Gender schema theory is a cognitive model that explains how people acquire and construct gender-related knowledge.
It suggests that children learn gender constructs from the environment in which they are raised. As children are exposed to more and more gendered situations, they increasingly refine their beliefs about gender norms.
This theory’s core influence is that it melds Piagetian cognitive development theory with gender studies:
- Cognitive Theory: Piaget proposes we produce cognitive schema (categories in the mind) to categorize concepts and make sense of our world.
- Gender Schema Theory: Building on Piaget, Gender schema theory demonstrates how children develop gender schema, which are categories in the mind that define male and female traits.
Gender Schema Theory Overview
According to gender schema theory, children develop their understandings of masculinity and femininty (ie. gender schemas) very early on through gender socialization and experience. They then use their understandings of gender “to categorize information, make decisions, and regulate behavior” (Starr & Zurbriggen, 2017, p. 567).
Psychologist Sandra Bem first introduced gender schema theory in 1981. Bem (1983) explains that children can learn gender schema passively simply through observational learning.
Melding social learning theory and cognitive development theory, she notes: “social learning theory emphasizes the rewards & punishments that children receive for sex-appropriate & sex inappropriate behavior”, which applies “to the development of psychological femaleness and maleness the very same principles of learning that are already known to account for the development of other behaviors”(p. 599).
Then, bringing cognitive development theory into her theory, she notes how children ‘construct’ gender categories through observation of their world: “as sex typing develops naturally and inevitably as children comprehend the social world” (p. 600). Here, she builds on Piaget’s notion that children develop increasingly complex understandings of social categories through their experiences and observations.
Bem’s (1983) theory asserts that through the process known as schema acquisition, beliefs are formed about gender categorization. A child’s mind constructs a belief system of what roles should be assigned to men and what roles should be assigned to women. The media and peers can also impact their worldview.
Generally, this leads to what Bem (1981) calls sex-types: sex-typed (male and female), cross-sex-typed, androgynous, and undifferentiated.
Understanding Cognitive Development Theory
Cognitive development theory holds that people construct categories in their minds, which we call schema. A schema is constructed when we make observations and try to make sense of those observations by placing them in categories. Future observations will be compared to our existing mental schema. If the new observation is consistent with our schema, we double-down on our belief that our schema is correct. If the observation challenges our existing mental schema, we need to amend the schema to accommodate for the new information. This helps us overcome cognitive dissonance and achieve cognitive equilibrium, and in turn, our schema become increasingly nuanced and complex.
For a deeper dive on cognitive theory, read our guide: Constructivism in Education
Gender Schema Theory Examples
- Learning Gendered Colors: From a young age children learn that certain colors, types of toys and extracurricular activities are associated different genders. For example. boys may be encouraged to play with toy cars, or footballs, while girls are given dolls and cooking sets.
- Learning Gendered Roles: When asked to do chores around the house, gender roles are communicated to children. while girls may be asked to help with washing dishes or cleaning, boys may be asked to to help with mowing the lawn or more physical activities.
- Learning through Media Constructions of Gender: Media and advertising perpetuate gender stereotypes. Television shows and movies often contain messages that can reinforce traditional gender roles.
- Gender specific language: Some languages have gender specific terms for professions and activities regardless of the gender of the person filling the role (e.g., fireman, stewardess, policeman, mailman, barmaid).
- Religious instruction: In some religions gender roles are strictly observed; this has led to women not permitted to partake in certain activities, take on certain roles, and be subjugated to lifestyles that infringe upon their personal freedoms.
- Gender norms in education: In education, female children may be discouraged from studying certain subjects or participating in certain sports clubs.
- Learning progressive notions of gender: Gender schema theory also explains why liberal societies have more progressive ideas about gender. A girl raised in a more progressive culture may pursue a college career, or choose not to get married and raise a family to pursue her career goals. Alternatively, a man may choose to be a stay-at-home father, and raise children while his wife works.
- Learned negative gender stereotypes: A young boy is taught he should not cry, and is punished because he is told it is feminine to express his emotions.
- Gendered toys: Studies consistently find that toys in shops and play rooms are highly gendered, with products targeted at boys reinforcing masculine sex-types and products targeted at girls reinforcing feminine sex-types.
- Gender stereotyping: People’s cognitive schema are often incorrect or too simplistic, meaning they end up being stereotypes and characatures that lead to false assumptions.
- Categorizing based on appearance: A key idea in gender schema theory is that, in trying to create categories in their minds, children will connect the biological notion of sex and the social category of gender. Therefore, children will link behaviors to physical features of men and women. This association creates cognitive equilibrium in the mind and is therefore a belief often held onto throughout the lifespan.
