Many of our gender stereotypes are strong because we emphasize gender so much in culture (Bigler & Liben, 2007). For example, children learn at a young age that there are distinct expectations for boys and girls. Gender roles refer to the role or behaviors learned by a person as appropriate to their gender and are determined by the dominant cultural norms. Cross-cultural studies reveal that children are aware of gender roles by age two or three and can label others’ gender and sort objects into gender categories. At four or five, most children are firmly entrenched in culturally appropriate gender roles (Kane, 1996). When children do not conform to the appropriate gender role for their culture, they may face negative sanctions such as being criticized, bullied, marginalized or rejected by their peers. A girl who wishes to take karate class instead of dance lessons may be called a “tomboy” and face difficulty gaining acceptance from both male and female peer groups (Ready, 2001). Boys, especially, are subject to intense ridicule for gender nonconformity (Coltrane and Adams, 2008; Kimmel, 2000)
By the time we are adults, our gender roles are a stable part of our personalities, and we usually hold many gender stereotypes. Men tend to outnumber women in professions such as law enforcement, the military, and politics. Women tend to outnumber men in care-related occupations such as child care, health care, and social work. These occupational roles are examples of typical Western male and female behavior, derived from our culture’s traditions. Adherence to these occupational gender roles demonstrates fulfillment of social expectations but may not necessarily reflect personal preference (Diamond, 2002).
Gender stereotypes are not unique to American culture. Williams and Best (1982) conducted several cross-cultural explorations of gender stereotypes using data collected from 30 cultures. There was a high degree of agreement on stereotypes across all cultures which led the researchers to conclude that gender stereotypes may be universal. Additional research found that males tend to be associated with stronger and more active characteristics than females (Best, 2001); however recent research argues that culture shapes how some gender stereotypes are perceived. Researchers found that across cultures, individualistic traits were viewed as more masculine; however, collectivist cultures rated masculine traits as collectivist and not individualist (Cuddy et al., 2015). These findings provide support that gender stereotypes may be moderated by cultural values.
There are two major psychological theories that partially explain how children form their own gender roles after they learn to differentiate based on gender. Gender schema theory argues that children are active learners who essentially socialize themselves and actively organize others’ behavior, activities, and attributes into gender categories, which are known as schemas. These schemas then affect what children notice and remember later. People of all ages are more likely to remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes than schema-inconsistent behaviors and attributes. So, people are more likely to remember men, and forget women, who are firefighters. They also misremember schema-inconsistent information. If research participants are shown pictures of someone standing at the stove, they are more likely to remember the person to be cooking if depicted as a woman, and the person to be repairing the stove if depicted as a man. By only remembering schema-consistent information, gender schemas strengthen more and more over time.
A second theory that attempts to explain the formation of gender roles in children is social learning theory which argues that gender roles are learned through reinforcement, punishment, and modeling. Children are rewarded and reinforced for behaving in concordance with gender roles and punished for breaking gender roles. In addition, social learning theory argues that children learn many of their gender roles by modeling the behavior of adults and older children and, in doing so, develop ideas about what behaviors are appropriate for each gender. Social learning theory has less support than gender schema theory but research shows that parents do reinforce gender-appropriate play and often reinforce cultural gender norms.