Gender Stereotypes in Children

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This essay will outline the biological and environmental factors that contribute towards the development of gender stereotypes and gender role adoption that is seen in children. Firstly, to define the term gender stereotype it tends to refer to the belief held by society of that time, or the culture of such about the physical and emotional characteristics of both genders. These concepts are then magnified, and belonging to either of the categories becomes essential which, in turn leads to a specific set of expectations, consequently individual differences are seen as ‘abnormal’.

Within this there are two behaviours that can be considered, sex roles; which refers to the roles that are socially accepted to be more suited to one gender than the other for example women are expected to be expressive in the domestic type roles, teaching or nursing and men are expected to be in the instrumental role of ‘breadwinner’ and supporting the family financially (Gibbs et al, 1986).

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Also sex traits; which more refers to the innate characteristics, for example emotions and personality traits that are seen more in one gender than the other, for example women are seen as submissive, emotional nurturers whereas men are seen as dominant, aggressive, protectors and providers. Secondly, gender role adoption is the reaction to gender stereotyping, in order to be seen as either male or female.

From birth, the child will become more aware of what is considered the ‘norm’ through various sources and will then choose, depending on what their sex is, what the ‘correct’ behaviour is that they should be exhibiting. The biological aspects are clearly split into two factors, the first focused heavily on the genes and hormones, and the second is more focused on evolutionary factors; using the behaviour of primitive man to explain the differences between the sexes.

Those purely basing their research on biological reasoning use the argument that, from the moment we are born there are innate differences between the genders in the fact that baby girls smile more, and react more to being spoken to then they do to being held, whereas baby boys cry more and react the same to both being held and being spoke to (Biddulph, 2003). Not only this but baby girls will tend to make more eye contact than baby boys will with those holding them, although these are obvious differences between them there may be other explanations.

From the viewpoint of who researches environmental factors they will argue that it is in fact the way that the people who come into contact with the infant behave around it that influences the way the child reacts, for example Will et al (1980) showed that women were more likely to smile at the female child than the were a male and furthermore always offered the child a toy that would cohere with the ‘sex traits’ for the supposed gender of the child which shows that parents perception of girls and boys are very different and thus gender adoption could be just as easily socialised into an infant as it could have been innate.

Though sex traits which we are assumed to be born with are said to come from the physical differences, for example girls tend to be smaller, weaker and emotionally volatile due to the natural hormones produced associated with the menstrual cycle and accordingly the role of child bearer may lead to possessing the traits that are seen as feminine and because males are generally larger, they tend to possess a more aggressive and protective personality (Buss & Schmitt).

The purely biologist theory states that any differences between the sexes is because of genetics, however we must also take into consideration the biological evolutionary approach which looks at biology through the ages to determine gender adoption and gender stereotyping. This theory would suggest that the physical differences are because of the roles that they are said to play, women are ‘afflicted’ with child bearing and menstruation in order to keep them in the home whilst the male uses his physical strength to hunt and ward off predators.

Furthermore the mating patterns of each gender is said to have had an impact on the gender role adoption due to men having surplus sperm and women having the valuable egg, meaning that it is the men who have to work in order to pass their genetics on leading to them becoming competitive, aggressive and dominant over time as the female is more likely to chose the male who is most likely to be able to protect her and her offspring. (Delton, A. W. & Robertson, T. E. & Kenrick, D. T. , 2006)

However those who see the main contributing factor to the development of gender stereotypes and role adoption as environmental will argue that it is the world around the child that makes a child develop the idea of social construct that is gender. Not only is the child influence by the way there parents behave around the, but also there peers will have an impact along with the media. Smith and Lloyd (1978) showed that women that are given a baby dressed as either a girl or a boy, with a name accordingly will react differently to that child, giving a female dolls to play with and males; cars or hammers.

This shows that parents do not give a chance for a child’s gender to biologically develop, but force the child into the gender role that they have been given at conception. Moreover it shows that boys are more likely to be given toys that have a connection to violence and aggression, for example the hammer and you will more likely see a boy with a toy gun. Social Learning Theorists would suggest it is through imitation and reinforcement that children learn gender stereotypes, parents do not tend to give their son a Barbie for example.

Imitation is a factor that tends to hold a lot of influence, as children tend to imitate and identify more strongly with their same sex parent. As a result boys may be more likely to see their father doing home improvements around the house and be more likely to play with a toy tool set whereas a girl will see their mother making dinner and hence will more likely play with a toy kitchen set (Bandura, 1997). Associated with this is that children are praised more for exhibiting the ‘correct’ gender behaviour and therefore are more likely to repeat it (Bandura, 1977).

Increasingly in today’s society the media puts huge emphasis on gender roles in society, especially in children’s shows and again through imitation they will believe that that is the ‘correct’ way for a female/male to behave. It has also been seen that in the media that men take the dominant roles in advertisements and women are most likely to be seen in family roles or as sex objects, and less likely to exercise authority and such portrayal of the female gender will influence the way that children behave (Coltrane & Adams, 1996).

This is another example of where Social Learning can be showed to have an affect, as children often will believe this is the norm and try to conform to current societal values. To conclude it is apparent that both factors; biological and environmental are necessary for a child to develop an understanding of gender role adoption and stereotyping. However there are cases for example when a child chooses to reject the way they should behave on what biological gender they have been assigned, and this would suggest that it is in fact the environment in which they grow up that determines to what extent the child is reliant on gender stereotyping.

Though it must also be stated that in cultures where the media is not as influential, there are still clear differences between the sexes and hence why there is also reason to believe that biology is the main contributor for the development of gender stereotyping in children. Though biology will always contribute to the way we behave, it is important that we take into account that it is the individual’s own free will to choose whether they accept the social and cultural expectations put upon us and strive to conform and be accepted.


Bandura. A. Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1963) Imitation of film mediated aggressive models, The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, Vol 66(1). Biddulph, S. (2003) Why boys are different and how to help them become happy and well-balanced men, Raising boys. Buss, D. M. , Schmitt, D. P. (2011) Adaptations to Ovulation, Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism. Coltrane, S. & Adams, M. (1996) Family Imagery and gender stereotypes: Television and the reproduction of Difference. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Vol 50(2). Delton, A. W. , Robertson, T. E. , Kenrick, D. T. (2006) The mating game isn’t over: A reply to Buller’s critique of the evolutionary psychology of mating, Evolutionary Psychology, Vol 4. Gibbs, M. S. , Fairleigh Dickenson, U. , Teaneck. (1986). The instrumental-expressive dimension revisited. Academic Psychology Bulletin, Vol 7(2), 1985. Special issue: Gender Roles Smith, C. & Lloyd, B. B. (1978). Maternal behavior and perceived sex of infant: revisited. Child Development, 49, 1263-1265. Will et al. (1980). A re-evaluation of gender label effects: Expectant mothers responses to infants, Society for research in Child Development, Vol. 51,p. 20.

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