- The gender consistency theory by Kolberg (1966) comes from the suggestion that young children cannot distinguish between appearance and reality. According to Kohlberg a child's understanding of gender develops gradually through three stages which are loosely linked to age across early childhood. In each of these stages the child grasps increasingly more complex concepts about the nature of gender due to their cognitive capabilities developing with age.
- The first stage is that of 'gender labelling' which happens around the age of 2-3 years, during this stage children are able to label themselves and others as a boy or girl, but this label is based on outward appearance only. They do not understand that gender is stable throughout life.
- The second stage is 'gender stability' which develops between the age of 3-4 years at this age they recognise that gender is something that is consistent and will not change. However they can still be misled by superficial changes to appearance, and sudden changes in appearance such as head shaving may lead a woman to become a man.
- The last stage of Kohlberg's theory is that of 'gender consistency' occurring around the age of 4-7, during this stage the child works out that gender is constant across time and situations. For example people stay the same gender despite superficial changes in their appearance, he argued that when a child has acquired gender constancy the child will start to pay more attention to same sex individuals and from that learn about gender appropriate behaviour. Kohlberg's theory therefore suggests that a child's sense of their own gender is critical in the acquisition of gender behaviour/development.
+ Kohlberg's gender constancy theory has strengths in the form of supporting evidence, for example Ruble (1981) looked at the relationship between gender constancy and how responsive a child was to TV adverts selling 'girls' and 'boys' toys. He found that children who had reached the third stage of gender constancy were more concerned about what toys were appropriate for their gender and more willing to play with toys suited for their gender.
+ This study supports Kohlberg's gender constancy theory because it suggests that once children reach gender constancy they are more concerned with behaving in a gender appropriate manner which upholds one of the main assumptions of the theory.
+ This in turn increases the validity of the theory as it implies that gender differences do evolve as a result of mature cognitive functioning and so supports Kohlberg's cognitive explanation of gender development. Furthermore it can be argued that Kohlberg's theory has high ecological validity because in the Ruble study, children were shown genuine TV adverts giving the results a high degree of realism. The study scenario was representative of a real life situation and therefore increases the validity of the supporting study making Kohlberg's theory of gender constancy more generalizable across real-life situations.
- However Kohlberg's theory does have limitations due to methodological issues with the supporting study. Firstly the children used in the sample were all from Westernised backgrounds making the results ethnocentrically bias towards Western cultures. As such it means we cannot generalise the results across cultures as the sample was not representative of children from other cultures, giving the study low population validity. This means the theory cannot explain gender development in a wider context limiting the usefulness of the results found.
- Secondly, measurements used to assess how children reacted to the gender stereotypes would have been subjective to the individual assessing them and open to interpretation. As a result it means the evidence found was not empirical because the method of collecting data was not objective, this makes the study less scientific which makes it more difficult to establish a causal relationship between cognitive factors and gender development. Due to this internal validity is reduced of Kohlberg's theory on gender development and this overall weakens the theory on gender development as it suggests other factors may be involved in explaining gender development.
- A further cognitive explanation of gender development is the gender schema theory, Martin and Halverson (1981) agreed with Kohlberg's theory that the child's thinking is at the basis of their development of gender role behaviours. However, they argue that the process starts much earlier than Kohlberg suggested. Their theory suggests children gain their gender identity between the age 2-3 when they work out that they are a boy of a girl. At this stage their gender schema is extremely simple consisting of two groups; boys and girls.
- Their own group is viewed as the 'in group' and the opposite sex is viewed as the 'out group'. The child will then actively seek out information about the appropriate behaviours and actions of their own group. For example boys will pay close attention to boy-related toys, games, activities and pay minimal attention to anything they perceive as 'girly'.
- Therefore children learn schemas from their interactions with people, such as learning about what toys are appropriate and what clothes to wear, and as the child ages these schemas will become progressively more complex, therefore steering the child's gender development.
+ The gender schema theory has strengths in the form of supporting evidence, for example Campbell (2000) conducted a study on babies aged 3 months, 9 months and18 months, finding that 3 month old babies showed very minor preferences in watching same sex babies whereas at 9-18 months boys noticeable preferred to look at and watch 'boys toys'.
+ This study supports the gender schema theory as it suggests that gender schemas do develop at a much younger age than was suggested by Kohlberg. It upholds the main assumption of the gender schema theory that gender schemas develop around 2 years old and therefore supports the theory as an explanation of gender development.
+ The notion that gender schemas develop around 2 years old has been supported by many studies which gives the theory high external reliability due to the results consistently suggesting gender schemas develop at a young age. This increases the reliability of the gender schema theory making it less likely that results were down to chance and this means we can be fairly sure that the gender schema theory has some truth to it due to the research. It makes the theory more scientific making it easier to establish a cause and effect relationship between the gender schema theory and gender development, strengthening it further.
- However the gender schema theory does have limitations, for example in order to accept the theory we have to accept the cognitive approach which is reductionist. The gender schema theory does not consider biological influences and as a result we cannot reach a paradigm when explaining gender development because not all approaches have been considered.
- This makes the theory less scientific as we can never exclude biological influences it makes the theory difficult to prove as a cause and effect relationship can never be established. We cannot prove that cognitive functioning is the only cause of gender development and as a result research in this area has no factual basis, weakening any cognitive explanation of gender development which in turn casts doubt on the validity of the gender schema theory.
- The cognitive developmental theory is reductionist as it only considers one approach when explaining gender development. It supports the nurture side of the debate because it assumes that environmental factors are the driving force behind our schemas and cognitive functioning. This can be a strength because it allows us to fully isolate cause and effect and understand the cognitive approach in great depth.
- However this can also be a problem because the nature side of the debate has not been considered. Research has found the role of biology to have much significance when it comes to gender development i.e. David Reimer and this cannot be explained by the cognitive explanations and as such suggests that there are other factors aside from cognitive functioning involved in gender development.
- An interactionist approach would seem more appropriate when explaining gender development.