Gender socialization refers to the learning of socially approved behaviors, gender norms, values, and attitudes that have been associated with a biological sex.
Individuals observe and imitate what is modeled before them with regard to how the genders are supposed to act. Women are taught to behave according to idealized femininity and boys are socially rewarded for following hegemonic masculinity ideals.
Gender socialization starts in early childhood and occurs through the education system, in the family unit, through socialization with peers, enforced by people of authority, and learned from consuming mass media.
Gender Socialization Examples
- Toys: children learn their gender roles through play, with boys receiving toys like trucks and toy guys, while girls often receive dolls and toys that promote nurturing.
- Babies: even when a baby is first born, they are socialized based on gender. A baby girl may be told she’s beautiful, has pretty eyes, or is sweet. A baby boy, on the other hand, may be told he is big, that he is strong, and be speculated how successful he will be when he grows up (i.e. he is going to play in the NBA, look how big his feet are!).
- The family unit: boys are often granted more freedom and autonomy is encouraged, whereas girls are more ‘housebound’ in that domestic duties like cleaning and cooking are expected of them.
- Emotional expression and behavior: Girls who speak up are often seen as snarky or bossy while it’s considered normal for boys to try to be authoritative.
- Hobbies: a girl having an interest in karate rather than dance class goes against the socialization of girls don’t fight.
- Career paths: the genders are guided towards certain careers based on the socially agreed upon behaviors that men and women should take in their careers. For instance, a woman may be guided towards home economics (baking, cooking) and mathematics for a man (engineer, architect).
- Emotional responses: gender socialization is taking place when we collectively accept a crying female and are uncomfortable with a crying male. Similarly, speaking about feelings has become normalized to the degree of being a trope with women, where men who are guarded and withdrawn from their emotions is expected.
- Films & TV: women are rarely seen as a lead role in a movie or tv series, but when they are cast as such, are still confined to an agreed-upon person that fits the definition of female gender. Remakes that remove all men and replace the cast with all women also tend to show the characters operating within socialized gender roles that is acceptable to the audience.
- Advertising: products that are marketed to men use different tactics than those marketed towards women. For instance, cleaning supplies often have a female tone with female characters. Even the brand, Mr. Clean, is meant to appeal to women as he is perceived to be a “helper” with women to complete their chores with his ‘strength,’ a gender dynamic that women are accustomed to.
- The phrase “boys will be boys” is a great example of gender socialization, whereby behaviours that may be perceived as unfavourable (pushing, hitting, shoving) are justified and communicated as “normal” forms of aggression for males.
See Also: What is Race Socialization?
Even at a very young age, children are socialized to be interested in “gender-appropriate” toys.
A baby shower for a boy, for instance, may see picture books with trucks and dinosaurs, whereas a baby shower for a girl would likely be filled with pink toys and stuffed animals.
In addition to outside influence dictating which toys children “should” play with, parents will often give children positive feedback for playing with the “right toy” (i.e. commenting on how tough a dinosaur is when their son shows them his toy, but telling him a unicorn stuffed animal is not for him). This further socializes children to interact with the “right” toys for their gender.
When we think about hobbies and activities, there is likely a gender association happening due to the gender socialization that we’ve all been through.
For instance, knitting and book club hobbies have a feminine association, while woodwork and vehicle maintenance/restoring have a masculine association. When other genders participate in hobbies not associated with them, there is often pushback.
For example, if a girl wanted to take a karate class instead of participating in dance lessons, the likelihood of her being labeled a “tom boy” and being ostracized from her peer groups (both boys and girls) is high. This is because, in general terms, she would be defying socially agreed upon gender roles.
3. The family unit
In addition to external influences, the way children are raised contributes significantly to their gender socialization. For instance, sons are often given the ability to have more autonomy and independence at an earlier age, regardless if their female sister is older.
They are also more likely to be given fewer restrictions on their day-to-day operations and decisions: dating, clothing, curfew. Daughters, on the other hand, are more likely to have less freedom in choice of activity and behaviour, and have more expectations to perform domestic duties around the house (cleaning, cooking) as they are perceived to be more feminine.
4. Career paths
For many people, the conversation around career paths is brought up in middle school and high school. While many factors dictate the direction one will go in for their career, gender socialization plays a part in supporting this direction as well.
For instance, when given the opportunity to select an elective in high school, a girl may feel more pressured to take home economics as opposed to metalwork.
Although she may be interested in welding and working on cars, out of fear of judgment and segregation from her friends she may opt to take the path ‘expected of her’ although she does not feel the same interest about it. This behavior may result in her becoming a chef or a stay-at-home mother, instead of a mechanic or architect.
5. Film & TV
One of the major forms of entertainment, films, and TV are a common place to see gender socialization at play.
In this space, we are unconsciously taught how men and women should behave, seeing acceptable and unacceptable behaviors playing out and positive reinforcement or reprimanding taking place as it relates.
For example, while women are increasingly being given lead role opportunities in recent years, their personas still tend to fall into agreed-upon gender stereotypes. That is, they are either portrayed as wholesome, saint-figures, or as hypersexual beings.
As well, recent movie remakes with an all-cast cast, while the intention has been good, has unfortunately served to enforce gender socialization as the characters still fall within the confined spaces of agreed female behaviours.
Gender is considered by most sociologists to be a cultural construct – we learn about how our culture defines femininity and masculinity as we group up. Theories like gender schema theory explain how gender is constructed through both observation and experience.
Although it may initially be perceived as harmless to buy into gender socialization practices, there are many potentially negative outcomes associated with rigid gender socialization, including the perpetuation of stereotypes that result in people being treated negatively based on their gender.
That may result in unequal pay in the workplace, mental health issues, and physically harmful behavior within relationships. In order to combat this issue, becoming more aware of how individuals have been socialized based on their gender may allow for a change in behavior towards others, more empathy and compassion, and less prejudice and discrimination.
Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. Cambridge: Routledge.
Carter, M. J. (2014). Gender socialization and identity theory. Social sciences, 3(2), 242-263.
Cranny-Francis, A., Waring, W., Stavropoulos, P., & Kirkby, J. (2017). Gender studies: Terms and debates. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Fagot, B., Rodgers, C., & Leinbach, M. D. (2012). Theories of gender socialization. In The developmental social psychology of gender (pp. 79-104). London: Psychology Press.
Murdock, G.P. (1949) Social structure. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]