Cognitive Gender

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The cognitive approach to explaining gender focuses on how the child understands gender, on the mental processes that enable a child to learn to appropriate sex-role. According to cognitive psychologyists, our knowledge of te world is activley constructed and this happens through a process of gradually developing understanding.

The first person to suggest a cognitive account of gender development was Kohlberg (1966)

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Kohlberg's cognitive developmental theory

Kohlberg's theory of gender is based on the famous developmental psychologist, Piaget.

According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, a child's thinking and understanding of the physical world change with age. Piaget was a stage theorist in that he suggested thinking developed in age related stages.

Kohlberg sugested that understanding of the social world develops in a series of stages - at each stage, the child's understanding becomes increasingly sophisiticated. Kohlberg's stages of gender development:

  • 1) Gender Identity 
  • 2) Gender Stability
  • 3) Gender Constancy
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Gender identity/labelling

Around 2 or 3, a child slowly begins to understand they are either male or female. They start to label their own sex correctly, and also start to recognise other's as male or female. They can apply gender labels such as ''boy' 'girl' 'mummy' correctly.

At this stage, understanding is based on external physical characteristics such as hair length and clothes.

Children at this age do not understand that sex is consistent across time

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Gender Stability

About 3 to 4, a child's understanding of gender becomes more complex. Children realise that sex remains stable over time. Eg, a boy in the gender stability stage will recognise that he is male now, was male in the past and will remain male in the future. 

Although children who have reached the stability stage have a fuller understanding of gender, their thinking about gender is still egocentric in lots of ways.

  • They can't picture something from another's point of view, so the sex 'rule' doesn't apply to others
  • They don't understand that gender stays the same across situations. Eg, a boy playing with dolls, another may think he's become a girl
  • They still rely heavily on external appearances. Changing a person's superficial appearance by changing their clothes or hair may cause a child to think the person has changed sex. McConaghy (1979) showed that children in this stage judged the sex of a doll on the basis of the doll's clothing rather than on the basis of its genitals (which were visible)
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Gender Constancy/consistently

A complete understanding of gender is acquired between the ages of 4+1/2 and 7 years, when the child realises that gender remains the same across time, across different situations and despite superficial changes in appearance.

Around 5, they begin to de-centre and appreciate the world from other people's points of view. As this happens, they understand everyone's sex is constant. They don't get swayed by people's outward appearance, relating to the fact that they demonstrate the cognitive ability to conserve (understand that properties of an object stay the same even if appearance changes)

For example, a child who developed gender constancy would understand that even though a woman might crop her hair and wear men's clothes, she is still a woman. Only when a child reaches this stage, can they be said to fully understand gender. 

According to Bem (1989), children's understanding of gender constancy is related to knowledge of biological differences between males and females.

Kohlberg also argued that at this stage, children begin to actively seek out role models. Children imitate and internalise the behaviours of these role models, to help them develop their sense of gender.

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Damon (1977)

Studied children aged 4-9 to see whether their understanding of gender changed with age.

The children heard a story about a boy called George. George liked playing with dolls, but his parents tried to discourage him. They told him only girls played with dolls. Damon then asked the children questions of whether George's parents were right to try to stop him playing with dolls, and whether George should be able to play with dolls if he wanted to

The children's responses varied with age. The 4 year olds tended to say it was right for George to play with dolls. 6 Year olds had a fixed view that it was very wrong and shouldn't be allowed. The older children thought George could play with dolls if he really wanted to, although they recognised that it was unusual and maybe not a good idea

Children's understanding of gender-appropriate behavaiour changes with age and reflects their cognitive development

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Support for Kohlberg

Marus and Overton (1978) - After giving a puzzle where it was possible to change the character's outfits, they found that younger children tended to demonstrate gender constancy for their own sex (for eg, when a female child was given a boy's hairstyle she still said she was a girl). However, younger children showed lower level of gender consistency when the character's appearance changed. Older children showed high levels of gender constancy when both their own and character;s appearances were changed.

Slaby and Frey (1975) - Observed children watching a split screen with a male model on one side and a female one on the other who were performing the same activities. Young children spent their time looking at both sides of the screen. However, older children (with higher gender constancy) spent longer looking at model who was their sex.

McConaghy (1979) - showed children pics of characters with transparent clothes so the children could see genitals. Younger children (not reached gender constancy) recognised gender by appearance rather than genitals. So a male character (with penis) was seen as female if wearing a see-through dress.

Munroe et al (1984) - They tested children from Kenya, Belize, Samoa and Nepal and found children in all countries moved through Kohlberg's stages

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Evaluation of Kohlberg

  • Kohlberg's three stages in gender understanding have been found to apply to children in a variety of cultures (Munroe et al, 1984)
  • According to Kohlberg, it's only when a child reaches the stage of gender constancy that they properly identiy with their own sex and start to activley process gender-related info. However, a more recent cognitive developmental theory of gender, gender schema theory proposes that children identify with their own sex, and activley try to construct an understanding of what it is to be male and female, much sooner than Kohlberg suggested
  • Kohlberg's theory describes the process of gender development, but doesn't really explain it
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Gender schema theory

Like Kohlberg, gender schema also emphasises the importance of children activley seeking gender-related info. However, this disagrees with Kohlberg as it states children seek this info out long before they have achieved gender constancy.

