Agents Of Social Construction Of Gender Essay

The social construction of gender is a theory in feminism, and sociology about the origin of gender difference between men and women.[1] According to this view, society and culture create gender roles, and these roles are prescribed as ideal or appropriate behavior for a person of that specific sex.

Some supporters of this theory argue that the differences in behavior between men and women are entirely social conventions, whereas others believe that behavior is influenced by universal biological factors to varying degrees, with social conventions having a major effect on gendered behavior.

Basic concepts[edit]

See also: Socialization § Gender socialization, and Sociology of gender § Gender and socialization

Social constructionism[edit]

Main article: Social constructionism

The roots of the social constructionist movement in psychology are related to the criticism of the objectivism assumed by positivist/empiricist concepts of knowledge (Gergen, 1985). Among the most popular variations of the social constructionist theories is the gender role theory, considered by Alsop, Fitzsimons and Lennon (2002) as an early form of social constructionism. The focus on power and hierarchy reveals inspiration stemming from a Marxist framework, utilized for instance by materialist feminism, and Foucault's writings on discourse. Social constructionism, briefly, is the concept that there are many things that people "know" or take to be "reality" that are at least partially, if not completely, socially situated.[2] For example, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes that "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money, tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the United States."[3]

The basic assumptions of social constructionism, as described by Marecek, Crawford & Popp,[4] are:

  1. Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge. Social constructionism focuses on how meaning is created. Emerging from the criticism of objectivity, social constructionism challenges concepts of knowledge put forward by positivism, which postulates the externality of reality and that empirically-proved truths are mind-independent.[5] According to Marecek, Crawford & Popp, knowledge is an "account of reality produced collaboratively by a community of knowers"[4] Thus, social constructionism focuses on how meaning is created.
  2. Knowledge is a social product. According to Marecek, Crawford & Popp, knowledge is an "account of reality produced collaboratively by a community of knowers".[4] Thus, social constructionists focus on how meaning is created and suggest that knowledge is not only a social product, but a product of a specifically situated society; various accounts of reality depend on place and time – in order to study knowledge as a social product, one has to historicize and contextualize the given description of reality.
  3. Power and hierarchy underlie social construction. This focus results in showing how individuals differ in status, entitlement, efficacy, self-respect and other traits based on the kind of interactions one is involved in and subjected to.
  4. Language is at the core of knowledge. Language is considered the building block of culture; it conveys meaning and creates the system of knowledge humans participate in. Ultimately, language has a huge influence on how humans perceive reality and, as a result, is the creator of this reality.
  5. Social construction is a dynamic process. Social constructionists emphasize the complexity of how knowledge is created in social interactions. Knowledge and meanings are not stable or constant; they are co-constructed in interactions with others, negotiated, modified and shifted. People are active in their perception, understanding and sharing of knowledge acquired from their social milieu. It is prudent therefore to consider this process when explaining the social construction of knowledge, including knowledge concerning gender.
  6. The individual and society are indissoluble. Social constructionists question the Western idea of an autonomous individual who can draw a clear line between the self and the society. According to social constructionism, individuals can create meaning only in relation to what they are exposed to in their environment. Paradoxically, the same individuals co-create the meanings that are available in this environment. Marecek et al. conclude therefore that the society and the individual are indissoluble and mutually constitutive.

Alsop, Fitzsimmons & Lennon also note that the constructionist accounts of gender creation can be divided into two main streams:[6]

  1. Materialist theories, which underline the structural aspects of the social environment that are responsible for perpetuating certain gender roles;
  2. Discursive theories, which stress the creation, through language and culture, of meanings that are associated with gender.

They also argue that both the materialist and discursive theories of social construction of gender can be either essentialist or non-essentialist. This means that some of these theories assume a clear biological division between women and men when considering the social creation of masculinity and femininity, while other contest the assumption of the biological division between the sexes as independent of social construction.


Main article: Gender

Look up gender in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Gender, according to West and Zimmerman, is not a personal trait; it is "an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society."[7]:126 Historically, the term gender was adopted as means of distinguishing between biological sex and socialized aspects of femininity and masculinity.[4] Moreover, gender was considered achieved and more or less stable after it is acquired in early childhood. Contemporary constructionist perspective, as proposed by Fenstermaker and West, proposes treating gender as an activity ("doing") of utilizing normative prescriptions and beliefs about sex categories based on situational variables. These "gender activities" constitute our belonging to a sex as based on the socially accepted dichotomy of "women" and "men". It is noted, however, that these activities are not always perceived (by the audience) as being either "masculine" or "feminine", they are at constant risk of being assessed as more or less "womanly" or "manly"; ultimately, any behavior may be judged based upon its "manly" or "womanly" nature. "Doing gender" is in fact based on these interactions that are constituted of ongoing assessments in various situations. This in turn points to the situational nature of gender rather than its inherent, essentialist and individual nature.

