The field of social psychology has developed rapidly over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, examining the way we behave and how we react to the world around us. More specifically, social psychologists study the way human beings develop a sense of self, form and maintain relationships, and interpret the societies to which they belong. The phenomenon of gender socialization is a particular facet of social psychology, which has received more attention in recent years.
This article will define gender socialization, provide examples of this phenomenon, and discuss gender socialization’s place in modern society, particularly in the United States.
Socialization is defined as the process, over the course of one’s life, of encountering and adhering to society’s norms, expectations, customs, and ideologies. It is the method by which we adjust to and participate in our society. German psychologist Erik Erikson is famous for developing a theory of psychosocial development in the middle of the twentieth century. Erikson split the social psychological development of human beings into eight distinct stages, divided by the age of the individual, from birth all the way until old age. Each stage is characterized by a specific tension between two opposing characteristics or aspects of one’s relationship with other people. These include the opposing ideas of trust and mistrust of others, autonomy and self-doubt, initiative and guilt. Industry and inferiority, identity and role confusion, intimacy and isolation, generativity and stagnation, and ego integrity and despair. These stages describe the way that we engage in our initial human relationships, and subsequent relationships throughout our lives. The way that we relate to other people informs the way that we relate to and fit into society in general, and therefore our emotional development is a key factor to our socialization.
Gender vs. Sex
When discussing gender socialization, there is a very important distinction that needs to be acknowledged. This is the distinction between someone’s gender and someone’s sex. Often, these terms are used interchangeably, when referring to whether someone is male or female, a man or a woman. However, gender is a social construct, while sex is a biological distinction, and that is incredibly important when it comes to any discussion of gender socialization. Sex is defined as the male and female varieties of a species, in this case, human beings. In a very general sense, someone of the male sex is a human being with an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, while someone of the female sex is a human being with two X chromosomes. The distinction between male and female sex is made for us when we are initially conceived, months and months before we even enter the world. Gender, on the other hand, is described as the range of characteristics that describe and differentiate between what it means to be masculine or feminine. These include physical characteristics, as well as mental and behavioral traits. Gender socialization, therefore, is the process by which we become familiar with, and often adopt, the characteristics and traits associated with our gender as we mature.
The distinction between sex and gender was introduced in 1955 by a sexologist from New Zealand named John Money. He examined, for essentially the first time, the way that societal conventions determined that certain behaviors and values were attributed to the idea of being male or being female. Money was one of the first people to explore the idea that one’s gender had much more to do with his or her own identity and sense of self. In the 1970’s, Money’s work gained more traction due to the increased activity of the feminist movement, most specifically the idea that the concept of femininity was a social construct, and not an absolute truth.
A social construct is considered a widely accepted understanding of the world. Social constructs tend to view repetitive phenomena as a part of social reality, informed by the majority’s understanding and interpretation of the world around us. We are all very familiar with social constructs, though we may not think very often about why they exist. One of the most prominent social constructs in our society today is the concept of gender roles. Gender roles are defined by behaviors and characteristics that are considered normal and appropriate for those belonging to each gender. There are a number of behaviors and characteristics that are widely considered masculine, as well as those that are widely considered feminine. It’s likely that a lot of people never give the concepts of masculinity or femininity a second thought, particularly in the Western world, and more specifically in the United States. However, it’s important to question how much the concepts of masculinity and femininity are based on inherent differences between the male and female sexes, versus how much those concepts are a product of widely accepted social and cultural norms. This question has been the source of much debate, especially over the past forty to fifty years in America.
A second important distinction in the discussion of gender socialization is the difference between a gender role and a gender identity. While a gender role is defined by the widely accepted idea of what makes someone masculine or feminine, a gender identity is an individual’s personal sense, understanding, and experience of his or her own gender. Western societies, including American society, tend to adhere to a gender system that is known as binary, in which gender is defined in two distinct ways. Since the general understanding of gender and sex does not distinguish the important differences between the two, it is often assumed that anyone who is biologically a female will identify as a woman, embracing the gender norms that we use to characterize someone as feminine. Similarly, it is assumed that anyone who is biologically a male will identify as a man, embodying what gender norms consider masculine traits and characteristics. As we all know, this is not always the case.
A simple way to examine the social constructs concerning gender is to think about the way the media portrays ideas of femininity and masculinity. Gender roles become apparent to us when we are incredibly young, through the medium of the way we are marketed to by those selling children’s products, most notably toy companies. Walking through a toy store, you can clearly see the way the concepts of masculinity and femininity are marketed to children. Most toy stores are even separated by gender, with aisles dedicated to dolls and the like for girls, and to trucks and the like for boys. According to traditional toys marketed to young girls, society has decided that the ‘normal’ female is delicate, pretty, interested in beauty and aesthetics, and concerned with domesticity. Girls toys are often pink or purple, and much of the time they include miniature versions of domestic environments or appliances, such as the popular Easy Bake Oven or the Barbie Dream House. In a similar sense, societal constructs indicate that the ‘normal’ male is strong and utilitarian, and preoccupied with those things, disinterested in traditionally feminine concerns. Boys toys are blue, and include miniature tools, trucks, cars, and sports equipment. Children’s books, movies, and television frequently market towards traditional gender roles. Stories featuring princesses and romances are geared towards young girls, while those featuring knights, swordfights, or dangerous creatures are geared towards young boys, This is incredibly problematic, as it leads to pigeon-holing children into roles that we as a society have already established for them. This can influence all kinds of aspects of children’s lives, including the careers to which they aspire, and the way that they see themselves in relation to the opposite gender. Children are often shamed if they are interested in or identify with something that is not normally associated with their gender. Even beyond childhood, people are bullied for behaving outside of gender norms. This often leads to severe psychological trauma, and in some cases, self-harm or suicide on the part of the person being bullied.
As you can see, gender socialization, or the process by which we become familiar with the characteristics associated with our gender, is a process defined by what society has deemed normal and appropriate. For those people who grow up not identifying with the gender associated with their sex, this process can be very confusing and very painful. Some individuals identify with a different gender to such a degree that they desire to undergo what is called gender reassignment surgery, so that their bodies more closely resemble a body of someone of the opposite sex. Most surgeons who perform this kind of procedure, however, ask that the patient be cleared by a psychiatrist before going ahead with the surgery. This kind of clearance is very rarely, if ever, required for people who want to undergo plastic surgery of any other kind, no matter how drastic or ill advised it may be. Our understanding of gender socialization is slowly changing, but in the meantime, people whose experiences do not line up with the traditional process are left struggling against societal norms that are often rather ignorant. Sex is biological, but gender is a product of what some people would term widely accepted stereotypes. Women are feminine, and men are masculine. To be womanly or manly means something very specific, and those who do not meet these specifications are not often met with understanding or compassion. Instead, they are frequently ostracized, harassed, or treated with malice.
Gender and Society Today
Gender socialization is a very important phenomenon in the modern world, and one that deserves a lot more attention than it is currently receiving. Social norms and distinctions that confuse sex and gender are becoming more problematic all the time, especially as our society learns more and becomes more open-minded about people who are considered transgender or queer, and those who do not wish to conform to what has been termed the gender binary. Gender socialization is a significant part of our developmental psychology, but the rigidity of our culture’s gender norms is turning adolescence, and beyond, into a negative and painful experience for those whose gender identities do not line up with societal gender constructs. A powerful way to combat this problem is for more people to become familiar with psychology, specifically the psychology of social and emotional development, as well as the distinctions between sex, gender, and a personal sense of identity.
Though we have made some progress, young people are still taught about gender roles in an outdated and constrictive way; this can be changed through further education about the relationship between gender and society.