What is gender identity formation?

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Gender identity formation refers to the complex processes through which young children come to incorporate their sex and gender into their behavior, attitudes, and self-understanding. This includes the development of an inner sense of one’s femaleness or maleness, the acquisition of knowledge about cultural expectations for women and men, and the development of attitudes, interests, and behavior that reflect these expectations.
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The first question that is usually asked about a newborn baby is whether the child is a boy or a girl. The single fact of the child’s biological sex has enormous implications for the course of the baby’s entire life. Gender identity formation refers to the complex processes through which children incorporate the biological and social fact of their sex and gender into their behavior, attitudes, and self-understanding. This area includes ideas about two major interrelated processes: gender identity development and sex typing. The term “gender identity development,” used in its narrower sense, refers to the process through which children come to label themselves as boys or girls and to have an inner sense of themselves as male or female. “Sex typing,” also called gender role acquisition or gender socialization, refers to the processes through which children learn what is expected of members of their gender and come to exhibit those personality traits, behaviors, interests, and attitudes.

Cultural Contexts

Social-learning theorists such as Walter Mischel have described mechanisms of learning through which children come to exhibit sex-typed behavior. Boys and girls often behave differently because they are rewarded and punished for different behaviors. In other words, they receive different conditioning. In addition, children’s behavior becomes sex typed because children observe other male and female individuals regularly behaving differently according to their gender, and they imitate or model this behavior.

Parents are especially important in the process of learning a gender role because they act both as models for gender-appropriate behavior and as sources of rewards or reinforcement. Because parents become associated with positive experiences (such as being praised or comforted) early in life, children learn to look to them and other adults for rewards. Parents and other adults such as teachers often react differentially to gender-typed behaviors, rewarding gender-appropriate behavior (for example, by giving praise or attention) and punishing gender-inappropriate behavior (for example, by frowning, ignoring, or reprimanding).

As children become more involved with their peers, they begin to influence one another’s behavior, often strongly reinforcing traditional gender roles. The fact that children are usually given different toys and different areas in which to play based on their gender is also important. Girls are given opportunities to learn different behaviors from those of boys (for example, girls may learn nurturing behavior through playing with dolls) because they are exposed to different experiences.

Using a cognitive developmental perspective, Lawrence Kohlberg described developmental changes in children’s understanding of gender concepts. These changes parallel the broad developmental changes in the way children’s thinking is organized, first described by Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder. Children mature naturally through stages of increasingly complex cognitive organization. In the area of understanding gender, the first stage is the acquisition of a rudimentary gender identity, the ability to categorize oneself correctly as a boy or a girl.

Children are able to apply correct gender labels to themselves by about age two. At this stage, young children base gender labeling on differences in easily observable characteristics such as hairstyle and clothing, and they do not grasp the importance of biological differences in determining gender. As children’s thinking about the physical world becomes more complex, so does their understanding of gender. Gradually, between the ages of five and seven, children enter a second stage and acquire the concept known as gender constancy.

Gender Constancy

Gender constancy refers to the understanding that gender is a stable characteristic that cannot change over time and that is not altered by superficial physical transformations such as wearing a dress or cutting one’s hair. As children come to see gender as a stable, important characteristic of themselves and other people, they begin to use the concept consistently to organize social information. They learn societal expectations for members of each gender by watching the actions of the people around them.

Kohlberg proposed that children use their developing knowledge of cultural gender expectations to teach themselves to adopt culturally defined gender roles (self-socialization). He argued that children acquire a strong motive to conform to gender roles because of their need for self-consistency and self-esteem.

Children hold rigid gender stereotypes before they acquire gender constancy; once gender constancy is achieved, they become more flexible in their adherence to gender roles. As children enter adolescence, their thinking about the world again enters a new stage of development, becoming even more complex and less rigid. As a result, they may be able to achieve what Joseph Pleck has called “sex-role transcendence” and to choose their interests and behaviors somewhat independently of cultural gender role expectations.

Gender Schema

Gender schema theory is a way of explaining gender identity formation, which is closely related to the cognitive developmental approach. The concept of a schema or a general knowledge framework comes from the field of cognitive psychology. Sandra Bem proposed that each person develops a set of gender-linked associations, or a gender schema, as part of a personal knowledge structure. This gender schema filters and interprets new information, and as a result, people have a basic predisposition to process information on the basis of gender. People tend to dichotomize objects and attributes on the basis of gender, even qualities such as color, which has no relevance to biological sex.