Gender role[edit]

Main article: Gender role

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Gender identity and sexuality/sexual orientation[edit]

Lisa M. Diamond argues that gender identity is not a stable, fixed trait – rather, it is socially constructed and may vary over time for an individual.[8] West and Zimmerman argue that the notion of womanhood or femininity is accomplished through an active process of creating gender through interacting with others in a particular social context.[7] Society typically only recognizes two genders.[citation needed] Therefore, when transgender individuals want to have a sex change operation, they must prove that they can "pass" as a man or woman[disputed (for: The WPATH SOC criteria for SRS have no such requirement to "pass")  – discuss] – so even the choice of changing one's gender is socially constructed.[citation needed]

Diamond and Butterworth argue that gender identity and sexual identity are fluid and do not always fall into two essentialist categories (man or woman and gay or straight); they came to this conclusion via interviews with sexual minority women over the course of ten years.[8] One woman had a relatively normal early childhood but around adolescence questioned her sexuality and remained stable in her gender and sexual identity until she started working with men and assumed a masculine "stance" and started to question her gender identity.[8] When 'she' became a 'he' he began to find men attractive and gradually identified as homosexual as a man.

The perception of sexuality by others is an extension of others' perceptions of one's gender. Heterosexuality is assumed for those individuals who appear to act appropriately masculine or appropriately feminine. If one wants to be perceived as a lesbian, one must first be perceived as a woman; if one wants to be seen as a gay man, one has to be seen as a man.[7]:145

Core gender identity[edit]

The sense of one's gender identity is acquired through the internalization of external knowledge. However, it is in fact never fully acquired – it has to be constantly performed and reenacted in social interactions. According to Alsop, Fitzsimmons & Lennon, "Gender is part of an identity woven from a complex and specific social whole, and requiring very specific and local readings".[6]:86 Thus, gender identity can be defined as part of socially situated understanding of gender. LaFrance, Paluck and Brescoll note that as a term, "gender identity" allows individuals to express their attitude towards and stance in relation to their current status as either women or men. Turning the scope of gender from a social consensus to objectivity to one's self-identification with a certain gender expression leaves much more space for describing variation among individuals.[9]

Intersections of gender identity with other identities[edit]

The way gender is constructed for an individual depends on gendered interactions the individual has with others as well as other identities or roles he or she may have. Gender, race, class, and other oppressions are all potential omnirelevant categories, though they are not ALL identically salient in every set of social relationships in which inequality is done.[clarification needed] Multiple oppressions are not seen as having "additive" or "multiplicative" effects but are seen as simultaneously depending on each other to create a unique form of oppression. Although West and Fenstermaker do not elaborate on exactly how intersectionality can be incorporated into social constructionist theory, they do say that intersecting social identities are constant "interactional accomplishments".[10]:96

While men and women are held accountable for normative conceptions of gender, this accountability can differ in content based on ethnicity, race, age, class, etc. Hurtado argues that white women and women of color experience gender differently because of their relationship to males of different races and that both groups of women have traditionally been used to substantiate male power in different ways.[11] Some women of color are subordinated through rejection, or denial of the "patriarchal invitation to privilege".[12] For instance, some white men may see women of color as workers and objects of sexual aggression; this would allow the men to display power and sexual aggression without the emotional attachment that they have with white women. White women are accountable for their gendered display as traditionally subservient to white men while women of color may be held accountable for their gendered performance as sexual objects and as recalcitrant and bawdy women in relations with white men. West and Fenstermaker conclude that doing gender involves different versions of accountability, depending on women's "relational position" to white men.[12]

Gender as accomplishment[edit]

Gender, according to West and Zimmerman, is not simply what one is, but what one does – it is actively produced within social interactions. Gender is an accomplishment : "the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one's sex category".[7]:127 People do not have to be in mixed gender groups or in groups at all for the performance of gender to occur; the production of gender occurs with others and is even performed alone, in the imagined presence of others. "Doing" gender is not just about conforming to stereotypical gender roles – it is the active engagement in any behavior that is gendered, or behavior that may be evaluated as gendered.

The performance of gender varies given the context: time, space, social interaction, etc. The enactment of gender roles is context dependent – roles are "situated identities" instead of "master identities".[7]:131 The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people "know" as "reality" in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives. In other words, individual perceptions of ""knowledge" or reality...must be the central focus."[2]

These performances normalize the essentialism of sex categories. In other words, by doing gender, we reinforce the essential categories of gender – that there are only two categories that are mutually exclusive. The idea that men and women are essentially different is what makes men and women behave in ways that appear essentially different. Though sex categorization is based on biological sex, it is maintained as a category through socially constructed displays of gender (for example, you could identify a transgender person as female when in fact she is assigned male at birth).

Institutions also create normative conceptions of gender. In other words, gender is simultaneously created and maintained – "both a process and a product, medium and outcome of such power relations".[13] In his examination of blue and white-collar workers, Mumby[13] argued that hegemonic or dominant masculinity provides a standard of acceptable behavior for men, and at the same time, is the product of men's behavior. This can be said for constructions of any identity in certain contexts (e.g. femininity, race, Black femininity, etc.).


People hold themselves and each other accountable for their presentations of gender (how they 'measure up'). They are aware that others may evaluate and characterize their behavior. This is an interactional process (not just an individual one). Social constructionism asserts that gender is a category that people evaluate as omnirelevant to social life.[14] Gender as omnirelevant means that people can always be judged by what they do as a man or as a woman. This is the basis for the reasoning that people are always performing gender and that gender is always relevant in social situations.

