Gender: Definition and ConstructionWhat influences play a part in gender roles?


What Is Gender Identity? The word gender is defined as one's sexual identity in relation to their society or culture. Identity is commonly defined as the individual characteristics by which a person or thing is recognized. Put together, we refer to gender identity as a person's inner sense of being male or female.

When Does Gender Identity Start to Develop?Gender is typically the first collective social identity that children learn and is how they later affiliate themselves with a variety of stereotypes. "Basic gender identity" or "self-labeling" is the realization that there are two genders and children identify themselves as belonging to one of these two groups. This type of differentiation between genders can be seen as early as 17 months but most infants show gender labeling by 21 months. Girls are more likely to differentiate themselves from the opposite gender at an earlier age than boys (Zosuls, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, Shrout & Greulich, 2009). Once this "self-labeling" takes place, it directs and motivates the development of gender-typed behavior. Gender-typed play, companion selection, and toy selection are more extensive when a child's use of gender identities is flexible.

Building Gender Identity There are many different things that contribute to building one's gender identity. The earliest example of gender roles are exhibited within the child's home, usually by their parents. Identity construction can also be affected by biological influences, such as genetics and physical characteristics, and is greatly affected by environmental factors such as: the media, toys/games, sports, clothes, language and social aspects.

  • Parental influences: Before a child is even born, parents usually associate what their child's gender identity will be using stereotypical colors, such as pink and blue. Parents can find out the sex of their unborn child at around 16 weeks. Once parents are aware of the child's sex, they already have expectations regarding how their child will grow up to behave. For example, girls are expected to be dainty and emotional, while boys are tough and don't cry. One study shows that parents tend to impose their expectations on their children as early as within 24 hours of bringing them home. The way a parent decorates a child's room and the things inside the room also plays a role in the parent's influence on gender construction. Many studies have shown that a little girl's room is most likely to be full of dolls and pink decor, whereas a boy's room is usually overwhelmed with sports equipment, toy cars, fake tools, and blue decor (Witt, 1997).
    • The items and environment that a parent places their child in and around are not the only things that influence gender from this perspective. The parents themselves also set an example. Children are more likely to associate what one parent of a gender does versus the actions and behaviors of the opposite sex parent. For example, if a little boy sees his dad engaging in "masculine" activities, he has a higher chance in taking part in those activities because he associates being a boy or man with such masculine activities. If a little girl sees her mom cooking and cleaning, she associates that if she is a girl wanting to be a woman, she is to engage in such household chores. Parents essentially set the process of gender identity within their own children (Witt, 1997).



  • Friends and classmates: Psychological studies show that kids understand gender labels as early as age 3, but do not fully understand what gender and gender consistency is until about age 7, around the age that the child starts school. Interacting with other children on a daily basis sets the mold for how a kid is suppose to act (Marcus, 1978). Elementary schools are primary powerful places for gender role construction to take place. Children create their own groups and norms, styles, morals and values within the school, and this subgroup of peers is referred to as the "second curriculum." Within the peer group or culture is where children work on finding their identity. Even though it is a little young for elementary school children to claim their identity and their beliefs, this work still sets the foundation for their adult values and lifestyle (Adler, P.A., Kless, & Alder, P., 1992).

  • Biological factors: Studies have been done and show that gender starts to be planted in an embryo before hormones are even created. This tells the brain whether a person is male or female. It has not been proven how largely they influence gender identity, but it is known that genes do in fact play a role in shaping one's sexual identity. Some researchers have done studies using mice and found that there are 54 genes that are related to gender in their embryos. These studies can be extremely important when dealing with transgendered people in helping explain why they feel that they are one sex but have different genitalia. Hormones alone do not decide the identity of a person, the genes work along to make up the gender of a person (Staff, 2003).

  • Sports by gender: Every activity iscategorized as masculine or as feminine. Sports are “largely a social construction based on stereotyped expectations regarding gender and perceived gender differences” (Koivula, 2001). Sports are known as a male activity and not something that women do. Sports become stereotyped as gender-neutral, feminine, and masculine. For example, softball is for women, football is for men, and basketball is for both. Women are more involved in sports now than they were 10 years ago. As time has gone by it has become more acceptable for women to play sports, however, there are differences made between men and women. Differences are made from the very beginning with sports. When you go to sign your child up for little league, there is not a place to check off that you want your son to play softball instead of baseball. You know when you go to sign up your children for baseball/softball, your son will play baseball and your daughter will play softball; there is no option. There are barely any girls playing midget league football, but many are involved in cheerleading. The differences in gender through sports are taught early on. As these children grow older and reach high school, gender roles within sports becomes more stereotyped and male cheerleaders are teased for participating in a "girly" sport. However, if a young girl was very athletic and overexceeding expectations in a predominately male sport, she most likely will not be teased like the male cheerleader (Koivula, 2001). Men are supposed to be manly and put up a front to look tough and not do something "girly" like become cheerleaders. Gender identity is determined early on and everyone just goes with the "norm" when it comes to sports. Even in college they have sports separated for men and women. They never play together. An example of the separation between men and women in sports can be seen at our own university website:

