Gender Socialisation: How We Learn to Be Men and Women

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This article will cover the process of gender socialisation; the many forms and manifestations of socialisation and most importantly what gender socialisation actually is! We will also briefly explore the impact of gender socialisation and how we can prevent it from harming future generations. Additionally, it’s important to understand the several key agents and where we see them around society.

What Is Gender Socialisation?

Gender socialisation is the process by which individuals are raised and instructed by the instruments of their society to fit the norms of their gender. Gender is assigned at birth based on the phenotype of their sex. So if an infant is born with a penis, it will be classed as a boy but if the infant is born with a vulva it will be classed as a girl.

Suggested: Sex, Gender, Sexuality: What’s the Difference?

The most intense period of socialisation comes during childhood. This is when an individual is most impressionable and freshly navigating the society that they live in. Although, the social categorisation process begins even before birth.

The first question people tend to ask upon hearing that someone is pregnant is “What are you having?”, as in “Are you having a boy or a girl?”. In their minds, these people will already have an image of the fundamentals of what to expect from the answer they give (‘boy’ or ‘girl’). This is because we have been socialised to subconsciously accept one “universal” representation of a ‘boy’ and one of a ‘girl’. They can then use these images to determine the future child’s most likely interests, hobbies, appearance, etc.

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Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

The socialisation process is essentially lifelong. It never really stops because we are constantly exposed to gender stereotypes. However, it will have a different impact at different stages of a person’s life. As we grow, we become less impressionable and develop our own set of morals and rules.

In most cultures, gender is binary. This means gender is one of two things: man or woman. The socially constructed concepts of masculinity and femininity mark the extremes of the gender spectrum. The gender spectrum is a newly-developed depiction of gender as non-binary and fluid. At each end of the spectrum are masculinity and femininity. Both have their own distinct descriptions and norms based on the expectations of a given culture.

Currently, it’s largely undecided whether the differences between males and females are entirely biological or are socialised through the influence of the patriarchy. Obviously, there are plenty of biological differences between males and females. However, many think the impact of these biological differences is quite limited. Men and women are only so different because society tells us to be.

What Influences Gender Roles?

Family

The family upholds the patriarchy in several ways. Of course, this is changing with time. Family diversity is growing exponentially with there being more multi-cultural families, single-parent families, and dual wage-earner families (for example). Regardless, family is still key in the gender socialisation process.

Its primary function is educating and passing values from one generation to the next – socialising. Gender is one of the first social categories that children are introduced to. New-born babies learn cultural gender stereotypes in certain activities, toys, and clothing that they are exposed to. For example, babies tend to be dressed in either pink or blue. This is based purely on their sex at birth.

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Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

By age 3, children have formed their own gender identity based on the gendered agents they have been exposed to up to this point. From this point onwards, children are likely to focus on and mimic figures of the same gender. This includes celebrities, teachers, and family members. Parents enforce harmful gender stereotypes in a number of ways, perhaps by having different toys and clothes for boys and girls. Or by describing false gender patterns. For example, “makeup is for girls” or “girls can’t play football”.

School (Teachers and Peers)

Children will gravitate towards people with similar interests (or who they believe have similar interests). This means they are more likely to socialise with other children of the same gender. During this stage of their life, children develop a narrow understanding of what is considered “socially acceptable” for their gender. This involves their appearance, clothes, hobbies, interests and even sexuality.

Similar to parents, teachers do also have gender expectations. They themselves are models of gender roles in whatever way they present themself. They also reinforce gender stereotypes very commonly in classrooms. As authority figures in educational environments, the impact of their behaviour towards gender roles and stereotypes is highly influential. This is a significant part of socialization.

Teachers will commonly reinforce gender stereotypes by having boy-girl seating plans; separating activities by boys and girls, or using ‘boys vs girls’ sports teams. The common theme here is that they avoid cross-gender socialisation. The seating plans that alternate between boys and girls are only used because of the idea that boys and girls don’t talk to each other.

Media

Media is the most widely recognised agent of socialisation. Media is a huge platform that promotes a gendered society. It reinforces and spreads black and white depictions of what it means to be a man and a woman. The majority of the media is owned and controlled by right-wing traditionalists. This is the perspective that seems to dominate modern media. Some say that the only reason modern media has become more inclusive is that it’s more profitable.

Television commercials and advertising often use stereotypical images of society. These forms of media are supposed to be a reflection of society. To make sales, they need to be relatable and connect with their target audience. They often use nuclear families and gender conventions in their content. This is because all of society will know and understand these images.

