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Gender socialization

Gender socialization is the ways in which society sets children on different paths in life because they are male or female.

Our parents are the first ones to show us how to follow the gender map. Sometimes they do so consciously, perhaps by bringing into play pink and blue, colors that have no meaning in themselves but that are now associated with gender. Our parents' own gender orientations have become embedded so firmly that they do most of this teaching without being aware of what they are doing.

In a classic study by psychologists Susan Goldberg and Michael Lewis (1969) they asked mothers to bring their 6-month-old infants into their laboratory, supposedly to observe the infants' development. Covertly, however, they also observed the mothers. 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. When Goldberg and Lewis set up a barrier to separate the children from their mothers, who were holding toys, the girls were more likely to cry and motion for help; the boys, to try to climb over the barrier.

Goldberg and Lewis concluded that mothers subconsciously reward daughters for being passive and dependent, and sons for being active and independent.

Our gender lessons continue throughout childhood. On the basis of our sex, we are given different kinds of toys. Boys are more likely to get guns and "action figures" that destroy enemies. Girls are more likely to get dolls and jewelry.

"Male" and "female" are such powerful symbols that learning them force us to interpret the world in terms of gender. As children learn their society's symbols of gender, they learn that different behaviors and attitudes are expected of boys and girls. First transmitted by the family, these gender messages are reinforced by other social institutions.

As they become integrated into our views of the world, gender messages form a picture of "how" males and females "are." Because gender serves as a primary basis for social inequality giving privileges and obligations to one group of people while denying them to another gender images are especially important in our socialization.