Accountability can apply to behaviors that do conform to cultural conceptions as well as those behaviors that deviate – it is the possibility of being held accountable that is important in social constructionism. For example, Stobbe examined the rationale that people gave for why there were small numbers of women in the auto industry. Men cited the idea that such dirty work was unsuitable for women and women were unable to train because of family duties. Stobbe argues that the male workers created a machismo masculinity to distinguish themselves from women who might have been qualified to work in the auto shop. Women who do work in male-dominated professions have to carefully maintain and simultaneously balance their femininity and professional credibility.[15]

Even though gender seems more salient in some situations – for instance, when a woman enters a male-dominated profession – gender categories also become salient in contexts in which gender is less obvious. For instance, gender is maintained before the woman enters the male-dominated group through conceptions of masculinity.[7]:128–129

Race, class, and other oppressions can also be omnirelevant categories, though they are not all identically salient in every set of social relationships in which inequality is done. People have preconceived notions about what particular racial groups look like (although there is no biological component to this categorization). Accountability is interactional because it does not occur solely within the individual. It is also institutional because individuals may be held accountable for their behaviors by institutions or by others in social situations, as a member of any social group (gender, race, class, etc.).[10]:96 This notion of accountability makes gender dynamic because what is considered appropriate behavior for men and women changes and is reproduced over time and is reproduced differently depending on context. Gender is created in different ways among uneducated and educated African Americans.[16]

Sex and sex category[edit]

West and Zimmerman give this definition for sex in their paper Doing Gender: "Sex is a determination made through the application of socially agreed upon biological criteria for classifying persons as females and males. The criteria for classification can be genitalia at birth or chromosomal typing before birth, and they do not necessarily agree with one another".[7] The differentiation between gender and sex did not arise until the late 1970s, when researchers began using "gender" and "sex" as two separate terms, with "gender" referring to one's self-identity and "sex" referring to one's chromosomal makeup and sex organs.[17] The binary of male and female leaves out everyone who does not fit into these categories because of genital make up, chromosomes, or hormone levels. Anne Fausto-Sterling addresses the issues facing intersex people in her article The Five Sexes. She claims that there is at minimum five sexes but probably more; this is based on the vast range of ways bodies show up in nature. She points out that, "recent advances in physiology and surgical technology now enable physicians to catch most intersexuals at birth...infants are entered into a program of hormonal and surgical management..."[18] This highlights the intense adherence to the binary instead of allowing bodies to present in the world without intervention.

West and Zimmerman also give a definition for sex category: "achieved through application of the sex criteria, but in everyday life, categorization is established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one's membership in one or the other category".[7] Sex category is applied to a person in everyday life through commonly recognized cues that are not necessarily fulfilling biological criteria of sex.

Applications of gender performance[edit]

The term "gender performativity" was first coined in American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler's 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.[19] In Gender Trouble, Butler sets out to criticize what she considers to be an outdated perception of gender. This outdated perception, according to Butler, is limiting in that it adheres to the dominant societal constraints that label gender as binary. In scrutinizing gender, Butler introduces a nuanced perception in which she unites the concepts of performativity and gender. In chapter one of the text, Butler introduces the unification of the terms gender and performativity in stating that "gender proves to be performance—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed".[20] In demystifying this concept, Butler sets out to clarify that there is indeed a difference in the terms gender performance and gender performativity. In doing so, Butler states in an interview: "When we say that gender is performed, we usually mean that we've taken on a role; we're acting in some way…To say that gender is performative is a little different…For something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman…we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time."[21] Thus, Butler perceives gender as being constructed through a set of acts that are said to be in compliance with dominant societal norms. Butler is, however, not stating that gender is a sort of performance in which an individual can terminate the act; instead, what Butler is stating is that this performance is ongoing and out of an individual's control. In fact, rather than an individual producing the performance, the opposite is true. The performance is what produces the individual. Specifically, Butler states that "there is no 'being' behind doing… 'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything."[22] Thus, the emphasis is placed not on the individual producing the deed but on the deed itself. Although a seemingly difficult concept to grasp, gender performativity is realized throughout many aspects of our lives, specifically in our infancy and young childhood, our teen years, and finally our adult lives.

On Butler's hypothesis, the socially constructed aspect of gender performativity is perhaps most obvious in drag performance, which offers a rudimentary understanding of gender binaries in its emphasis on gender performance. Butler understands drag cannot be regarded as an example of subjective or singular identity, where "there is a 'one' who is prior to gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender decides with deliberation which gender it will be today".[23]:21 Consequently, drag should not be considered the honest expression of its performer's intent. Rather, Butler suggests that what is performed "can only be understood through reference to what is barred from the signifier within the domain of corporeal legibility".[23]:24

Amelia Jones proposes that this mode of viewing gender offered a way to move beyond the theories of the gaze and sexual fetishism, which had attained much prominence in academic feminism, but which by the 1980s Jones viewed as outdated methods of understanding women's societal status. Jones believes the performative power to act out gender is extremely useful as a framework, offering new ways to consider images as enactments with embodied subjects rather than inanimate objects for men's viewing pleasure.[24]

Infancy and young childhood[edit]

