimer would contradict the expectations of SLT, as his upbringing as a girl (and all of the associated reinforcements) was overridden by biology, suggesting that the role of nature is underestimated in this theory.

Influence of Culture & Media

Culture refers to the values, customs, shared traditions and practices of a particular group of people. If gender roles (behaviours considered appropriate for a particular gender) are similar across all cultures, it could be concluded that this is due to innate influences. If there are cross-cultural differences, this would support the role of the environment in shaping gender.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 1

Cultural differences: Mead (1935) studied gender behaviour in tribes in Papua New Guinea, finding some gender differences between them. For example, the Arapesh males and females were gentle and responsive, the Mundungumor males and females were more hostile and aggressive, and the Tchambuli women were dominant, whilst the men were more passive. This suggests that gender is shaped by culture and upbringing. Mead later suggested she may have overestimated the differences in behaviour, suggesting that there were still some gender similarities (for example, in all tribes the males fought in wars), but these are affected by cultural norms.

Cultural similarities: Buss (1995) investigated male and female mate-choice preference (what people look for in a partner) in 37 countries with differing cultures. There was a high level of agreement in the results- males looked for youth and signs of fertility, females looked for resources. This suggests that there may be an innate preference when it comes to mate choice.


  • Mead has been accused of observer bias, only finding what she wanted to find in the research. There is some evidence her participants may have not been truthful with her, reducing the validity of her findings.
  • The imposed etic is a problem with cross-cultural research into gender, as the participants may not entirely understand what is being asked of them, or the method being used to measure gender roles is not an appropriate one. This again reduces the validity of the findings.
  • It is impossible to separate the influence of nature and nurture, making it hard to draw conclusions from cross-cultural research about the relative influence of both.

The media refers to communication channels, which may convey expectations around gender roles and gender-appropriate behaviours.

Stereotypes: The media tend to portray men as independent, autonomous, and ambitious, occupying professional roles, whereas women are more likely to be shown as passive and dependent, and more likely to occupy domestic roles. This may, through social learning theory, reinforce ideas about what is ‘expected’ behaviour for men and women.

Information-giving: McGhee and Frueh (1980) found that children who consumed more media showed stronger gender-stereotypical views, suggesting that the media may communicate the ‘correctness’ of certain gender-role behaviours. This may increase a child’s belief that displaying gender-typical behaviour is more likely to be successful.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 2


  • It is hard to establish cause-effect relationships concerning the role of the media, as all children are exposed to it from such a young age (there are no control groups). This limits the conclusions that can be drawn from such studies, as the relationships are correlational.
  • Williams (1986) studies three towns in Canada- ‘Notel’ (which was about to receive a TV signal for the first time), ‘Unitel’ (which had one TV channel) and ‘Multitel’ (which had many channels). They found that attitudes to gender were less stereotyped in Notel and Unitel, but after the introduction of TV to Notel, two years later attitudes to gender became more stereotyped. This supports that the media does have an influence on a person’s idea of gender roles.
  • The media can also provide counter-stereotypes, for example the Disney film Brave which challenges the expected gender behaviours of males and females. This suggests that the media does not always reinforce the prevailing beliefs about gender.

Gender Identity Disorder(GID)

GID is a feeling of mismatch between biological sex and psychological gender. Such individuals may identify as transgender and may opt for surgery so that their external genitalia match with their desired sex.

Biological explanations: GID would not be diagnosed when another disorder such as Klinefelter’s syndrome is present. Other biological explanations include brain-sex theory, based on the idea that the brain structure of those with GID does not match their genetic sex. One part of the brain studied is the BSTc in the thalamus; on average, the BSTc is twice as large in heterosexual men than in heterosexual women. It is proposed that the size of the BSTc correlates with preferred sex rather than genetic sex. It is thought to be fully developed by age 5. Zhou (1995) found that the size of the BSTc in male to female transgender individuals was similar to that of genetic females.

In addition, there could be a genetic basis for GID. Coolidge et al (2002) looked at 157 twin pairs, and found a 2.3% occurrence of GID. Of these cases, 62% could be accounted for by genetic variance. Heylens et al (2012) studied 23 identical (MZ) and 21 non-identical (DZ) twin pairs, where one twin had been diagnosed with GID. He found that 39% of MZ twins also had GID, and none of the DZ twins, suggesting a genetic link.

Gender Schema Theory, figure 1


  • Hulshoff Pol et al (2006) found that transgender hormone therapy affected the size of the BTSc. Therefore, this part of the brain may be changing in response to GID, rather than being a cause for it.
  • The concordance rates in twin studies could be due to their shared environment, rather than their shared genes. In addition, there are very small samples available to test in such studies, limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from them.
  • Biological explanations may be reductionist, explaining GID in terms of a size of a part of the brain, and not considering the role of other factors in the development of GID.

Social-psychological explanations: These include Psychoanalytic theory. Ovesey and Person (1973) proposed that GID results from experiencing extreme separation anxiety before gender identity has developed. To relieve the anxiety, the child imagines themselves as the parent (‘becomes’ the parent). Amongst boys, this could lead to greater female identification and confused gender identity. Stoller (1975) found evidence that GID may result from distorted parental attitudes, as in clinical interviews with individuals diagnosed with GID, he observed that they displayed overly close mother-son relationships.

The cognitive theory is another explanation. Liben and Bigler (2002) proposed the dual pathway theory, whereby one pathway is gender development being affected by schema (gender schema theory). The second pathway is gender development being affected by the child’s own activities and interests. If this second pathway is dominant, this may cause the schema to be affected, leading to androgyny or GID in a minority of children.


  • The psychoanalytic explanation only applies to males with GID, and is very difficult to test, as it is based on Freud’s ideas, many of which are not falsifiable, for example the unconscious conflicts driving gender development.
  • The cognitive theory has been criticised as not being a full explanation, for example it is not outline why the second pathway would become more dominant in some children. This therefore limits this explanation.
Each person has 23 what?
True or false - the role of chromosomes and hormones takes the nature side of the nature-nurture debate.
Who suggested that androgyny is associated with psychological well-being?
What are preconceived ideas/beliefs about appropriate gender behaviour?
Your answer should include: Sex-Role / Sex / Role / Stereotypes
Which hormone facilitates bonding?
In Freud's theory, what is the term for 'adopting the attitudes and behaviour of another'?
Which part of the brain is thought to be similar in MtF transsexuals and genetic females?
What is the first stage of Kohlberg's cognitive theory of gender?
What is learning through watching someone else being rewarded/punished?
Your answer should include: Vicarious / Reinforcement
Which researcher studied tribes in Papua New Guinea?