Debates around gender invariably centre on the assumed ‘naturalness’ of gender roles, that they are ‘hardwired’ and an inevitable result of our biology – that is, penises lead to masculinity and vaginas lead to femininity. From this perspective, the road is well travelled, and the route is predestined. In contrast, Judith Butler in Gender Trouble describes gender as a practice, as something we do. It is ‘the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’. On this view, it is about performance rather than essence, with ‘the body as a kind of canvas on which culture paints images of gender’. It ‘boils down’ to the age-old nature versus nurture debate with which every psychology student must wrangle.

How we acquire gender identity

Traditionally, there are three main psychological explanations of how we navigate the path to gender identity. These are psychodynamic theory, social learning theory, and cognitive-developmental theory. All focus on early childhood, that is, up until about seven years of age.

Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theories, following on from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, focus on unconscious drives, the relationship of the child and early experiences with the parents (or primary caregivers). Gender is a core part of personality that rests on the child’s awareness of its anatomy and its identification with the same-sex parent. The key point in its development is the resolution of the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. Both involve resolving an incestuous desire for the opposite-sex parent and competition with the same-sex parent. Girls view the same-sex parent as responsible for their loss of a penis. Boys fear that their penis will be taken away by the same-sex parent. This antagonism is somehow resolved, and the child aligns with the same-sex parent. For males, fear of the loss of the penis is a more abstract concept, meaning males must work harder to deal with uncertainty. For females, the loss is already apparent. On this view, the male role is stronger than is the female. It is not difficult to see the three gender lenses at work here.

Social learning theory 

Instead of an innate, unconscious and biological basis of gender identity, social learning theory emphasises the child’s environment and learning experiences. According to this view, gender roles are learned through a mixture of observing the behaviour of others and modelling (imitation of same-sex caregivers). Children recognise the differential behaviours of boys and girls, generally, and the treatment by others in the form of rewards or punishments for appropriate/inappropriate actions. Children also experience individual differences in treatment, which starts at birth with physical handling, clothes and toy choices and patterns of speech. Gender-linked behaviours are observable by age one. Through conditioning, behaviours regularly and consistently rewarded are most likely to persist, whereas those behaviours that are punished are more apt to cease. 

Although social learning theory offers some explanation of how modelling and reinforcement interact, it tends to underplay individual differences in development and reactions from others such as inconsistencies in behavioural reinforcement. While it considers cognitive factors, it also underplays the agency of children and how they actively make sense of the world. It is also not clear how children cope with conflicting messages regarding gender.

Cognitive-developmental theory

According to the cognitive-developmental theory, as children we mature and experience the world, reorganising mental processes as we progress through a series of stages of development. Children’s development hits various milestones moving from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract, including language development. Children are active agents in acquiring gender roles within development stages that allow for an increasingly sophisticated grasp of concepts and language. As children mature, discrepancies between their knowledge and their experiences of the environment cause their ideas to shift accordingly. The acquisition of gender constancy, stability and consistency can only happen when a child has reached a certain level of cognitive maturity.

According to this view, gender identity exists at several levels, possibly developing in line with language. A strong theme that emerges from the literature is that boys, more so than girls, value their own gender more highly. This offers some support for the psychodynamic view that boys must try harder. 

Overall, the psychology of gender is revealed in the grey areas, that is, the relationship between identity and expression, and how we make sense of the gaps between (biological) sex, self and the social. For many the mismatch gaps might be narrow or even imperceptible, others might find ways of behaving and thinking to bridge the divide, and yet for others, the divide can seem insurmountable.

This is an extract from The Psychology of Gender, published by Routledge