The music industry is also a huge feature of socialisation. Lots of genres of music are actually segregated by gender. There are plenty of genres that would be called “girly”. Within the rap industry, the term “rappers” often strikes up images of rappers such as DMX, Ice Cube, Kanye West, etc. However, the women in the industry (as famous and talented as they are) often aren’t thought of until we talk about “female rappers”.

Not to mention the lyrics and messages that are conveyed in music. Especially in the most mainstream genres, pop, R ‘n’ B, and rap. We see a lot of harmful images of women being degraded and sexualised. We also see the men in their role, actively objectifying women. Young children will be impacted by music lyrics and the content they see in music videos.

This and other forms of media will shape their image of gender.

Are Gender Norms Changing?

Yes, they are. Progress is being made. Gender norms are being redefined and reimagined on the gender spectrum. The gender spectrum allows fluidity and self-assignment. It’s also entirely separate from gender expression. This means that people can decide their own identity and then express it exactly as they want. Nowadays, we are starting to see less predetermined expectations of gender.

Consequently, men are less expected to be masculine, and women are less expected to be feminine. They can choose to express their gender however they like.

Those born with the male sex phenotype (a penis) don’t have to identify as a boy/man and those born with the female sex phenotype (a vulva) don’t have to identify as a girl/woman. They can label their own gender. It’s important to note that there are other genders and each of those can also express themselves with whatever amount of masculinity/femininity they desire.

What Is The Impact of Gender Socialisation?

Social Life

As a result of gender socialisation, children will instinctively favour members of their own gender. They may show discriminatory behaviours towards members of other genders to disassociate themselves from other gender groups. This prevents young children from effectively functioning in gender-integrated settings such as schools or public spaces.

One of the most significant issues with young people and gender roles appears when an individual doesn’t fit the typical image of their gender. For example, girls that like rugby or boys that like ballet. Their peers may choose to disassociate from them. They may go as far as to mock and bully them for not looking the way they expect. This can leave them isolated, which has a huge impact on a young person’s mental health and wellbeing.

Careers

Cultural expectations dictate that girls are more compassionate and nurturing. The process of socialisation (mainly teachers, councillors, and educational institutions) will steer young girls towards careers that require emotional maturity, patience, and concern for others. This could be nursing or teaching etc. Boys tend to be encouraged towards higher-paying jobs by TV, social media, and mass media. These jobs include STEM-related, bankers, politicians, and more.

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Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

However, with vast progress being made towards gender equality girls and boys are no longer being explicitly discouraged from certain professions or careers. There are more women than ever in historically male-dominated fields. If a girl wants to be a nuclear engineer, she would not be told ‘no’. She may be encouraged to pursue it. But if a boy wants the same job, it’s likely he’ll receive a lot more encouragement and recognition.

Impact on Society

Structurally there are noticeable disparities in social and political participation based on gender. There are huge inequalities in employment, education, sports, and politics especially. In all of these environments, men hold economic power. The gender pay gap is a sign of employment inequality. We all know that women’s sports tend to be underfunded and men’s sports are arguably overfunded. Women also lack representation in politics and world leadership.

Furthermore, on a social-interactional level, there are multiple social practices that are designed to exploit women and girls. For example, child marriage, domestic violence, rape, and trafficking. These practices affect women at a disproportionate rate and are employed directly to oppress women. These issues are so prevalent that young girls are taught to fear them. Young girls are taught not to leave the house at night and to always be aware of their surroundings. Girls and women make many changes to their everyday lives. They live according to someone else’s rules of governance. Instead, we could be teaching men not to be predators.

Preventing Gender Socialisation

The most significant aspect of a child’s development is their communication and interaction with others. It’s important to promote cross-gender socialisation because this advances their interactional skills in mixed-gender environments. It builds a child’s understanding of gender differences and similarities so they can better empathise and relate to another gender. This can also develop their understanding of gender in general. They can learn to see gender as a fluid, non-binary concept if they are consistently exposed to multiple different gender identities.

Promoting and enrolling a child in co-educational schools can be very impactful. These environments tend to promote more egalitarian attitudes and values than single-sex schools.

Another preventative measure is to expose a child to counter-stereotypic images of gender. For instance, a female wrestler or a male ballet dancer. Similarly, we should constantly and explicitly challenge gender stereotypes. Make sure a child knows “girls can play football”, “boys can be nurses” and “boys can wear dresses and skirts” for example.

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