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Men & Masculinities 101: An Overview of Socially-Based Theories of Gender

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The sixth installation in our monthly series: Men & Masculinities 101. These brief posts are designed to provide an overview of a variety of entry-level topics in the field of men and masculinities.

*Note: This article, along with the research in our field, draws a firm distinction between sex, the biological differences between males and females, and gender, which refers to the social or cultural norms attributed to men, women, and gender diverse individuals. For a more in-depth explanation, see “'Boys will be Boys': An Overview of Evolutionary Psychology Theories of Gender.

Socially-based theories of gender propose that gender is learned early and that the environment plays a key role in children’s gender identity development. Indeed, developmental psychologists acknowledge parents’ key role in communicating gender-appropriate likes, interests, and expectations. These messages are sent via a wide variety of modalities, from colors and clothing to play and chores (Lytton & Romney, 1991). This communication often starts before birth, with parents frequently choosing gendered colors (i.e., pink for girls, blue for boys), toys, and clothing for their unborn children. Compounding the influence of gendered expectations are the repercussions for violations violating gender norms, which research has suggested are especially severe for boys (Wood et al., 2013). Undoubtedly, insults suggesting that young boys are acting “like a girl,” lead many boys to avoid being “girly” or to view femininity with contempt (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). Research has also shown that children’s immediate environment plays a large role in boys’ gender expression; segregation of boys and girls in school has been linked to more stereotypically masculine behavior in boys (Martin & Fabes, 2001), and growing up in a single-mother household has been linked to less traditional masculine behavior in boys (Stevenson & Black, 1988). Finally, research demonstrates that knowledge of gender is often obtained more quickly for children than knowledge of their own sex. It is typical for children to be able to gender clothing and toys as young as age two (Martin & Ruble, 2010); meanwhile, approximately half of all six-year-olds do not know that their sex (e.g., identifying as biologically male or female) will remain unchanged (Zhentao & Fuxi, 2006).

But how exactly does this transmission and adoption of gender roles happen? Several theories may help us to understand this question. Bandura’s social cognitive theory emphasizes the idea of learning through experience, both personally and vicariously through others (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). The more time someone spends with a person, as well as how similar they perceive themself to be to the person, are both linked to greater imitation of the person (Bandura et al., 1961; Bandura et al., 1963). From this perspective, boy and girls learn how to be boys and girls through watching others perform gendered behavior, as well as being personally praised for exhibiting gender-appropriate behaviors and/or punished for transgressions.

Eagly’s social structural theory emphasizes the role of the larger social context and culture in fostering gendered behavior (Eagly, 1987). Social structural theory proposes that given our culture’s longstanding history of placing women in caretaker roles and men in provider-type roles, boys and girls are not so much guided but rather pushed into their respective gender roles. One criticism of this theory is that it primarily focuses on differences between groups and offers little explanation for within-group differences (i.e., feminine men and masculine women).

Gender Schema Theory, developed by Bem (1981), rests on the interaction between culture and cognitive development. Bem’s theory states that as children are exposed to gender norms within their culture and surrounding environment, they begin to form what are known as schemata, or cognitive structures that enable them to organize and interpret information or events. Once these schemata are in place, children then interpret incoming information into their established gendered schemata (i.e., as belonging to a masculine or feminine schema). This theory has also been subject to criticism for its failure to explain why children with similar experiences may develop different schema (Martin et al., 2002). Likewise, others have suggested that its claim that children are constantly selecting their behavior or activities to fit their schemata may “overestimate children’s reality” (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). While no theory at present can completely account for individuals' gender role development, one thing is certain: socialization matters.


Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575–582. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0045925

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0048687

Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88(4), 354–364. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.88.4.354

Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Bulletin, 106(4), 676-713.

Eagly, A. H. (1987). Reporting sex differences. American Psychologist, 42(7), 756–757. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.42.7.755

Kilmartin, C. & Smiler, A. P. (2015). The masculine self (5th ed.). Sloan Publishing.

Lytton, H. & Romney, D. M. (1991). Parents' differential socialization of boys and girls: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 109(2), 267-296.

Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2001). The stability and consequences of young children’s same-sex peer interactions. Developmental Psychology, 37(3), 431–446. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.37.3.431

Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. N. (2010). Patterns of gender development. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1), 353–381. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100511

Martin, C. L., Ruble, D. N., & Szkrybalo, J. (2002). Cognitive theories of early gender development. Psychological Bulletin, 128(6), 903-933.

Stevenson, M. R., & Black, K. N. (1988). Paternal absence and sex-role development: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 59(3), 793. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130577

Wood, H., Sasaki, S., Bradley, S. J., Singh, D., Fantus, S., Owen-Anderson, A., Di Giacomo, A., Bain, J., & Zucker, K. J. (2013). Patterns of referral to a gender identity service for children and adolescents (1976–2011): Age, Sex Ratio, and Sexual Orientation. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 39(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2012.675022

Zhentao, F., & Fuxi, F. (2006). Development of the Concept of Gender Constancy in Preschoolers. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 38(1), 63–69.

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