Gender Socialization

I wrote this for a Sociology class, I thought it’d be fun to share it…

The Adverse Affects of Gender Socialization

Socialization is a life long process in which we learn social interaction and the the physical, mental and social skills needed to function in society. The first place we learn socialization is in the family. Socialization also occurs in school, through our peers, in mass media, and in the workplace. (Kendall p72 – 94) Like socialization, gender socialization starts early and within the family. Gender socialization gives us ideas about what it is to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ in society and within our culture. From a Feminist perspective, women and men are equal and should be treated equally and have equal rights. However, women have been repressed throughout history while white men have enjoyed much more liberties. Furthermore, women are disadvantaged from the start though gender socialization which reinforces stereotypical ideas of femininity. For example, women are discouraged from aggression and assertiveness, because it is not considered proper female behavior. While gender is a socially and culturally constructed concept, many seem to still buy into stereotypical ideas of femininity and masculinity (Kendall p292-311) Studies have shown that parents have differing expectations of their children based on their gender as early as 24 hours after birth. Because of these expectations, parents treat their sons and daughters differently. Subsequently, children internalize these messages regarding gender. A child as young as age two can sense the difference between adult sex roles. (Witt)

Parents may be the primary agent of socialization for young children, but by the time one reaches adolescence, peers become the more important agent of gender socialization. (Hibbard and Buhrmester p1-3) However, because children have been socialized by their parents, when they interact with others they are bringing with them the beliefs and values that their parents instilled in them about gender roles. Peers then socialize each other based on what is considered appropriate gender role behavior, those who do not conform are usually ‘punished’ by their peers. Punishment ranges from criticism and ridicule to potential abandonment if one does not conform to appropriate behavior. Peers are thought to be especially important to males in developing a gender identity. Gender identity is ones’ perception of their gender. The male bonding that occurs during adolescence is thought to reinforce the stereotypical ideas of masculinity. (Kendall. p300)

Boys and men are socialized to meet a masculine ideal, also referred to as a masculine ideology. Studies of masculine ideology view masculinity as a socially constructed ideal for men. Ideas of achievement, status and self-reliance are ingrained in masculine ideology. (Levant) According to David & Bannon (1976) men are expected to adhere to the following: “1) don’t be a sissy 2) never be weak or vulnerable 3) be respected  for achievement 4) seek adventure and risk (even violence)” And while this was written in 1976, the “rules” for maculinity hasn’t evolved much with time, if anything they seem to have become more restrictive as to what is acceptable male behaviors. Take for instance, 1996’s Seven Rules of Masculinity: “1) avoid all things feminine 2) restrict the emotional life 3) emphasize toughness and aggression 4) be self-reliant; 5) achieve status above all else; 6) non-relational, objectifying attitudes towards sex 7) fear and hate all things gay” (Langley) The messages that masculine ideology sends to boys and men can cause gender role strain. For example, men may feel they can not adequately express their emotions for fear of being ridiculed by their peers and may instead compensate for this by acting “macho.”

Joseph Pleck in “The Myth of Masculinity,” which was the forerunner in the psychology of the male gender and contemporary thinking about masculinity, demonstrated how contemporary gender roles are contradictory and inconsistent. Pleck found three types of male gender role strain: discrepancy-strain, dysfunction strain, and trauma-strain. Discrepancy strain occurs when one fails to meet what they is consider ideal manhood. Dysfunction strain occurs as a result of fulfilling ideal manhood because many characteristics that are considered desirable have negative side effects. Examples of this are sexual promiscuity, violence, or chemical dependance. Trauma-strain is what results from “the ordeal of the male role socialization process.” This process is now considered to be inherently traumatic for some males. For example gay and bisexual males would experience trauma strain because of growing up in a society that values heterosexuals and condemns any other sexual preference. Pleck also suggested that a great number of people violate traditional gender roles but since violation leads to social condemnation people will overcompensate by conforming. (Levant)

Furthermore, masculine ideology has an effect on the way men behave towards women. For example, men may view a woman’s body as an object of sexual desire. Sexual objectification occurs more frequently for women than men. According to one study of nearly 3,000 ads from six magazines published in 1992 and 1998, it was found that female models were 3.7 times more likely to be dressed provacatively. Furthermore, the culture in the United States mostly views women’s breasts as an object of sexual desire and not always as something that would nourish an infant. Studies have shown that even though it is recommend that one breast feeds their infant, 60% of new mothers may try breast feeding but only 22% of woman are breast feeding their child at six months. Many women claim that they are made to feel uncomfortable nursing their child in the presence of others. Some women and their male partners worry that breast feeding will interfere with sex or make the women’s breasts sag and unattractive. In addition, studies have shown that a woman is more or less likely to breast feed depending on how her male partner feels about it. Studies have shown that media’s portrayal of women as sex objects is associated with men being more accepting of women in traditional, stereotypical gender roles. (Ward,Merriwether, and Caruthers)

