Discuss social influences on gender. (8 marks + 16 marks)

The specification mentions four examples of social influences on gender (parents, peers, schools, media), but you don't have to include all of these and can include others not on the specification.


Parents reinforce behaviour that they deem gender-appropriate in their children. This is often done through differential reinforcement, whereby the children are rewarded for gender-appropriate behaviour and are not rewarded for any other behaviour. For example, parents will reward girls (e.g. by giving them attention) when they behave in a feminine way, but they will not be rewarded if they exhibit masculine behaviours; this reinforces feminine behaviour. Parents may also punish children for exhibiting behaviour that is not gender-appropriate, making them less likely to repeat this behaviour in the future.

There is a vast array of research support for the role of parents in reinforcing gender role. For example, Smith & Lloyd found that mothers selected gender-appropriate toys for their children (e.g. dolls for girls or squeaky hammers for boys) and responded more actively when a boy showed increased motor activity (a typically masculine skill), showing the role of differential reinforcement in gender development.

Despite the evidence showing the influence of parents, Maccoby & Jacklin found no significant differences in the extent to which boys and girls are reinforced for aggressiveness or autonomy, two things which vary between the genders. Studies have also found few gender differences in terms of parental warmth, discipline, or encouragement of achievement or dependency. This findings refute the influence of parents in establishing gender roles.

Peers are also another important source of gender development, particularly in adolescence and late childhood. Peers act as models for gender-appropriate behaviour, and like parents they usually reinforce gender-appropriate behaviour. In these interactions children reward each other for gender-appropriate behaviour and punish each other for gender-inappropriate behaviours.

Some psychologists hold the view that peers are the most important social agents of gender development, and there is a large amount of research evidence that demonstrates the importance of peers. However, Lamb & Roopnarine found that pre-school children simply reinforce gender role stereotypes rather than creating new ones. This suggests that peers are less important to gender development in early childhoods.

Gender development is heavily influenced in school environments. This is partly because it provides an environment for children to interact, leading to peer influence as written about previously. However, teachers are another source of influence. They are also likely to reinforce gender-appropriate behaviours and aspirations. They can also act as role models, increasing their influence on gender development.

There is research support for the role of scholastic environments as a driving force behind gender development. Perry & Bussey found that children imitate the behaviour of same-sex models such as teachers as long as the behaviour was not inconsistent with gender stereotypes. This shows that teachers are influential towards gender development, though the effects of modelling can be limited by pre-existing gender stereotypes.

The media is another source of social influence. It is important in communicating gender stereotypes. The media generally portrays males as independent, directive and pursuing engaging occupations and activities, while females are portrayed as dependent, unambitious and emotional. This exposes children to models of gender-appropriate behaviour. The media also provides information about likely outcomes of these behaviours, and an individual’s self-efficacy will increase if the outcomes are portrayed as positive.

Research evidence has suggested that exposure to TV increases gender stereotypes. Williams found that children in a Canadian town with access to multiple TV channels had more strongly sex-typed views than children in towns with one or no TV channels. This suggests that exposure to gender stereotypes from TV increases sex-typed views.

Most research evidence for the influence of media on gender stereotypes comes from correlational analyses. The fact that people who watch more TV hold stronger gender-stereotyped views does not necessarily show that TV is the cause of these attitudes. One alternative explanation for the correlation is that highly gender-stereotyped children watch more TV as this confirms their world view. Also, most correlations found between TV and gender-stereotyping have been weak, suggesting that the media is not particularly influential.

Research has lead to pressure on broadcasters to alter TV shows to stop reinforcing gender stereotypes in order to alter such attitudes in society. For example, Pingree found that when children were shown commercials in which women were in non-traditional roles, stereotyping was reduced. This could be done more frequently in regular broadcasting in order to weaken or change gender stereotypes.

A criticism of these social models is that they are ‘adevelopmental’: they suggest that the processes of learning gender-appropriate behaviours are the same at all ages. However, research shows that the processes by which individuals learn change with age, something which cognitive developmental theories provide a better explanation for. Cognitive developmental theories also better explain why children adhere to only same-sex stereotypes and ignore opposite-sex schemas.

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