The Psychology of Gender – Part I

The Psychology of Gender

Albert Einstein once said , ‘Women always worry about the things that men forget and men always worry about the things that women remember!’.

Even in prevalent times, youngsters say things like, ‘Men are from mars and Women are from Venus’.  It takes head over heels to find, why is it so?  Why are we different from one another?  Was it the same since ages?

This write up is to provide some insights on gender psychology, as the heading of the article makes it aptly clear.  The article has been named as “The Psychology of Gender”  and not “The Psychology of Sex” for the known and established fact that more than the biology it is the socio-cultural factors that shape the expectations and the reactions of our society towards men and women. Nature has its role but its nurture that assumes more significance in our society and culture when it comes to gender psychology.

So, having set out the expectations of a reader from the article lets go step by step and explore the topic. Let’s for a moment pause and visualize:

  • A mountaineer who just scaled the Mt Everest.
  • A country’s president- strong, powerful, dynamic – making a speech.
  • A CEO of a Techno-giant addressing the public on a launch of a new Mac model.
  • A business tycoon owning a business worth millions and expanding it veraciously.

It would not be an exaggeration to say, that for 99% of population, the visualisation would be of a Male. What is astonishing is the fact that the statistics hold the same when these questions were asked from women belonging to different strata of the society.

The gender preferences and priorities are so hardwired that it is not uncommon to observe it in the use of language (or Sexiest language, if it may be said so) where we see consistently the use of phrases like “men and women” , “he and she” and not “women and men”, “her and hisand so on. So what actually conspires is what we are trying to find and if we are able to answer ‘The What’, probably we can look for ‘The Why’.

Gender, as a subject of scientific research had been there with us for more than a century. Scientists have debated and discussed at length the similarities and the differences between women and men. Are men better at Science than women? Are men more aggressive than women? Do women pose some specific traits that make them good in soft skills? Are women better in expressing emotions than men? Are men less willing to seek help from others as compared to their female counterpart? These are some of the obvious and most discussed questions among the scientific community when studying gender psychology.

So, is there any evidence that the differences exist because of biological factors. The answer would be No. A better term to describe these differences is ‘sex-related behaviour’. This term implies the behaviour corresponds to sex, but it does not say anything about the cause or the etiology of the difference.

Though the theme has been set and the topic has just started to gain momentum, but what should have been done at the earliest, as a matter of slip of a memory and not as a part of shirking work, is being done now. For the benefit of our readers, we are bound to define the terms Sex and Gender as that would help in understanding and comprehending the further discussion. So here goes a brief explanation.

Sex refers to the biological categories of female and male, categories distinguished by genes, chromosomes, and hormones. Culture has no influence on one’s sex. Sex is a relatively ‘stable category’ that is not easily changed, although recent technology has allowed people to change their biological sex.

Gender, by contrast, is a much more ‘fluid category’. It refers to the social categories of male and female. These categories are distinguished from one another by a set of psychological features and role attributes that society has assigned to the biological category of sex. For example, it’s common to hear that women are more emotional and sensitive, while when it comes to competitiveness and hardiness, men are believed to be endowed in plenty with such traits. What needs to be understood that these traits are ascribed because of the gender and not the Sex.

Whereas sex is defined in the same way across cultures, but gender differs. For example, In our country if you encounter someone wearing a skirt, you can assume the person is psychologically female as well as biologically female. However, in other countries, such as Scotland, wearing a skirt or a kilt is quite normal for a person of the biological male sex; thus we would not want to use wearing a skirt as a feature of the female or male gender category in Scotland. This is because each society has its own prescriptions for how women and men ought to behave.

Thus, with the clarity of these two dichotomous terms, let us now try to deeply analyse the different facets of Psychology of gender.

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, such as literary theory, drama studies, film theory, performance theory, contemporary art history, anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics and psychology. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. Gender studies are also a discipline in itself, incorporating methods and approaches from a wide range of disciplines.

Restricting ourselves to psychological circles, we start with  gender differences, gender role development, gender identity and gender expression.

