Discuss gender schema theory. (8 marks + 16 marks)

In this question you should outline and evaluate gender schema theory. As with all 24 mark essays, you should aim to write around 240 words of AO1 and 480 words of AO2.


Martin and Halverson suggest that gender identity is an outcome of children actively structuring their own experiences, rather than passive learning through observing and imitating. Unlike Kohlberg, they believe that children start learning about gender-appropriate behaviour before gender constancy is achieved, claiming that basic gender identity (gender labelling) is sufficient for a child to identify him/herself as a boy/girl and take an interest in behaviours that are appropriate.

Martin and Halverson explained gender development in terms of schemas: organised clusters of information about gender-appropriate behaviour. Children develop these schemas from their interactions with other people. For example, children will learn what toys and what clothes are appropriate for each gender. These schemas enable children to understand masculine and feminine behaviour.

Children are most interested in the schemas appropriate for their own gender. Girls focus on feminine schemas while boys focus on masculine schemas; in both cases these are called the ingroup schemas. From an early age, children focus on the ingroup schemas and avoid behaviours which belong to the outgroup schemas.

This theory can explain why children hold very fixed gender attitudes: it is because they ignore any information they encounter that is not consistent with ingroup information. For example, if a boy sees a film with a male nurse this information is likely to be ignores because the man is not behaving consistently with the ingroup schema. Therefore, the boy does not alter his existing schema.

There is a large amount of research to support the view that gender stereotypes are acquired before constancy. Martin and Little found that children under the age of four showed no signs of gender constancy, but did display strong gender stereotypes about what boys and girls were permitted to do. This shows that they acquire information about gender roles before Kohlberg suggested, in line with gender schema theory.

The concept of schemas is also supported by research which shows that while children do not pay more attention to consistent schemas, they remember them better. Martin and Halverson found that when children were asked to recall pictures of people, children under six recalled more of the gender-consistent ones (such as a male fire-fighter) than the gender-inconsistent ones (e.g. a male nurse).

The importance of schemas is shown in research by Bradbard et al. If gender schemas are important in acquiring information about gender, we would expect children to pay greater attention to information consistent with their gender schemas. Children aged between four and nine were told that gender neutral items (e.g. a burglar alarm or a pizza cutter) were boy or girl items. Participants took a greater interest in toys labelled as ingroup, meeting the theory's predictions and thus supporting it.

Another study supported gender schema theory by showing that children have aversions to items in outgroup schemas. In this longitudinal study, Fagot and Leinbach found that once the belief that an item belongs to the outgroup schema had formed, a reduced preference for that item developed; this reduced preference remained present throughout childhood. This suggests that gender schemas affect not only behaviour, but also beliefs and attitudes towards sex-specific items.

Despite the evidence supporting gender schema theory, some studies appear to show that children act in a gender-typical way before they have developed gender schemas. Eisenberg et al. found that 3 to 4 year olds justified their gender-specific choice of toys without reference to gender stereotypes. This seemingly contradicts gender schema theory's predictions.

There are some limitations to gender schema theory. One limitation is that being
 aware of gender stereotypes and having the relevant schemas does not necessarily mean that our behaviour will match them. For example, adults can be fully aware of gender expectations, yet choose not to follow them. There is little understanding of how gender-linked conceptions are actually converted into behaviour.

Another limitation of this theory is the issue of individual differences. Gender schema theory cannot explain why different children with much of the same environmental influences respond differently to gender-appropriate behaviour. For example, this theory cannot explain why some girls may prefer action figures and some boys may prefer Barbies. This may be due to biological differences such as genes and hormones, which gender schema theory largely ignores.

This theory also struggles to account for gender differences in behaviour. Bussey and Bandura found that girls are more willing to do masculine activities than boys are to do feminine activities, yet boys' and girls' schemas were the same. Thus, the development of gender schemas may be different for each gender. This may be due to social stigma: masculine traits and activities are seen as more desirable, and thus girls are more likely to have or perform them.

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