The idea around gender performativity, when applied to infancy and young childhood, deals with the idea that from the moment one is conceived, arguably even before that, who they are and who they will become is predetermined. Individuals are either given masculine or feminine names based on their sex, are assigned colors that are deemed appropriate only when utilized by a particular sex and are even given toys that will aid them in recognizing their proper places in society. According to Barbara Kerr and Karen Multon, many parents would be puzzled to know "the tendency of little children to think that it is their clothing or toys that make them boy or girl."[25] In discussing these points, Penelope Eckert, in her text titled Language and Gender, states "the first thing people want to know about a baby is its sex, and social convention provides a myriad of props to reduce the necessity of asking".[26] Thus, this reinforces the importance and emphasis that society places not only on sex but also on ways in which to point towards one's sex without implicitly doing so. Eckert furthers this in stating that determining sex at one's birth is also vital of how one presents themselves in society at an older age because "sex determination sets the stage for a lifelong process of gendering".[26] Eckert's statement points to Judith Butler's view of gender as being performative. Similar to Butler, Eckert is hinting to the fact that gender is not an internal reality that cannot be changed. What Eckert is instead stating is that this is a common misconception that a majority of the population unknowingly reinforces, which sees its emergence during infancy.

Butler suggests in both "Critically Queer" and "Melancholy Gender",[27] that the child/subject's ability to grieve the loss of the same-sex parent as a viable love object is barred. Following from Sigmund Freud's notion of melancholia, such a repudiation results in a heightened identification with the Other that cannot be loved, resulting in gender performances which create allegories of, and internalize the lost love that the subject is subsequently unable to acknowledge or grieve. Butler explains that "a masculine gender is formed from the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love; a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the fantasy which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but 'preserved' through the heightening of feminine identification itself".[23]:25

Teen years[edit]

One's teen years are the prime time in which socialization occurs as well as the time in which how one presents themselves in society is of high concern. Often, this is the time in which one's ability to master their gender performance labels them as successful, and thus normal, or unsuccessful, and thus strange and unfitting. One of the sources that demonstrate how successful performance is acted out is magazines, specifically magazines targeting young girls. According to Eckert, "When we are teenagers, the teen magazines told girls how to make conversation with boys…".[26]:275 This not only emphasizes the fact that gender is something that is taught to us and is continuously being shaped by society's expectations, but it also points to one of the ways in which individuals are being subconsciously trained to be ideal participants in the gender binary. Thus calling back to Butler's perception that gender is not a fact about us but is something that is taught to us and is being constantly reinforced.

Political potential and limits[edit]

Butler suggests that "[t]he critical promise of drag does not have to do with the proliferation of genders…but rather with the exposure of the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals", although such remarks fail to indicate how the inadequacies of heterosexual regimes might be explicitly exposed.[23]:26[not in citation given][original research?]

According to Butler, gender performance is only subversive because it is "the kind of effect that resists calculation", which is to say that signification is multiplicitous, that the subject is unable to control it, and so subversion is always occurring and always unpredictable.[23]:29 Moya Lloyd suggests that the political potential of gender performances can be evaluated relative to similar past acts in similar contexts in order to assess their transgressive potential: "Even if we accept that there are incalculable effects to all (or most) statements or activities, this does not mean that we need to concede that there are no calculable effects."[28] Conversely, Rosalyn Diprose lends a hard-line Foucauldian interpretation to her understanding of gender performance's political reach, as one's identity "is built on the invasion of the self by the gestures of others, who, by referring to other others, are already social beings".[29] Diprose implies that the individual's will, and the individual performance, is always subject to the dominant discourse of an Other (or Others), so as to restrict the transgressive potential of performance to the inscription of simply another dominant discourse.[citation needed]

Martha Nussbaum criticizes Butler's concepts of gender performativity as a misguided retreat from engaging with real-world concerns:[30]

"Butler suggests to her readers that this sly send-up of the status quo is the only script for resistance that life offers [...] Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn't it exciting and sexy?"

During development[edit]

Gender features strongly in most societies and is a significant aspect of self-definition for most people.[31] One way to analyze the social influences that affect the development of gender is through the perspective of the social cognitive theory. According to Kay Bussey, social cognitive theory describes "how gender conceptions are developed and transformed across the life span".[31] The social cognitive theory views gender roles as socially constructed ideas that are obtained over one's entire lifetime. These gender roles are "repeatedly reinforced through socialization".[32] Hackman verifies that these gender roles are instilled in us from "the moment we are born".[32] For the individual, gender construction starts with assignments to a sex category on the basis of biological genitalia at birth.[33] Following this sexual assignment, parents begin to influence gender identity by dressing children in ways that clearly display this biological category. Therefore, biological sex becomes associated with a gender through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers.[32] Gender development continues to be affected by the outlooks of others, education institutions, parenting, media, etc. These variations of social interactions force individuals to "learn what is expected, see what is expected, act and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order".[34]

Gender-based harassment[edit]

In high schools, gender-based harassment serves as a form of gender boundary policing. Girls are expected to conform to stereotypical gendered appearances, as are boys. Both male and female students regularly take part in policing gender boundaries through bullying. Male students frequently harass male and female students, while female students generally only harass other female students. The practice of male students bullying other male students is explicitly linked to machismo that boys are expected to subscribe to in order to be constructed and related to as 'normal' boys.[35] Many girls report that boys tease and ridicule them on the basis of their appearance, which is linked to boys asserting masculine power through sexist practices of denigrating girls.[35] This also serves to perpetuate the idea that appearance is a female's most important asset. The way in which girls harass other girls is through gossiping, instead of confronting the other girls directly. Unique appearances and attempts to stand out among girls are regarded very negatively.[36] This type of female on female bullying sets the standard for appearance norms and the importance of appearance for females. Overall, gender-based harassment serves to define and enforce gender boundaries of high school students by high school students.

