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Socialization into Gender

Sample paper 2 by Erica Spencer - Winter 2011

My seven year old has never fit into his specified gender role like most kids do his age; growing his hair long, preferring dolls and Barbie over traditional boy toys, at school preferring the company of girls to play with and happily avoiding correcting people when they mistake him for a girl. I never really understood the pressures society puts on people's gender until I watch what my son goes through. Whether a man or woman, society dictates that one's gender also comes with a set of rules- standards for clothing, activities, how people should perceive themselves, and sets expectations regarding appropriate behavior and interactions with others. Our family, peers, social institutions, work, religion, and media help to enforce the guidelines about specific attitudes about gender roles.

Parents are the first exposure to what it means to be a boy or girl, guided by an almost automatic response as to how they treat their children in terms of their sex. Gendered interactions begin to take shape as soon as the parents know the sex of their baby, even as they leave the hospital parents bundle their baby up in an appropriately colored blanket. "Studies have shown that even before birth, and certainly afterward, adults speak differently in tone and in content to a newborn based on the perceived gender of the baby" (pg.11, The Transgendered Child). In a study by sociologists Susan Goldberg and Michael Lewis in 1969, they observed how mothers subconsciously reward sons for being active and independent and daughters for being passive and dependent. While watching the mother's interaction with their child, "they found that the mothers kept their daughters closer to them. They also touched their daughters more and spoke to them more frequently than they did to their sons. By the time the children were 13 months old, the girls stayed closer to their mothers during play, and they returned to their mothers sooner and more often than the boys did" (pg.70, Essentials of Sociology).

Children mimic the world around them; through their interactions with adults they learn gender-appropriate behavior. A highly influential symbolic interactionist, Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), determined that one's sense of self is socially constructed. He coined the term the looking-glass self to explain how the process of how our sense of self develops. First people imagine how we appear to those around them, then interpret those reactions, and finally develop a sense of self. By looking through the social mirror, we are able to gain either a positive or negative self-concept depending upon whether the reflection is complementary or not. Just as one's sense of self is an ever-changing, life-long process, so is our understanding of gender roles. Our beliefs about gender are also socially constructed and are directly influenced by class, ethnicity, age, religion, and culture.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), another eminent symbolic interactionist, concluded that play is also an important part in the development of a sense of self. Through imitation, play, and team games children are able to take on the role of others, helping them to understand the feelings and reactions of others. Gender guided play is not uncommon for adults to push on their children; girls are expected to play house and act out a nurturing role, while boys engage in more sports and physical activities. What toys are given to children also shows a distinct role for children to play; boys get trucks while girls are given dolls. Whole sections of department stores are separated into "boys" and "girls" to help you select the proper attire for you little one, with toy aisles set apart to guide you in your purchase of what should be played with by whom. Such separation helps to reinforce what roles children are expected to play.

Our media reinforces behaviors and attitudes toward the appropriate expressions of gender roles. In the article Pressure to Modernize, Helena Norberg-Hodge found that because of the increasing influence of Western culture and glamorized violence in the films and television, young men in Ladakh have begun to put themselves in much more gender specific roles. The depiction of how "real men" are supposed to behave has led to a shift in their once sentimental and easy-going culture; previously men were not ashamed to show their emotions towards the young and old, now appear much more distant, angrier, and less secure. In American culture, men are often depicted as obsessed with sex and prone to violence. In a study by Melissa Milkie, she found that junior high boys talk most frequently about sex and violence because of views that are expressed on television programs and movies. Women are frequently depicted in the media in subordinate roles, stereotypically being more emotional, docile, and submissive and often viewed as sex symbols. Many teenage girls struggle with poor self-images and eating disorders due to the pressures to conform to unattainable standards in our culture. When women on television and movies are shown in dominant roles, they are usually given traditionally male traits to show their strength and power.

There are long-established views of gender differentiation in the workplace; men have been viewed as the "bread winners" and spending long hours away from home and emotionally detached from their kids, while leaving the children rearing and housework to women. Those views are becoming outdated as more and more women have entered the workforce and are stepping outside of traditional roles, though the progress and benefits are slow moving. There is still a noticeable difference in wages and rates of advancement between men and women. Women often have to prove themselves worthy enough to obtain the same status as men in the workplace. In our society leadership and hard work have been deemed a masculine trait. Being decisive and taking charge is not what parents reward their daughters for, but rather being dependent, passive, and compliant. People's attitudes about women in the workforce certainly has nothing to do with their actual abilities, hopefully as ideals about gender equality progress and evolve society will allow for women to get the wages and recognition deserved. As Western influence continues to spread to the people of Ladakh, women's work is no longer viewed as "productive" as it doesn't contribute to the gross national product. Viewed as inferior, the women are developing feelings of inadequacy and negative self-concepts. Men of the country are spending more and more time away from home and family, and with the new views on masculinity spreading fathers have begun to show their children less affection.

Gender plays a huge role in everyone's life, be it a man or woman. While society may view my son as being different and out of the norm, to me he is perfect and who he is meant to be. Whether his sense of self is due to nature or nurture, I let him express his identity in whatever way he feels is appropriate for him; to do otherwise I think I would be doing him a huge disservice to him as an individual. I think everyone should have the ability to express their gender identity in whatever way they see fit. It is when people begin to develop superiority complexes about their own gender and dismiss others as inferior that I have an issues arise. At birth we are all born equals; it is through our encounters and socialization with others that negative self-concepts and beliefs come into being, and that is when social change is needed the most.


1. CA, 2008. Brill, Stephanie and Pepper, Rachel. The Transgender Child. First Edition. Cleis Press Inc: San Francisco.

2. MA, 2009. Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, Eighth Edition. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.

3. Norberg-Hodge, Helena. The Pressure to Modernize.