Gender differences and Gender-role development

Simone de Beauvoir once said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” This statement makes us think, what more than biology is there that shapes men and women. To answer this, we have different viewpoints and theories some of which are discussed below.

Evolutionary theory

Evolutionary psychologists have developed a theory to explain the ‘origins of differences’ between men and women.  It is believed that each sex faced different pressures and that the differing reproductive status was the key feature in life at that time. This resulted in sex-specific evolved mechanisms which became the basis of sex-differentiated behaviour. The two sexes developed different strategies to ensure their survival and reproductive success and therefore occupied different social roles. This explains why men and women differ psychologically.

Psychoanalytical perspective

Sigmund Freud was the first to develop a psychodynamic theory of gender development at the turn of the century when it was a given that men and woman were unlike one another. He believed that gender identity develops as a result of strong but unconscious sexual urges an individual possess as a child. Between the ages of three and five, a child goes through the phallic stage, in which he/she will develop strong sexual urges towards the parent of the opposite sex and therefore great jealously towards the parent of the same sex. A normally developing child will resolve this conflict by identifying with the parent of the same sex and copying her/his behaviour.

The social role theory

Alice Eagly’s social role theory of gender differences explains that the inherent physical differences between men and women led to a division of labour in society. Simply stated, gender roles are societal and cultural differences between what behaviours we expect to see from men and from women.  Thus, the critical cause is societal expectation embedded in social structure. This explains the notion of gender stereotypes about male-specific careers and female-specific careers.

For example, the fields of nursing and teaching usually have more women than men. Construction and engineering are male-dominated industries. Eagly’s theory puts forth the idea that these gender specific careers evolved from inborn proficiencies in these areas. Women are better nurturers so they thrive in the nursing industry. Males are physically stronger so naturally make better construction workers.

Cognitive Developmental View Point

According to Kohlberg, gender identity is postulated as the basic organizer and regulator of children’s gender learning. Children develop the stereotypic conceptions of gender from what they see and hear around them. Once they achieve gender constancy –the belief that their own gender is fixed and irreversible — they positively value their gender identity and seek to behave only in ways that are congruent with that conception. Cognitive consistency is gratifying, so individuals attempt to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-conception.

Social learning perspective

It regards gender identity and role as a set of behaviours that are learned from the environment. For Albert Bandura , gender behaviours are learned through the process of observational learning, vicarious reinforcement and punishment. Children observe the people around them behaving in various ways, some of which relate to gender.

Fagot ,1978  found that boys and girls were reinforced and punished for different behaviours. Boys were reinforced for playing with gender appropriate toys ,like cars, and punished for playing with dolls. Girls were reinforced for staying close to the parent and punished for rough and tumble play. Thus, they pay attention to these models and encode their behaviour. They also learn vicariously from the outcomes of behaviours of other individuals. At a later time, they may imitate what they have observed.

 Gender schema theory

Sandra Bem suggests that cultural influences largely impacts how children develop their ideas and schemas (mental codification of experiences) about what it means to be a man or woman. A child’s cognitive development combined with societal influences was what led to the development of gender schema.

Society’s beliefs about what constitutes “male traits” and “female traits” influence this development of gender schema.These gender schemas then have an impact not only on how a child processes social information, but also on his attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. Thus they engage in behaviour (Gender role) that is consistent with their gender appropriate schema.

Gender role refers to the expectations that go along with being male versus female. We typically expect men to be strong, independent, and competitive, and to keep their emotions hidden. These are features of the male gender role.

By contrast, we typically expect women to be caring, emotionally expressive, polite, and helpful: features of  the female gender role. In other words, we expect men to be masculine and we expect women to be feminine. Masculinity includes the traits, behaviours, and interests that society has assigned to the male gender role. A masculine trait is self-confidence; a masculine behaviour is aggression; and a masculine interest is watching sports. Femininity includes the traits, behaviours, and interests assigned to the female gender role. A feminine trait is emotional; a feminine behaviour is helping someone; and a feminine interest is cooking.


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