Adolescent view of adulthood[edit]

Gender is a cultural construction which creates an environment where an adolescent's performance in high school is related to their life goals and expectations. Because some young women believe that they want to be mothers and wives, the choice of professions and future goals can be inherently flawed by the gender constraints. Because a girl may want to be a mother later, her academics in high school can create clear gender differences because "higher occupational expectations, educational expectations, and academic grades were more strongly associated with the expected age of parenthood for girls than for boys".[37] With "young women recognizing potential conflicts between the demands of work and family", they will not try as hard in high school allowing males to achieve higher academic achievement then girls. Crocket and Beal in their article "The Life Course in the Making: Gender and the Development of Adolescents", "gender differences in the anticipated timing of future role transitions, the impact of expectations and values on these expected timings, and the extent to which expectations foreshadow actual behavior".[37] The actions of a youth in high school greatly impact the choices the individual will have over a lifetime. Women especially are constrained in the way they view their adulthood even at a young age because of motherhood.

Males can also be subject to gender construction due to social expectations of masculinity. According to Jack Halberstam (under the name Judith), people correlate masculinity with "maleness and to power to domination”, something that he believes is a result of patriarchy.[38] In a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers stated that gender construct can differ depending on the man's race or ethnicity and stated that for white men there was an emphasis on "education,employment, and socioeconomic status" whereas the expectations for black men focused on "sexual prowess, physical dominance, and gamesmanship”.[39] These expectations can make it harder for males to display emotions without receiving criticism and being seen as less of a man.

Adolescents view on adulthood is also determined by their employment in high school. Many boys work during high school and "unlike young women, young men who had not worked during high school did not quite match their peers".[40] Because many other boys are working, those who don't work may not be as successful after graduation. In the book Working and Growing Up in America, Jeylan T. Mortimer explains "youth who work during high school, and those who devote more hours to work, are more vocationally successful after leaving high school".[40] This creates a distinct gender difference in which men are more likely to be employed after high school than women if they have worked during high school.[41] This means women may be at an academic advantage if they do not work in high school and focus on school work.


High school continues to become a more high-pressure environment with academic and social triggers increasing the expectations of adolescents. High school is a large transitional period for teenagers causing them to "cope with these various transitions in different ways; some negotiate the passages easily whereas others develop serious behavioral and psychological problems".[42] One of these psychological problems is depression. While the environment of high school can be stressful biological functions also play a large role is psychological well-being. Negriff and Susman explain in their article "Pubertal Timing, Depression, and Externalizing Problems" that "the same hormones that increase during puberty are also related to depression and aggressive tendencies. Higher levels of testosterone are associated with increased aggression in boys and girls, whereas higher estrogen for girls is associated with increased depressive symptoms".[42] The gender differences observed may not just be due to the cultural expectations, but rather a biological function of the sex the individuals are born with. Self-esteem has also been linked to depression in high school students. One study done by James Battle in 1980 took 26 student ages 15–18 showed a correlation between depression and self-esteem.[43] In the 80s, research had not looked past adults and Battle's research was some of the first of its kind which showed a direct correlation between self-esteem and depression.[43]Self-esteem is not a product of our biology but rather is culturally constructed.[43] Girls in high school also tend to have lower self-esteem due to body image.[44] With depression and self-esteem being so closely linked the potential for having the disease can result in an educational experience which can be compromised. Depression can be isolating, and without proper academics and societal support, high school can be challenging. Along with higher rates of self-esteem issues in adolescents, this can adversely affect girls' academics and social life in high school.

Body image[edit]

High school is a major transitional period for girls and boys as their bodies transition into men and women. The end of high school is usually marked by the 18th birthday, a major milestone in an individual's life. Boys and girls go through this transformation within high school where each gender faces body satisfaction differently. There are many different factors that affect body image, "including sex, media, parental relationship, and puberty as well as weight and popularity".[44] The intersectionality of these factors causes unique experiences for adolescents during this period within their lives. As their body changes, so does the environment in which they live in. Body image is closely linked to psychological well-being during adolescence and can cause harmful effects when a child has body dissatisfaction.[45] Helen Winfield in her article "Body Image and Psychological Well-Being in Adolescents: The Relationship between Gender and School Type" explains an adolescences high school experience is closely linked to their perceived body image. She analyzed over 336 teenagers and found "ratings of physical attractiveness and body image remain relatively stable across the early teenage years, but become increasingly negative around age 15–18 years because of pubertal changes".[45] This shift during the high school years can cause serious psychological problems for adolescence. These psychological problems can manifest as bulimia and anorexia causing serious lifelong problems.[45] These body image issues are especially prevalent in girls but as boys enter puberty expectations of height and muscle mass change as well. Geoffrey H. Cohane, Harrison G. Pope Jr. in their article "Body image in boys: A review of the literature" argue "girls typically wanted to be thinner, boys frequently wanted to be bigger".[46] This, they argue, shows the gender difference in body image cause different beauty ideals. An adolescent's gender affects their body image and their high school experience.


