Gender Identity and Sex Roles

Gender identity is a sense of “femaleness” or “maleness” that becomes a central aspect of people’s personal identity. Gender constancy is the understanding that being male or female is a permanent part of a person. It develops around age 6 to 7.

As gender identity develops, children also acquire sex-role stereotypes, which are beliefs about the types of characteristics and behaviors that are appropriate for boys and girls to possess. Socialization refers to the process by which people acquire the beliefs, values, and behaviors of a group. It plays a key role in shaping our gender identity and sex-role stereotypes. Through socialization, people internalize expectations and standards, and these become part of their identity. Sex-role stereotypes are internalized through this process.

Sex-typing involves treating others differently based on whether they are male or female. It is one socialization process that accounts for gender differences in children’s attitudes and behaviors. For example, boys and girls are treated differently from infancy onward, with fathers being more physically and verbally prohibitive with their sons and steering them away from typically-feminine activities, and mothers using more supportive talk with their daughters.

Sex stereotypes are also transmitted though operational conditioning and observational learning. By age 7 or 8, stereotyped thinking is firmly in place. Children believe that boys and girls possess different personality traits and should hold different occupations as adults.

As children transition from adolescence and enter junior high, they are generally more flexible in their thinking about gender. Some come to believe that traditionally masculine and feminine traits can be blended within a single person (an andogynous gender identity). Overall, however, stereotypes about the psychological traits of both men and women seem to become a little more rigid, and most people continue to adhere to relatively traditional beliefs.

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