Practical Implications of Gender Schema Theory
By melding cognitive development theory with gender theory, Bem (1981) was able to present practical ideas for promoting gender inclusivity.
For example, cognitive development theory holds that children create categories in their minds through personal experience.
This means that, as children are exposed to a variety of different role models, they may increasingly move away from strict notions of gender normativity and develop increasingly nuanced gender schemata.
As a result, Bem (1981) explicitly recommends presenting children with a variety of competing gender concepts that will challenge children to develop gender schemata that are broad and inclusive.
1. Gender Schema in Religious Instruction
In some religions, gender roles are strictly observed; this has led to women not permitted to partake in certain activities, take on certain roles, and be subjugated to lifestyles that infringe upon their personal freedoms.
In parts of the world, gender roles are strictly defined within a culture, and enforced through religion doctrine from birth. The gender schema is pre-decided by the culture with unquestioning rigidity.
One example is in subcultures in Iran where women are not allowed to choose their own spouse.
Religion can play a tremendous role in how gender roles are assigned, which is codified in culture and learned by children as they experience the world through a cultural lens.
Ghanea (2021) asserts that these “harmful practices by definition constitute a denial of dignity and integrity, amount to discrimination, and are imposed on women and children”(p. 85).
2. Children’s Toys and Activities Promote Gender Schema
From a young age, children learn that certain colors, types of toys and extracurricular activities are associated different genders.
Frassanito & Pettorini (2008) explain that it wasn’t until after the end of World War II, when blue became the primary color for men’s uniforms, where it was strongly associated with masculinity in the United States.
Pink on the other hand, has been correlated to an effective campaign slogan in the 1940’s known as, “Think Pink”. Marketers were able to persuade women to express their femininity with this color.
In the following two decades, there was a boom in the variety of colors used for clothes, furniture, and other household appliances.
It was during this period that dressing children in pink and blue to symbolize gender began to become popular among the middle and upper classes (pp. 881-882).
Jonauskaite et al. (2019) added, that while this gendered color pattern is a relatively recent phenomenon of the last 60 years, “an observational study showed that by the age of two, girls are proportionally over-exposed to pink objects (toys, clothes) when compared to boys” (p. 4).
He also stated that research has concluded “at around two years of age, boys start to prefer blue items over pink and girls’ pink items over blue, and when entering school age, girls preferred pink to a greater extent than did boys” (p. 6).
While research points to the obvious associations between gender and color, and the type of gender schemas created as a result of imposing these colors on children, subsequently, Jonauskaite et al. (2019) found that blue was less of a gendered color than pink.
According to the analysis of their data there was a “global liking of blue is reflected in applied settings, where large companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype, IBM, HP, and others have blue logos. Thus, we can infer that pink/purple rather than blue was the gendered color” (p. 22).
This being said, the connection between color and gender still very much exists today. Assumptions are often made about a person’s gender based on the color of the clothes they are wearing, or the way they decorate their personal space.
Gender schema theory brings the theoretical work of Piaget and cognitive theory (see: assimilation, accommodation, types of schema) to the world of gender studies. It helps us to see how gender is a category in the mind, which we call a schema. This schema is built through experience, where people compare what they see and experience with the gendered categories in the mind. As the social world is highly gendered, we implicitly learn to construct gendered ideals in our minds, which in turn helps to reinforce the apparent normativity of gender constructs.
Bem, S. L. (1983). Gender Schema Theory and Its Implications for Child Development: Raising Gender-Aschematic Children in a Gender-Schematic Society. Signs, 8(4), 598–616. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173685
Jonauskaite, D., Dael, N., Chèvre, L., Althaus, B., Tremea, A., Charalambides, L. & Mohr, C. (2019). Pink for girls, red for boys, and blue for both genders: Colour preferences in children and adults. Sex Roles, 80(9), 630-642. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018- 0955-z
Frassanito, P., & Pettorini, B. (2008). Pink and blue: the color of gender. Childs Nervous System, 24(8), 881–882. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00381-007-0559-3
Ghanea, N. (2021). Navigating the Tensions: Women’s Rights, Religion and Freedom of Religion or Belief. Religion and Human Rights, 16(2–3), 67-92. https://doi.org/10.1163/18710328-bja10019
Kelly, S., & Breslin, J. (2010). Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Starr, C. R., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2017). Sandra Bem’s Gender Schema Theory After 34 Years: A Review of its Reach and Impact. Sex Roles, 76(9–10), 566–578. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0591-4