See also: sex and psychology § Mathematics

Due to the amount of time that children spend in school, "teachers are influential role models for many aspects of children's educational experiences, including gender socialization".[47] Teachers who endorse the culturally dominant gender-role stereotype regarding the distribution of talent between males and females distort their perception of their students' mathematical abilities and effort resources in mathematics, in a manner that is consistent with their gender-role stereotype and to a greater extent than teachers who do not endorse the stereotype.[48]

According to the 1994 report "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns" by the American Psychological Association, "Most standard tests of intelligence have been constructed so that there are no overall score differences between females and males." Differences have been found, however, in specific areas such as mathematics and verbal measures.[49] Even within mathematics, it is noted that significant differences in performance as a result of gender do not occur until late in high school, a result of biological differences, the exhibition of stereotypes by teachers, and the difference in chosen coursework between individual students.[50] While, on average, boys and girls perform similarly in math, boys are over represented among the very best performers as well as the very worst.[51][52] Teachers have found that when certain types of teaching (such as experiments that reflect daily life), work for girls, they generally work for boys as well.[53]

Although little difference in mathematics performance was found among younger students, a study of students grade 1-3 by Fennema et al. noted that significant differences in problem-solving strategies were found, with girls tending to use more standard algorithms than the boys.[54] They suggest that this may be due to both the teachers' stereotypical beliefs about mathematics and gender, as well as the study's design permitting "the children's stereotypical beliefs to influence strategy use and thus the development of understanding in these classrooms".[54] A study conducted at Illinois State University examined the effects of gender stereotypes on the teaching practices of three third grade teachers, noting that "[the teachers] claimed gender neutrality, yet they expressed numerous beliefs about gender difference during the study", such as allowing boys (but not girls) to respond to questions without raising their hand or providing reading selections that promoted women in non-traditional roles, but not doing the same for men.[47]

Overall, differences in student performance that arise from gender tend to be smaller than that of other demographic differences, such as race or socioeconomic class.[55] The results of the 1992 NAEP 12th grade science tests, on a 500-point scale, show that the differences of scores between white and African American students were around 48 points, while differences between male and female students were around 11 points.[55]


Anatomical studies have shown that the larynx of a child, and by extension the fundamental frequency, is likely to vary directly as a result of size and height, rather than sex.[56] Sachs et al. suggest that if there is no difference between the size of the articulatory mechanism in children, differences in formant production between boys and girls may be a result of "culturally determined patterns that are viewed as appropriate for each sex" and a result of the speaker's deliberate phonetic variation in vowel production or changing the configuration of the lips.[56]

Research methods[edit]

Inclusiveness and acceptance play significant roles in social constructionist practice – examples include sharing work with others in a cooperative manner, including a diverse sample, being open to other interpretations of data, and blurring the lines between scientific research, participatory research and social activism.[57] The blurring of scientific research also means incorporating other disciplines into psychological work (e.g. performative psychology includes artistic expression or humor) and thinking in terms that go beyond traditional scientific language.[57] These methods are not currently valued in psychology because they are not seen as "scientific."

A social constructionist psychologist can make it explicit that his or her perspective is not universally true in all contexts across historical periods. Social constructionists recognize that every researcher has an opinion and is biased in some way. They acknowledge that their own views and findings/results of a study are open to deconstructive critique – no grand truth can be found because everything is context-specific and has potential to change across time periods and different situations. Related to this is the idea that social constructionists must constantly question their own work because their work can be constantly reinterpreted and have different meanings at different times.[57]

The gender dichotomy is so engrained that it is impossible for research findings to remain unaffected by it. People are often convinced that there are inherent differences between men and women, which skews both studies and their findings. That is, research questions are framed in ways that look for a difference between genders, and thus their methods will be constrained by this framework as well.[26] Moreover, the actual outcome of the study, even if the claims are dubious or modest at best, often come to be accepted as facts if they support the gender discourse narrative and are often cited and discussed. This phenomenon is labeled the "hall of mirrors" effect.[58]

In order to fully and accurately record the socialization processes at play regarding gender construction, ethnographic and longitudinal studies are ideal.[59] However, these methods have their constraints. It is costly and time consuming to carry out such studies that would yield significant results, and there is an abundance of factors that influence an individual's gender construction. Thus, more research is needed regarding the social construction of gender.

Research can either be qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative data is beneficial because it can give a voice to the subjects of the study. However, poorly-constructed qualitative research can lead to reproduction of race and class biases if findings are inappropriately generalized.[60] For example, qualitative research methods often involve small, homogeneous samples. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to generalize the findings of a study conducted on a specific group of people and then apply them to all people of that gender.[61]

Quantitative data is useful when hard data is needed, such as addressing policy issues, when hard data is needed to convince people unfamiliar with the topics. However, quantitative research can reinforce gender and cultural assumptions as well through item construction.[60] That is, for data to be quantitatively analysed, they must fit into specific categories. However, such categories can be based on or at least influenced by gender stereotypes.

