Cognitive Theories of Gender Development

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Cognitive-oriented theorists view children as active constructors of knowledge who seek, interpret, and act on information in an effort to match their behavior to their understanding of gender (Martin, 1993; Martin, 2000; Martin & Dinella, 2002; Martin et al., 2002, 2004; Martin & Ruble, 2004; Ruble, 1994). This idea was proposed by Kohlberg (1966) when he first outlined his cognitive-developmental theory of gender development. In his view, children's understanding of gender emerges as children undergo age-related changes in cognitive development. A key feature in his theory is gender constancy, which refers to the developing understanding that gender is a fixed characteristic that is not altered by situational changes in appearance, activities, or behavior. Once children have attained this level of understanding, they are expected to show increased motivation to seek out gender-linked information with the goal of mastering the gender norms of our culture. Thus, the acquisition of gender knowledge is, in part, initiated internally by the child and is a guiding determinant of sex-typed behaviors.

While Kohlberg's innovative theory stimulated enduring changes in the way researchers conceptualize gender development, lack of empirical support for some of his ideas has prompted theorists to reconsider and debate his original contentions. The main controversy has concerned the critical importance of children acquiring the last stage of gender constancy, called gender consistency (Slaby & Frey, 1975). For example, there have been confusions regarding whether Kohlberg even indicated that this level of knowledge was a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of sex-typed behaviors (Martin et al., 2002; Ruble & Martin, 1998). Although Kohlberg's (1966) theoretical description mostly refers to the primary importance of gender consistency, he also seems to suggest that basic gender category knowledge organizes gender development. Moreover, empirical findings support the notion that earlier levels of constancy understanding, such as the belief that gender categories are stable over time, may be more related to gendered behaviors than gender consistency (see Ruble & Martin, 1998 for a review). Not surprisingly, these inconsistencies in the literature have led researchers to develop more complex ideas regarding the consequences of different forms of gender category knowledge.

One such proposal views children's developing knowledge about gender as a social-cognitive transition that begins when children are just beginning to realize the significance of gender in their world (Ruble, 1994). As children progress through this transition, they are expected to show predictable changes in terms of how actively they seek out gendered information and the degree to which different types of information become salient and significant. In this model, gender consistency is characterized as a period of consolidation for conclusions about gender norms. Rather than serving as an initial organizer of gender development, gender consistency knowledge is intended to motivate children to be more focused on expanding their same-sex knowledge (Ruble, 1994; Stangor & Ruble, 1987). During this consolidation phase, children are also proposed to display an increase in rigidity in that they are less likely to process information and behave in a way that is inconsistent with their beliefs about gender (Frey & Ruble, 1992; Stangor & Ruble, 1989).

Kohlberg's ideas and the cognitive revolution in psychology also set the stage for another cognitive view of gender development referred to as gender schema theory (see Martin et al., 2002, for a current review of these theories). Similar to cognitive-developmental theory, gender schema theory emphasizes the primary function of children's cognitions and focuses on the ways children actively participate in their gender development (Bem, 1981; Martin & Halverson, 1981). In this view, there is an emphasis on the dynamic processes involved in the acquisition of gender-related knowledge and how this knowledge influences attention, perception, memory, and behavior. This process is stimulated by children's natural tendency to use categories that are salient and functional in the environment to organize and make sense of information (Bem, 1981; Martin & Halverson, 1981). Therefore, the development of sex-linked knowledge and associations is organized into gender schemas that continue to exert their influence on incoming information. In one version of gender schema theory, Bem (1981) proposes that children develop gender schemas by virtue of the pervasive gender messages in society and that sex-typing occurs when children's self-concept and self-esteem gets assimilated into gender schemas. Interestingly, Bem's theory also focuses on individual differences in the degree of being sex-typed. She asserts that "individual differences schemas" and "sexism schemas" can replace gender schemas when children are encouraged to process information according to the variability within groups and the historical roots and consequences of sex discrimination (Bem, 2000).

Martin and Halverson's (1981) gender-schema theory focuses on the ways that gender schemas organize, bias, and regulate thinking, attention, and behavior. The motivating force in this theory is the maintenance of cognitive consistency and the need for self-definition. According to this view, children attend to and remember more script-like information about same-sex activities than about opposite-sex activities. This suggests that children are more likely to approach, explore, ask questions, and learn detailed information about an activity when it is considered self-relevant. Thus, this model helps explain how gender stereotypes are maintained and how they may lead to differential preferences, abilities, and behaviors in girls and boys.

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