Theories of Sex and Gender

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Theories of Sex and Gender

Sex and gender are two very separate factors in the debate of how gender acquisition occurs.   Sex is a biological fact determined by the chromosomes inherited from parents.   Gender however, refers to the behaviour, beliefs, attitude and sense of identity that society perceives as being appropriate for either a male or a female, and therefore gender is regarded as a social fact.  MOGHADDAM (1998, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002).

There are four main theories in the gender acquisition debate, Evolutionary Psychology, Psychoanalytical Theory, Social Learning Theory and Cognitive-development Theory.   This paper aims to describe and evaluate Social Learning Theory and Cognitive-development Theory.

Social Learning theorists believe the development of gender occurs as a result of a child’s social experience and think much of this learning can be explained by conditioning and observational learning.   Sex-role and gender behaviours are learned in the same way as any other behaviour.   In terms of conditioning, parents socialise their children, preparing them for adult gender roles by providing them with gender-appropriate toys.   In many societies girls are given dolls and cooking equipment in preparation for the maternal and domestic aspects of their adult gender role.  BANDURA & WALTERS (1963, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002) Social Learning theorists also think that children learn gender roles from same sex role models such as parents, peers, teachers and media figures who provide children with opportunities to observe and imitate behaviours, this is known as observational learning.  

Observational learning does not require reinforcement, however new behaviours are acquired more rapidly if they are reinforced.

Reinforcement of gender appropriate behaviour can take two forms, direct and indirect, and considerable research has been conducted into the way parents reinforce their children for this behaviour.   FAGOT (1978, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002) studied parents at home with toddlers aged 20-24 months and found girls were encouraged and praised for activities like dancing, helping with domestic chores and dressing up.   Whereas, boys were praised for more physical activities and for using construction toys like blocks.   This study also found that boys were often actively discouraged from seeking help and from playing with “girls” toys such as dolls.   It has been found that children as young as 18 months old have been given reinforcement for gender appropriate/inappropriate behaviour.  CALDERA et al (1989, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002)  

Research has shown that if mothers have a traditional view of gender roles and encourage gender-typed play, then children are more likely to have rigid gender roles themselves.  FAGOT et al, (1986; 1992, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002).   Conversely, when they examined a number of studies, MACCOBY & JACKLIN (1974, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002) found no evidence that boys were rewarded for competitive or independent behaviour; in fact, boys were more likely to be punished for aggression.  

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However, further research has shown that it is fathers who are most likely to discourage boys from playing with “girls” toys.  LANGLOIS & DOWNS (1980, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002).   This was supported by SIEGAL (1987, as cited in HARALAMBOS et al, 2002) who found fathers more likely to reinforce gender appropriate behaviour in boys, and that this led to boys adopting gender specific behaviours earlier and more rigidly than girls.  Despite this there is little indication that reinforcement by fathers has significant effect on the learning of gender roles.   In fatherless families, boys and girls ...

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