What Is Gender Essentialism Theory?

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Gender essentialism, which has long been discredited by psychologists, is a lay theory that posits that men and women are fundamentally different due to their biology.

This theory suggests that there are essential, unchangeable qualities that make males and females who they are. As a result, all men have essentially masculine qualities and all women have essentially feminine qualities.

Gender essentialism is responsible for gender stereotypes about men and women, such as the idea that men should be aggressive while women should be caretakers, and is used to justify social issues like sexism and the gender wage gap. 

This article provides an overview of the history of gender essentialism and discusses the way gender essentialist beliefs are developed in childhood. It will then delve into the many ways gender essentialism negatively impacts individuals, families, and society. Finally, the article will detail some tactics for reducing gender essentialist beliefs.

History of Gender Essentialism

In her book "The Lenses of Gender," famed feminist psychologist Sandra Bem observed that until the middle of the nineteenth century, Western cultures' beliefs about the differences between men and women were based on religion.

These beliefs included the idea that men's and women's natures are sexually and psychologically distinct, men are socially dominant, and differences between men and women are natural.

Though the belief in the essential differences between men and women persisted, by the mid-1800s those differences started to be discussed in scientific terms, leading them to evolve to be understood as the result of biology.

With second-wave feminism in the 1960s came the awareness that sexism and discrimination against women based on these essentialist beliefs were not natural, but rooted in outdated stereotypes. Nonetheless, the belief in gender essentialism continues today and is deeply ingrained in society.

The Development of Gender Essentialist Beliefs in Children

Research has shown that the tendency to essentialize gender starts in childhood. Young children are likely to believe gender is a natural, unchangeable category, and children as young as two years old rely on gender to understand and make predictions about people's behavior and other traits.

Researchers have speculated that children rely on gender essentialism because it enables them to easily and quickly make sense of the world using their basic cognitive capacities.

Children may be more likely to essentialize gender than other social categories such as race because gender is often presented as consisting of only two categories, making it easier to understand and apply.

In fact, research has shown that merely calling attention to gender categories causes children to increase their stereotyping based on gender.

Impact of Gender Essentialism

As they get older, many children learn to think about gender in more nuanced ways. For example, one study asked children between the ages of 4 and 10 to predict the adult traits and behavior of a baby who was raised exclusively by the opposite sex (for example, a baby girl who is raised by a community of men).

Children aged nine and under believed that the baby would adhere to gender stereotypes regardless of the environment in which they grew up. In contrast, 10-year-olds were able to account for the role social context played in the development of gender.

Nonetheless, gender essentialism has been ingrained in Western cultures for so long that even though adults often develop more nuanced views of gender, they still often rely on essentialism thinking to reason about gender. This has numerous ongoing negative impacts on individuals, families, and society.

Conflates Sex with Gender

While sex and gender are often thought of synonymously, they are defined differently. Sex is biological and based on chromosomes, hormones, and anatomy. Gender is the way one chooses to identify and express themselves. They might identify as a man, woman, or another gender.

Both sex and gender are a continuum but that doesn't mean one's sex and gender will always match. By defining gender as based on biology, gender essentialism assumes sex and gender are the same. Doing so doesn't make room for various gender identities other than man and woman.

Erases Gender Identities That Are Not Man or Woman

The reality is that people may identify with many different genders regardless of their biological sex. People may use words like agender, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, and many others to define their gender identity, but gender essentialism erases these possibilities.

Denying that there are gender identities beyond man and woman is damaging and demeaning to people who don't identify with traditional gender norms, and prevents them from being acknowledged, seen, and accepted in society.

Justifies Gender Stereotypes

Gender essentialism justifies and reinforces gender stereotypes in two ways. First, observing specific behavior from one member of a gender category can cause others to generalize a population. For example, if a woman is seen becoming emotional, an observer who believes that gender categories are distinct and fixed may conclude that all women are emotional.

Second, gender essentialism can lead to specific beliefs about what different genders should be. For example, someone who believes that gender categories are natural and inevitable will assume that all men should be strong. Thus, gender essentialism legitimizes social systems in which LGBTQIA+ people are treated differently.

Limits People's Choices

By justifying traditional gender roles, gender essentialism limits people's choices. For example, men may be reluctant to pursue a career in nursing, while women may feel obligated to get married and have children.

Research has shown that people with gender essentialist ideas tend to adhere to them in their own lives. For example, one study found that fathers who endorsed traditional parental roles were less likely to be involved in childcare, regardless of how many hours they worked or their attitude toward fatherhood.

Meanwhile, another study found that people who have gender essentialist views about marriage tend to prefer men to be the primary breadwinners and prefer jobs that maintain a wage gap between men and women.

Such findings show that gender essentialist beliefs create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people continue to adhere to gender roles in ways that restrict the choices they make in their own lives.

Prevents Gender Equality

Research has also demonstrated that gender essentialism reinforces social inequalities related to gender. For example, a study showed that exposure to essentialist theories led men and women to accept gender inequality and that this led to men's increased support for gender discrimination.

Similarly, another study showed that greater endorsement of gender essentialist ideas predicted support for gender discrimination and lack of support for gender equality.

These results suggest that the belief that gender differences are natural and immutable serves as justification for gender inequality.

Reducing Belief in Gender Essentialism

Given its harmful impacts, it would be helpful to reduce people's belief in gender essentialism starting in childhood. One of the easiest ways to do this is for teachers to avoid grouping children by gender. Such categorization can lead children to think in essentialist terms.

In addition, discussing essentialist ideas with children can prepare them to evaluate those ideas, leading them to more thoughtfully consider why people make statements claiming only certain genders can do certain things.

Furthermore, teaching people that gender is malleable and providing examples can encourage them to think more critically about these categories, leading to ideas about gender that are more nuanced and less absolute.

Using various techniques to raise people's awareness of the inaccuracy of gender essentialism will ultimately lead to more flexible beliefs about gender and greater social equality.

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