Discuss the Gender Schema Theory.

Gender schema theory MARTIN AND HALVERSON’S alternative to the cognitive-development approach proposed by Kohlberg. They argue that the process of acquiring gender-relevant information happens before gender consistency is achieved. They claim that basic gender identity is sufficient for a child to identify him/herself as a boy/girl and take an interest in what behaviours are appropriate. Kohlberg claimed this did not happen until after gender constancy was achieved.

MARTIN AND HALVERSON explained gender development in terms of schemas. They suggested how the acquisitions of stereotypes/ schemas affect later behaviour, especially in terms of memory and attention. Children learn these schemas from their interactions with other people and from television programmes and videos.  For example, children will learn what toys and what clothes are appropriate for each gender

The gender schema theory suggests that children are more interested in the schemas appropriate for their own gender. Girls focus on the feminine schemas while boys focus on masculine schemas. This is known as ingroup schemas. Once a child has identified with a group this leads them to positively evaluate their own group and negatively evaluate the outgroup. According to GST, from a young age children focus on ingroup schemas and avoid behaviours that belong in the outgroup schemas.

The gender schema theory also explains why children hold very fixed gender attitudes.  It is believed that children ignore any information they encounter that is not consistent with the ingroup schema. For example, if a boy sees a film with a male nurse, this information is likely to be ignored because the man is not behaving consistently with the ingroup schema. Therefore the boy does not alter his existing schema.

There is a lot of research that support the GST. For example, MARTIN AND LITTLE found that children under the age of four showed no signs of gender stability let alone signs of constancy, but did display strong gender stereotypes about what boys and girls were permitted to do.

MARTIN AND HALVERSON found that when children were asked to recall pictures of people, chilsren under six recalled more of the gender-consistent ones (such as a female nurse) than gender- inconsistent ones such as a male nurse). This supports the GST as it shows that children pay greater attention to information consistent with gender schema.

The fact that gender schemas lead to misleading or even distorting information has important implications for efforts to reduce gender stereotypes. It means that even when children are exposed to counter-stereotypes they don’t remember them accurately.

However, a weakness of gender schema theory is that it is regarded as reductionist as it neglects the influence of biological factors suggesting that all gender-oriented behaviour is created through our cognitions. This is a problem because if an individual behaves in a gender-inappropriate way, GST blames their level of cognitive development for this. It fails to take into account that some individuals may have been exposed to too much or too little testosterone which may not be causing this.

There is also research to support the idea behind ingroup schemas and outgroup schemas. BRADBARD ET AL told four to nine year olds that certain gender neutral items were either boy of girl items. Participants took a greater interest in toys labelled as ingroup. They were also able to remember more details about ingroups objects a week later. This shows how gender schemas are related in particular to memory.

 CARTER ET AL showed children aged 3-5 stereotypical and non stereotypical pictures. They found that the children changed the non-stereotypical picture to match their schemas. So if they saw a female pilot, they then assumed it was a male pilot. This is supports the gender schema theory.

Despite the evidence supporting gender schema theory, some studies appear to show that children act in a gender-typical way before they have developed gender schemas. EISENBERG ET AL found that 3 to 4 year olds justified their gender-specific choice of toys without reference to gender stereotypes.

HOFFMAN reports that children whose mothers work have less stereotyped views of what men do, suggesting that children are not entirely fixed in their views which goes against the power of gender belief. This also goes against the gender schema theory.

The GST is more descriptive rather than explanatory. Even though the theory describes the importance of gender schemas and gender beliefs, it does not however explain why gender schemas develop and take the form they do.

Another limitation of this theory is the issue of individual differences. Gender schema theory cannot explain why different children with much of the same environmental influences respond differently to gender-appropriate behaviour. For example this theory cannot explain why some girls may prefer action figures and why some may prefer Barbies.

Gender schema theory predicts a close relationship between gender awareness and gender-typed behaviour, but research has failed to find a robust connection. For example, girls tend to have more flexible gender concepts than boys. This however cannot be explained by the GST.

The age at which gender schema appears could be earlier than the theory suggests. A study looked at 18 and 24 month old children with respect to how long they looked at male and female actors and found that 24 month old children showed gender consistent preference but 18 month olds didn’t.

The GST may be culturally biased at most of the research was conducted in western countries and the theory may not be supported by research conducted in non western countries.

There is beta bias as there is a minimised emphasis on the difference between males and females’ concerning their internalisation of behaviour as it is found that females respond less compared to males to gender appropriate behaviour.

 It is more deterministic: inflexibility of gender schemas so children have little choice in choosing what gender they will end up as, with them being strongly influenced by processes of socialisation that are out of their control.