Bem proposed that sex typing develops as children learn the content of society’s gender schemas and as they begin to link those schemas to their self-concept or view of themselves. Individuals vary in the degree to which the gender schema is central to their self-concept; it is more central to the self-concept of highly sex-typed individuals (traditionally masculine men or traditionally feminine women).

Gender Dysphoria

Ideas about gender identity formation have important implications for child rearing and education. Most parents want to help their children identify with and feel positive about their own gender. Those few children who feel a marked difference between their expressed or experienced gender and the gender assigned to them by others may be diagnosed with gender dysphoria if the condition causes them serious distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not a mental disorder; instead, gender dysphoria is characterized by the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.

According to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013), gender dysphoria is characterized by clinically significant distress or impairment arising from marked differences between one's assigned gender and one's perceived or experienced gender identity. With the DSM-5, gender dysphoria replaced the diagnostic name "gender identity disorder," which was previously defined by a strong and persistent cross-gender identification. However, by establishing the diagnostic term gender dysphoria, the American Psychiatric Association sought to emphasize that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder, and the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria focus only on the distress and impairment caused by such a condition.

Individuals who experience gender dysphoria for more than six months have a number of a treatment options, including counseling, hormonal treatments, gender reassignment surgery, or social and legal transition to the desired gender. The diagnosis of gender dysphoria protects individuals' access to care and ensures their ability to receive insurance coverage for the related medical treatments.

Gender Equality

Often, parents and educators want to help children avoid becoming strongly sex typed. They do not want children’s options for activities, interests, and aspirations to be limited to those traditionally associated with their gender.

Considerable research has focused on whether and how socializing agents, including parents, teachers, peers, and media such as children’s books and television, reinforce gender stereotypes and teach children to exhibit sex-typed behaviors. Researchers have been concerned both with how gender roles are modeled for children and with how sex-typed behavior is rewarded. Parents often report that they try to treat their children the same regardless of their gender, and indeed studies show that there are no gender-based differences in the amount of attention or affection that parents give to their sons and daughters. However, studies have shown that parents’ styles of interaction with male and female children are consistently different. Furthermore, parents' standards and expectations may be markedly different for their sons and daughters, thereby reinforcing gender stereotypes. A number of studies in which the gender of infants and young children was hidden from observers revealed that adults often perceive identical behavior in boys and girls differently, based solely on the child's presumed gender, and these different perceptions shape how adults treat and interact with young boys and girls, thereby reinforcing sex-typed behaviors.

Children’s peers also play an important role in sex-role socialization. Particularly in early childhood, when children’s gender concepts tend to be far more rigid than those of adults, peers may be a source of misinformation (for example, “boys can't play with dolls” or "girls can't play football") and of strong sanctions against behavior that is inconsistent with one’s gender role.

Laboratory studies have also shown that exposure to gender stereotypes in books and on television tends to have a measurable effect on children’s sex-typed behavior. In addition, these media may be important in the development of a child’s gender schema because they provide a rich network of information and associations related to gender. Research indicates that children who are heavy viewers of television tend to have more rigid gender stereotypes than children who watch less television. The influence of media is also highlighted in studies showing that children who watch shows or read books in which the main characters go against traditional gender roles (for example, a female firefighter who saves lives) have less rigid gender stereotypes than children who are not exposed to these sorts of egalitarian gender models.

Biological Bases of Gendered Behavior

Research on gender identity formation in the 1970s through the 1990s tended to focus on the social forces leading to children’s sense of themselves as male or female. However, researchers have turned their attention to the biological bases of gendered behavior. For example, brain imaging studies indicate that male and female brains differ in their structural organization; in particular, male brains are more strongly lateralized, meaning that specific cognitive functions tend to be located on one side of the brain or the other, whereas in female brains, there is more widespread activity across the left and right hemispheres.

Studies with young infants indicate that there are differences in boys’ and girls’ behavior and interests as early as the first few months of life. For example, newborn girls are more likely to imitate the facial and hand movements of other people during face-to-face interactions. Furthermore, when offered two videos to watch, one portraying a social event such as two people talking together and another portraying a mechanical event such as racing automobiles, one-year-old girls prefer to watch the people, but one-year-old boys generally prefer to watch the cars. These studies suggest that there are differences in the ways that boys and girls approach the world that are evident before gender identity development or sex typing has occurred. However, a significant number of the identified differences between male and female brains become more pronounced in adulthood, indicating that these innate differences in brain structure may be reinforced through social learning and the plasticity of the brain. A challenge for the twenty-first century will be to understand how biological and social forces interact in the formation of gender identity.


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