Women are not only made to feel conscious about their sexuality they are also made to feel conscious about their weight. Research has shown that nearly half of girls ages 12 -17 have dieted and that more young women are showing signs of anorexia. One study in 1984 looked at a survey in Glamour magazine that asked women if they could achieve any goal what would it be; an overwhelming majority answered that they would lose weight. Media frequently depicts one body type: tall and very thin. Unfortunately, most women could not achieve the body of a model. In many instances, the women who are models are well below what is considered a proper weight for their height. However, the repetition of one body type, tall and very thin, sends the message to women that this is the only body type that is considered attractive. What many may not realize is that sometimes even the “beautiful” models have had their photographs altered through the use of computer software like, Adobe Photoshop, or airbrushing techniques to remove anything considered imperfect. Also make-up artists use make-up to cover any imperfections before photo shoots. The final image is an altered version of the woman. However, men and women see these images and because they are in the media, they are internalized as being the beauty standard. (Towson University)

Women and girls are not only pressured to look a certain way, but they are pressured to behave a certain way as well. Unlike males who are encouraged to be aggressive and assertive, females are socialized to not participate in such behaviors. Culture pressures females to be what is considered a “good girl.” A “good girl” is ‘nice,’ ‘agreeable,’ and has many friends, she is a ‘caregiver’ in training. Studies have shown that parents and teachers discourage aggression in females. In one study at the University of Michigan in 1999, it was found that girls were told to be quiet, speak softly, or use a “nicer” tone of voice about three times more than boys. Our culture tends to label aggressive and assertive females as: “bitch,” “lesbian”, “frigid,” and “manly” to name a few. However, even young girls sense culture’s double standard. Because of this double standard females’ expression of aggression tends to be less obvious, to avoid societal disapproval. Females express their aggression in nonphysical, indirect, covert ways, such as name calling, exclusion from the group, rumors, and manipulation. Also, unlike males who will target acquaintances or strangers, females are more likely to turn on those closest to them. For example, their friends. (Simmons p17 – 19)

Author Rachel Simmons in her book “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls” interviewed a group of twenty eight girls aged 13 – 17; one quarter were nonwhite. She asked these girls what qualities would they consider the ideal or perfect girl to have. The girls answered that the “Ideal” girl’s qualities would include the following: “very thin, pretty, blonde, fake, stupid, tall, blue eyes, big boobs, fit, manipulative, romantically attached to someone with status, perfect, happy, helpless, girlie, rich, dependent.” Then Simmons asked the same group of girls what qualities would the “anti-girl – the one no one wants to be” – have, their response was this: “mean, excessively cheerful, athletic, brainy, gay/lesbian, unrestrained, independent, strong, masculine, professional, dark features, artsy, opinionated, not social, not skinny, promiscuity (slut).” The “ideal” girl seems far from “ideal” with qualities such as “stupid and fake.” Not to mention one quarter of nonwhite girls thought an “ideal” girl would be white. On the otherhand, the “anti-girl” does not fit into what girls are traditionally socialized to be: independent, strong, athletic, unrestrained and not always white. And from the girls’ responses, the girls seem to think this is the way things should be. (Simmons p124 – 128) Ironically, American values supposedly include independence, achievement and success; values that females are discouraged from in American society. (Kendall p51) The women and girls who participate in such behaviors are usually condemned by society, hence preventing many females from deviating from the prescribed norm for fear of what others will think, and worst of all, having relationships end because of it. Since females are socialized to be nurturing, tender, and have strong ties to the people in their lives, having any qualities that go against the grain of their ‘femininity’ would seem like social suicide. If your behaviors are condemned by society they may be condemned by those closest to you, hence ending ones’ close ties.

We as a society claim that we are helping girls to get the same opportunities as boys. But by socializing them differently, we are sending both females and males mixed messages. How can a girl feel its okay be a professional if she is still labeled a ‘frigid bitch’ because she is assertive and competitive? (Simmons p124 – 128) And how can a boy feel its okay to enter an occupation such as nursing if he is going to be ridiculed for doing something girls do? There seems to be reason for gender socialization other than to perpetuate stereotypical behavior. In order to break down the barriers that stereotypes create, everyone, should be treated equally, starting with socialization. It has been found that people who are socialized toward androgyny have higher self esteem, higher levels of achievement, and more flexibility in dating and love relationships. Families where at least one parent does not conform to gender norms, such as the mother is a carpenter or the father bakes, score highest in parental warmth and support. (Witt) If more parents developed an egalitarian attitude it would instill this value in their children and eventually create this egalitarian
attitude toward gender within society and culture. Equal opportunity for all is the only way to end current inequalities between genders.


Works Sited

Hibbard, David R. and Duane Buhrmester (August 1998) “The Role of Peers in the Socialization of Gender-Related Social Interaction Styles” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research,, p.1

Kendall, Diana (2007) “Sociology in Our Times: the Essentials,” p.51, 72-94, 292-311

Langley, Pat (2008) University of Illinois at Springfield “Masculine Ideology and Homophobia,”

Levant, Ronald F., Ed.D. Nova Southeastern University(1997) “The New Psychology of Men,”

Simmons, Rachel (2002) “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in girls” p17-19,124-128

Towson University (September 2006) ITROW Research Projects Fact Sheet: The Media’s Portrayal of Women,

Ward, Monique L., Ann Merriwether, Allison Caruthers (December 2006) “Breasts are For Men: Media, Masculinity Ideologies, and Men’s Beliefs about Women’s Bodies” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research,, p.1-3

Witt, Susan D. Ph.D (1997) University of Akron “Parental Influence on Children’s Socialization to Gender Roles,”


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