Gender Identity and Socialization Essay

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The term gender identity generally refers to an individual’s feelings of being a man or a woman; it is a self-identification of gender. Socialization is the process through which infants develop into mature adults by learning the norms and values of the society. Gender socialization represents the idea that gender is socially constructed and that individuals learn gender roles and develop gender identity through human interaction. Through gender socialization, social expectations about what are appropriate masculine and feminine behaviors are communicated to members of society. Socialization processes transmit definitions of proper gender roles to individuals and shape their relationships to others in society as well as understandings of their place in it.

Some scholars argue that gender socialization can act as a mechanism of social control which defines and sanctions behaviors and attitudes about gender. Gender norms guide and restrict people’s understanding and actions about what it means to be a male or a female as defined by culture. Researchers have found that extreme pressure to conform to traditional gender norms results in negative consequences for both men and women in U.S. society. For instance, boys who display femininity are often subject to severe social sanctions to reinforce norms of heterosexual masculinity. Some scholars explain that this is due to the coercive system of homophobia, defined as the fear and hatred of homosexuality. For girls, traditional gender expectations are embodied in beauty myths and the normative ideal of a thin body. These rigid and forceful gender role expectations can lead to social problems. Researchers associate high mortality rates among men in U.S. society, and high depression and proliferation of dieting and eating disorders among women, with gender ideologies.

Gender Socialization Literature

The pairing of the terms gender identity and socialization reflects a particular perspective on gender in the history of gender studies. The idea that gender is not biologically determined but socially created and learned through socialization processes was the central theoretical tenet of gender role theories and developmental literature on gender. According to gender socialization literature, gender refers to behaviors and attitudes associated with being a man or a woman, as distinguished from biological sex. Here, gender is considered a role, or a set of expectations associated with a particular status or position in society.

Young members of society learn gender norms and expectations and grow to identify with the gender category that corresponds to their biological sex. Based on this understanding, gender socialization theories pay analytic attention to the developmental processes by which children form a sense of themselves as individuals with a particular gender. Psychoanalytic theories, social learning theories, and cognitive theories may be included in this school of thought because of their focus on human interaction and the socialization process and their linear perspective on human development. Although akin in that regard, the theories diverge somewhat in their focal interests and explanations on how gender identity formation occurs.

Psychoanalytic Theories

The principal perspective of psychoanalytic theories is that gender identity develops first from genital awareness and then through the psychological imperative to identify with a same-sex parent. In Sigmund Freud’s theory, gender identity development is set in motion by recognizing one’s particular set of genitals. Subsequent identification with a same-sex parent follows through complex psychosexual processes guided by a fear of the father’s intervention prompted by the child’s desire for the mother. By way of different psychological fantasies about their relationships to parents, boys eventually gender-identify with their fathers while girls gender-identify with their mothers so as to establish their own gender identity.

Other theories in the psychoanalytic tradition commonly emphasize parent-child relationships as the key process of gender identity formation. These theories focus on explaining why boys and girls develop different gender identities and roles, but they rarely question the link between biological sex and gender identity. In addition, the mechanism of socialization into gender roles is largely unspecified in psychoanalytic theories.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory focuses on analyzing the specific mechanism of socialization by which gender identity is developed. Applying principles of learning theory in behavioral science to gender socialization, social learning theory posits that gender-typed behaviors are learned through patterns of reward and punishment in social environments. According to this framework, children learn the gendered behaviors of their parents by mimicking. As children imitate parents’ gender-related behaviors, they are either encouraged or discouraged depending on whether they are girls or boys. Girls may be praised for mimicking mothers’ feminine behaviors, whereas boys would be reprimanded for displaying those behaviors.

After learning gender-appropriate behaviors through repeated patterns of reinforcement, children learn the label “girl” or “boy” as associated with the encouraged behaviors, and they internalize the appropriate label as their own gender identity. In essence, social learning theory postulates that children develop their appropriate gender identities through differential treatment given by parents and others in society. Socialization is perceived to be the key to mastering the knowledge about how one should behave appropriately, knowledge that then helps individuals identify with the particular gender that corresponds to the behavioral expectations.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Whereas social learning theory focuses on adults’ influence, cognitive developmental theory emphasizes children’s own understanding of, and self-socialization into, gender identity. Cognitive developmental theory is based on Jean Piaget’s theory of children’s cognitive development. According to this theory, children develop a gender identity, around age 5 or 6, when they begin to understand the notion of gender invariance despite different behavioral displays. For example, a boy who likes to play with robots also may enjoy playing with kitchen sets, but the gender identity of this boy does not change with changing behaviors. When this understanding forms, children begin to know to which gender they belong, and they begin to associate people and behaviors with one sex or the other. Children then start to use gender categories as a lens, or an organizing scheme, to understand reality. As a result, they start to model their own behaviors after those who fall in the same gender category as their own.

Critiques of Gender Socialization

Although gender socialization literature demonstrates its strength in its analytic probing of how individuals are incorporated into the existing social order through gradual adoption of cultural norms, there are several shortcomings. For instance, gender socialization perspectives maintain the linear view on human development that children’s ideas of gender are imperfect and must be molded to resemble those of adults before their socialization becomes complete. Furthermore, socialization literature’s fundamental failure to see gender as one of several interlocking systems of inequality opens itself to vehement criticisms by later gender theories. Several contemporary theories of gender challenge socialization theories’ supposition that gender identity is an attribute to be obtained and become fixed for life at some point. Strong critiques are also made on the socialization literature’s assumption of two (and only two) static categories of sex as well as gender, its reliance on universal definitions of manhood and womanhood, its disregard of changing definitions of values and norms, and most important, its failure to see gender as a system of power that is shaped by other structures of inequality.

Contemporary Approaches to Gender Identity

Gender scholars continue to analyze gender identity, albeit from a different perspective than socialization theorists. Gender identity is a social problems theme in today’s social science scholarship not only in the sense that it represents individual struggles with cultural norms but also in the sense that gender identity construction is a site of challenge and struggle over existing inequality and power dynamics among diverse social groups. This perspective on gender identity is based on the contemporary view that gender is fundamentally a matter of inequality and domination. Many recent studies conceptualize gender as everyday practices that construct unequal relations of power and therefore emphasize the analysis of power, social structures, and the interplay of gender with class, race, and other systems of inequality.

In analyzing micro dynamics of gender, studies make conceptual distinctions between gender identity (self-attribution of gender), gender assignment (gender attribution at birth, based on genital characteristics), gender attribution (perceived gender by others in everyday interactions), gender role (appropriate behavioral expectations associated with gender categories), and gender practice (“doing gender” in everyday interaction). These conceptual distinctions challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions about gender, including the link between gender assignment and gender identity, the link between sexuality and gender identity, and the interaction between everyday gender practices and larger structures of inequality. On the macro level, analyses of gendered institutions; the mobilization of multiple gender and sexual identities, including ambiguous gender and sex identities; and the interactions between gender and other social hierarchies have come to replace interests in individuals’ acquisition of gender identity through socialization.


  1. Andersen, Margaret L. 2008. Thinking about Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender. 8th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy McKenna. 1985. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  4. Kimmel, Michael S. 2007. The Gendered Society. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Lorber, Judith. 1994. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. Throne, Barrie. 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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