Promoting social change and criticisms[edit]

Social change[edit]

Gender often means adhering to gender normative behavior and roles. The performance of gender reinforces the essentialism of gender categories.[7][62] Essentialism argues that there are essential differences between genders which manifest themselves in differences in gender performance. Gender performance consists of a stylized practice involving gestures, language, and speech and serves to form and build an identity.[63] When an individual performs their gender to the standards set by societal norms, this bolsters the argument of gender essentialism.[63] Historically, men have assumed a dominant gender role, and women have been prescribed a role submissive to men. In order for subordination to go unquestioned, the structure must not appear as a cultural product – it must seem natural.[64] Social movements can challenge the categories that appear "natural." Certain legislation can promote equality for men and women, which could call into question whether there needs to be two categories of gender at all (if both are treated equally). Social change relies on an understanding of how inequality is rooted in gender accomplishment.

Throughout history, women have fought for their rights regarding various issues.[citation needed] One of the most significant revolutions of this[which?] century is the feminist movement. The first wave, which began in 1854[where?], was a fight for women's rights to education and to the vote by the suffragettes. This movement was then followed by Second-wave feminism and Third-wave feminism which furthered the feminist cause. The feminist movement was not only about fighting for women's rights, but more essentially about earning recognition and respect from the general public acknowledging the fact that they are not inferior than men and thus deserving to be treated equally and granted fair opportunities.[citation needed] Feminism emerged and started to challenge the idea that a woman's appropriate place was confined to that of the domestic and private sphere. Over time, men and women's attitudes have been becoming more liberalized with regard to gender roles. Men and women are agreeing on a more egalitarian responsibility distribution within the family sphere.[citation needed] They are also in agreement that women should and can have roles in the public sphere, especially in leadership positions and that men can have and involved role in the private and domestic sphere.[65] These markers of increasingly liberalized attitudes toward gender roles indicate the trajectory of social change in terms of what is deemed normative.

Criticism and opportunities to "undo" gender[edit]

Further information: Undoing Gender

Because the theory says that one can "do" gender whether they conform to gender norms or not (and is always held accountable for behaving in accordance with gender norms), change seems impossible. If essential differences between the sexes are problematic, a society where gender is omnirelevant could be argued to always uphold gender inequality. The language of "doing" gender implies doing difference instead of unraveling it. Most studies that rely on social constructionism explore the ways in which gender is constructed but nevertheless demonstrate how those gender constructions uphold gender as a construct and gender inequality.

However, because gender is "done" or constructed, it can also be "undone" or deconstructed.[16] The study of the interactional level could expand beyond simply documenting the persistence of inequality to examine: (1) when and how social interactions become less gendered, not just differently gendered, (2) the conditions under which gender is irrelevant in social interactions, (3) whether all gendered interactions reinforce inequality, (4) how the structural (institutional) and interactional levels might work together to produce change, and (5) interaction as the site of change.[16]

Nature versus nurture[edit]

See also: Gender role § Biological factors

Theories that imply that gendered behavior is totally or mostly due to social conventions and culture fall into the nurture end of the nature versus nurture debate. Much empirical research has been done on to what extent gendered behavior stems from biological factors.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Lindsey, Linda L. (2015). "The sociology of gender"(PDF). Gender roles: a sociological perspective. Boston: Pearson. p. 4. ISBN 9780205899685.  
    See also:

Gender is socially constructed and a result of sociocultural influences throughout an individual's development (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). Gender identity can be affected by, and is different from one society to another depending on the way the members of society evaluate the role of females and males. Our gender identity can be influenced from the ethnicity of the group, their historical and cultural background, family values and religion. Often people confuse or misuse the terms gender and sex. The term sex refers to the biological distinction of being male and female (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). To make the distinction clearer one could consider that we inherit the sex but we learn our gender (Boss, 2008). Gender is a structural feature of society and the sociological significance of gender is that it is a devise by which society controls its members (Henslin, 2006). Gender like social class and race can be used to socially categorize people and even lead to prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is a set of attitudes, more likely unfavorable, towards members of a group (, 2011). Discrimination is overt negative behaviors towards a person based on his or her membership in a group (, 2011). When there is differential treatment of people based on their sex the term sexism defines this behavior. Sexism refers to any bias against an individual or group based on the individual's or group's sex (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005, p.340). Gender discrimination is another way one could define sexism and in particular this is associated with discrimination and stereotyped beliefs against women. Stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups and most of them are socioculturally based (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). Stereotype ideas and beliefs regarding women, although they have been changed and improved, are still evident in our country and in other modern cultures. Unfortunately in several countries around the world such as Arabian courtiers, Africa and India things have not changed much and women are still considered a minority and do not have equal access and rights in their societies as do males (Henslin, 2006). This variation regarding gender around the world makes prominent that gender identity is influenced by social variables and has little to do with biological variables. 

The idea of social construction of gender sees society, not biological sex differences, as the basis for gender identity (Anderson, Logio & Taylor, 2005). There are many different processes by which the expectations associated with being a boy or a girl is passed on through society. For instance one could see this from the moment a child comes into the world and from the fact that he/she has to face a "blue" or "pink" reality. I recently attended a baby shower party and I was shocked first by the amount of items a baby needs and even more about the color choice of each item. Everything was pink, as a baby girl was expected, and honestly I never imaged how many different shades of pink actually exist for products such as baby clothes. The house decoration was pink, people were wearing pink or pastel colors, all the gift wrappers pink as well as the gifts themselves. My gift was one of the few items of a different color, as I chose yellow and light purple items, which was actually a challenging task to find as most of the items in the store I shopped were blue or pink. The social construction of gender could be further been seen by the way parents behave to their children, by their expectations about how their children should behave and act, and by the toys they buy for them. For example girls are supposed to play with dolls and be sweet and emotional and boys are supposed to play with action figures and be aggressive and rational. Therefore clothes, toys, and even the language used with young children follow the trend of stereotyping gender. Children learn by modeling and the messages they receive and act accordingly. An example similar to the dress code we having for children can also be seen with adults, particularly in the colors, fabrics and designs specific to each gender. Another example is the situation of a female working in the business field that is expected to dress in masculine way in order to be considered successful and to be taken more seriously. This could demonstrate again how social influences affect gender expectations and shape behaviors and norm regarding gender.

