Gender Schema Theory and Roles in Culture

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Gender schema theory was introduced by psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981 and asserted that children learn about male and female roles from the culture in which they live. According to the theory, children adjust their behavior to align with the gender norms of their culture from the earliest stages of social development.

Bem’s theory was influenced by the cognitive revolution of the 1960s and 1970s as well as her desire to remedy what she believed to be shortcomings in the psychoanalytic and social learning theories of the time.

Freudian theories, she suggested, were too focused on the influence of anatomy on gender development. Instead, Bem proposed that a child’s cognitive development combined with societal influences largely influence the patterns of thought (schema) that dictate "male" and "female" traits.

Cultural Influences on Gender Schema

Gender schemas have an impact not only on how people process information but on the attitudes and beliefs that direct "gender-appropriate" behavior.

For example, a child who lives in a very traditional culture might believe that a woman’s role is in the caring and raising of children, while a man’s role is in work and industry. Through these observations, children form schema related to what men and women can and cannot do.

It also dictates a person's value and potential in that culture. For example, a girl raised in a traditional culture might believe that the only path available to her as a woman is to get married and raise kids. By contrast, a girl raised in a more progressive culture might pursue a career, avoid having children, or decide not to get married.

Many of these influences are overt, while others are more subtle. For instance, even the placement of gender titles in vocabulary ("how men and women are meant to behave") inherently places women in a secondary position by rule. All of these influences add up to how gender schema is formed.

Consequences of Nonconformity

Within this construct, men and women are tacitly aware of the consequences of not adhering to the cultural norm. A woman who decides to pursue a career, for example, might be considered "uppity" in traditional culture or be considered "unfair" or "disrespectful" to her husband if she doesn't take his last name.

On the flip side, even in more progressive societies, men may be subject to disapproval for being the stay-at-home parent, while a woman may be described as "old-fashioned" or "backward" if she adheres to a more traditional "housewife" role.

When subjected to societal disapproval, people will often feel pressured to alter their behavior or face rejection by those who disapprove of them.

Gender Categories

According to Bern's theory, people fall into one of four different gender categories:

  • Sex-typed individuals are those who identify with their gender and process information through the lens of that gender schema.
  • Cross-typed individuals process information through the lens of the opposite gender.
  • Androgynous individuals exhibit both masculine and feminine thinking.
  • Undifferentiated individuals do not show consistent use of sex-typed processing.

Rationale and Criticism

In her writings, Bem believed that gender schemas were limiting for men, women, and society as a whole. Raising children free from these stereotypes and limitations, she believed, would lead to greater freedom and fewer restrictions of free will.

Critics of Bem's theory say that she portrayed individuals simply as passive bystanders in the development of gender schemas and ignored the complex forces that contribute to the construction of gender.

Bem’s Sex-Role Inventory

In addition to the gender schema theory, Bem created a questionnaire known as the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BRSI). The inventory consists of 60 different words that are either masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral.

When taking the test, respondents are asked to rate how strongly they identify with each characteristic. Rather than simply categorize people as masculine or feminine, the inventory presents both traits as part of a continuum. Individuals can rank high on one gender or low on another (sex-typed) or, alternately, rank high on both masculine and feminine traits (androgynous).

The BSRI was first developed in 1974 and has since become one of the most widely used psychological assessment tools in the world.

1 Source
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  1. Bem S. Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 1994.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."