  • Environmental influences: Everywhere we go, there are environmental influences regarding gender roles. When children are watching TV, they do not see little boys playing with Barbie. Just by watching one TV show a child is influenced by the show they watch and the commercials that are shown during that television show. Children pick up on things really easily and in the shows that they see they always see the Mommy cooking and cleaning and having children, while Daddy does the manly things around the house and works. At the toy store when you see advertisements there are gender differences made. The isles are separated in "boy stuff" and "girl stuff". At Toys 'R Us, when a sales associate was asked how many Barbie dolls a week they thought were bought for little boys, he responded with, "None I don't think, they are for little girls." The sales associate said this with a really confused look on his face. Aside from the television they watch, children are also influenced by the very toys they are expected to play with.

How Television Plays a Role in Defining Gender Identity

Many of a child's ideas of gender comes from the things surrounding them in their environment. These things can be from books, toys, games, songs, movies, and probably the one with the most impact, television. From psychological studies we can see that preschoolers usually spend up to 30 hours a week watching television shows. Since the 1950s, over 2/3 the population of characters on television are males, leaving less room for active roles of women (Condry, 1989). If the characters on the TV shows act certain ways, the child is going to pick up on those roles and behavior. Unfortunately, gender biases happen all the time on television. Males are usually depicted in characters of leadership and strength, while females are usually depicted as attractive characters in need of male attachment. Everything on TV, from cartoons, soap operas, and even commercials, these differences between male and female gender roles are clearly visible. Research has shown that children who engage in watching less television tend to have less stereotypical feelings and behaviors present (Witt, 2000). Below are some information found by Witt (2000) regarding the portrayal of gender roles on TV:
  • Men are more active in television shows and portray very different traits than women
  • Men are usually more dominant in their interactions
  • Men on television are often portrayed as ambitious, smart, competitive, powerful, stable, violent, and tolerant
  • Women are shown as sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive, and timid
  • Television programming emphasizes male characters' strength, performance, and skill; for women, it focuses on attractiveness and desirability


Expectations of Normal Gender Development

There are two underlying causes of psychological sex differences according to Wood and Eagly (2002): the first is the physical differences between men and women, particularly women’s ability to give life and sustain that life, and men’s greater size, speed and upper body strength. Secondly, the type of social, economic, technological, and ecological forces, in which people live in their society. Many theorists argue that the differences we see in gender roles are from the power and status afforded to men over women in most societies. This overt thought that men should be in positions of physical and mental power has lead to an uneven distribution of labor in the work place and at home.

Women are thought of as the primary care giver, and most of a women’s femininity is based on how she keeps her home and the happiness of her husband and children. This has lead women to enter predominantly care-giver based jobs, such as social workers, counselors, teachers, librarians, child-care providers, secretaries and nurses. These jobs are all in the scope of taking care of others like the stereo typical women should.

Men are thought of as the provider and protector and his masculinity is based on his ability to do so. This mentality has lead men to take on jobs of high power and prestige, such as lawyers, police officers, security sales, chief executives and marketing managers. These jobs are of a higher position and associated with more masculine traits.

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Adler, P. A., Kless, S. J., & Adler, P. (1992). Socialization to gender roles: popularity among elementary school boys and girls. Sociology of Education, 65(3), 169-187.

Koivula, N. (2001). Perceived characteristics of sports categorized as gender: neutral, feminine and masculine. Questia - The Online Library of Books and Journals. Retrieved from

Condry, J. (1989). The Psychology of Television. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Marcus, D. E., & Overton, W. F. (1978). The development of cognitive gender constancy and sex role preferences. Child Development, 49(2), 434-444.

Witt, S. D. (1997). Parental influence on children's socialization to gender roles [Electronic version]. Adolescence, 32.

Witt, S. D. (2000). The influence of television on children's gender role socialization. Childhood Education, 76(5).

Staff, P. (2003). Genes influence gender identity. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 30, 2011

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C.S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., Greulich, F. K. (2009). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: implications of gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688-701.