Apart from the family, which is the first agent of socialization and learning gender identity, children learn from other sources such as school. Starting from the first years of school, including day care center years, children learn their gender identity from playing and interacting with other children and care providers. By visiting a child care program one may notice that the environment is arranged in ways to promote gender identity. Most likely there will be an area staged as the housekeeping corner where girls the play and there will be another area with building blocks and tool kit items where the boys play. However it is believed by several that the kind of toys and roles children play affect their future and the skills they learn. Playing with blocks is considered giving experience in spatial relations and in mathematical concepts, where playing with dolls and dramatic role playing is associated with learning to be a nurturer (Conzalez-Mena, 2006). As children grow more stereotype ideas are involve regarding which subjects are favorable and suitable for each gender. For instance the most obvious example is math and probably all of us have heard the notion that boys are better in math than girls. Therefore one could see that again social influence affects perception about gender identity and roles. However perceptions such as this can lead to stereotype threads which are the fear or nervousness that one's behavior will exemplify a negative stereotype about his in-group and thereby in essence confirming the accuracy of the stereotype.

Furthermore the media also affects and influences gender identity. For instance children are constantly bombarded with shows depicting gender stereotype models from toys marketed as for boys or girls, to children's TV programs and shows. It is common for the children's programs to emphasize the role of the male "hero" who saves the weak female. Children interpret these messages as "real life" which shapes their reality, behavior, and expectations of their gender role. However, the social construction of gender does not happen only once and does not stop with children. It continues throughout the rest of our lives and influences our perspective and the way we view things and situations. Regarding the media one is able to see an example of gender stereotyping by observing the messages of advertisements. Recently I had conversation with my husband relating to the issue of sexism regarding a car show he was watching on TV where standing next to the new cars were beautiful female models. My comment was that is an example of benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism involves the attribution of typically positive traits or qualities towards women but these traits are derive from stereotypes that see  women in limited ways and often stem from male-centered perspectives (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). My husband did not want to accept this and he argued that male models are sometimes used as well. We end up watching the car show for over an hour in order to find a male model next to a car but we did not see any.

Additionally cultural and religious beliefs and attitudes have a serious impact on gender identity and in many cases promote stereotype beliefs against women and lead to gender discrimination. When it comes to culture and religious influences in a society regarding the view of gender I believe the concept of institutionalized sexism is appropriate to describe this situation. Institutionalized sexism is the sexist attitudes that are held by the vast majority of people living in a society where stereotypes and discrimination are the norm (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2011). When a society has specific norms people living within the society will adapt to them and they will do the same even for discriminatory norms. For instance when a society, due to religious and cultural reasons, view women as weak or inferior people living within the society will develop the same views and will act accordingly. One can see this for example in many Muslim countries and also with different religious groups, even in our own country.  People tend to conform to their group and will do the same even when they engage in discriminatory behaviors as they want to fit in and be accepted by their group which is known as normative conformity (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2011).

Society constructs our gender and categorizes its members similar as it does with age, ethnicity, race, social class and status. However the categorization according to gender is another way of manipulating members of a society and to promote inequalities. There are obvious biological and anthropological differences between the two sexes but we cannot use these differences to infer conclusions and provide stereotyped models about gender. As mentioned in the beginning sexism is the term that accounts for gender discrimination and has different forms. One of them already mentioned is benevolent sexism characterized by positive but stereotyped views of women. Contrarily another form is hostile sexism which is characterized by negative stereotypical views towards women. For instance hostile sexism views of women are centered on beliefs that women are inferior to men due to superficial views that one can hold again women. Lastly another form of sexism is ambivalent sexism which holds views of both hostile and benevolent sexist attitudes simultaneously (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005). However no matter the form, sexism has overall negative consequences and results in stereotyping women, and even prejudice and discrimination. The and other developed countries have come a long way in trying to eliminate discrimination against women but there is still a room for improvement. Gender as mentioned above results from sociocultural influences. Research and theory derived from social psychology could be able to develop appropriate interventions that could target a vast range of individuals and institutions in order to promote equality of genders and eliminate gender discriminations.


Andersen, M.L., Logio, K.A. & Taylor H.F. (2005). Understanding society: an introductory reader(2nd e.d.). , : Thomson . 

Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D. & Akert, R.M. (2011). Social Psychology (7th ed.). : Prentice Hall/Pearson.


Conzalez-Mena, J. (2006). The young child in the family and the community (4th e.d.). : Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall

Henslin, J. M. (2006).Essentials of Sociology: A down-to-earth approach (6th e.d.). : Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

World Campus. (2011). Applied Social Psychology: Theory and research methods. Retrieved online at:

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2005). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems.:Sage Publications


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