This theory suggests once children have established their gender identity (2/3 years) they search the environment for info that will help them develop gender schemas. They also go on to form gender scripts, sucn as making dinner (female) or DIY (men)

A gender schema is an organised unit of knowledge about the characterisitcs and behaviours associated with a specific gender. According to this theory (Martin and Halverson, 1981) as soon as children can label their own sex, at around 2, they activley search their environment for info to increase their understanding of maleness or femalesness. Gender schemas are used to interpret info in the environment and decide how to behave as a boy or a girl.

A gender schema contains various components of info associated with a specific sex: behaviour roles, occupations, hobbies and personality characteristics. Once we have identified a person as male or female, our gender schema is triggered for the relevant sex

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How a schema develops

When these schemas and scripts are formed, a child will identify with activites and toys that are appropriate for his or her sex. The child then focuses on finding out more about behaviours and activities that are associated with their own sex, and assimilate such info. Any info that conflicts with the child's gender schema is disregared, misremembered or not encoded (eg, a girl would pay little attention to trains as they're 'for boys'). According to Martin and Halverson (1981) gender schemas are built up gradually in three stages, as children experience the social world:

  • Stage one - child learns what things are associated with each sex (such as girls playing with dolls)
  • Stage two - Child begins to make links between different components of the schema, so knowing what someone likes to play with will allow the child to predict other things about them. Eg, someone who plays will dolls are likely to wear dresses
  • Stage three - child can now used linked components for both sexes

In support of gender schema theory, there is evidence to show that young children seem to have a better understanding of activities typically associated with their own sex than those associated with the opposite sex

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Boston and Levy (1991)

Wanted to see whether knowledge of stereotypically male and female activites differed between boys and girls

Boys and girls of 3-6 years were asked to put sequences of four pictures in the correct order. Each set f four pictures described an activity, such as cooking dinner and building a birdhouse.

Both boys and girls were found to be able to put the sequences in the correct order more accurately for their own gender activity than for the opposite gender activity. The effect was particularly noticable for boys

Since the task required knowledge of an activity boys and girls must have more knowledge of own gender activities than of opposite gender activities. This was interpreted as consistent with gender schema theory

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Research has also shown that children reject info that is inconsient with their gender schema, and misremember info that is inconsitent with what they already know about gender.

Cordua et al (1979) showed that five and six year old children's memory for videos can be influenced by their gender schema. In some videos, the occupations were stereotypical; a male doctor and a female nurse. It was found that children remembered the stereotypical video content more accuratley, but made errors when recalling the content of the non stereotypical videos. Eg, they would recall the doctor was a man when she was a female.

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By Six

By the age of six, children have developed quite a sophisticated set of associations for their gender - what children of their gender like/don't like etc.

Only between 8 and 10 do children develop a sophisticated view of the opposite gender

Children's need to understand and conform to the distinctions between sexes is highlighted by Bradbard who found, when 4-9 year olds were presented with 'boy' and 'girl' toys they spent significantly more time playing with the objects that were associated with their sex

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Evaluation of the cognitive developmental approach

  • It doesn't explain why males have a more fixed understanding of their gender than females.Studies show that boys show more extreme gender-typed behaviour and a greater resistance to opposite-sex activites than girls
  • It states gender understanding begins around 2 years old. But, even before they can correctley label their own sex, children will choose same-sex playmates, as if they are already unconsiously aware of the difference
  • It focuses on development within the individiual as if the child is passively absorbing the relevant info. It takes no account of the role of social interaction in developing understanding. However, taken together with SLT, it can provide a comprehensive account of gender development.
  • Gender schema theory explains why children are more likely to model behaviour that is seen to be appropriate for their gender than automatically copy a same sex model
  • Doesnt really explain - how are schemas formed in the first place?
  • unclear on why someone may adopt a gender identity that is inappropriate to their gender. Need to explain why some activley seek out role models of opposite sex
  • Children often assessed under experimental conditions that may distort reality. Depends on how Qs are asked and answers are interpreted. Gender constancy can't be objectively measured. Children may understand gender constacy at earlier age but cannot express this - may really reflect changes in language development. If a child says someone is a boy do they really mean he is masculine?
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Analysis of the Approach

  • The cognitive approach suggests gender develops in age-related stages that would imply that it's related to biological maturation. Although the biological explanations would accept this, they wouldn't agree that children are so active in developing their gender. For bio psychologists, gender is determined by factors outside of the child's control, like genes, hormones
  • SLT would argue children respond to role models in the environment which leads to gender development. However, the cognitive approach argues that children develop their gender identity almost independently of the envionrment. Only when gender is established do they actively seek out role models for themselves. For SLT, there is too much focus on the part that a person plays in their gender. Not enough empahsis on social contet
  • The Psychodynamic approach would criticse the cognitive approach for focusing too much on the conscious elements of gender development. It would argue for more consideration of the unconscious elements. Both approaches, however, agree on the idea that gender develops in set stages. According to the psychodynamic approach, gender develops much later than proposed by the cognitive approach
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