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Cognition and gender development

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
This course taster is taken from the Open University’s ‘Child Development’ course (ED209). It is an extract from one of the four course text books (Banerjee, R. (2005) ‘Gender identity and the development of gender roles’, in Ding, S. and Littleton, K. S. (eds) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell.) © Open University 2005

Find out more about The Open University's Education Studies (Primary) qualification.

Most contemporary theorists argue that cognitive processes need to be taken into account in order to explain how the social environment makes its mark on the child’s gender development and how the child plays an important role in directing his or her own gender development.

Cognitive processes

The theories covered in this section all relate to aspects of children’s thinking that are central to their gender development. They focus on the ways in which children attend to and then process and organise this information, and have in common a justifiable emphasis on the active role of children in shaping their own development; they are not simply passive respondents to stereotyped information that is imposed upon them. This notion of the child as active helps psychologists understand why consistent effects of social environment are so difficult to find – the effects themselves are, in one way or another, dependent on the child.

Social cognitive theory

Early social learning theories, where the main focus was on the simple, one-way effect of environment on behaviour, were criticised because they provided too simplistic a picture of human development. Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT) builds on the earlier social learning approaches by addressing the fact that human development involves a complex interplay of many factors. SCT is usually presented (e.g. Bandura, 1986) in terms of a ‘model of causation’ that links three sets of variables, all of which influence each other: behaviour (e.g. activity patterns), person (e.g. expectations, intentions, goals), and environment (e.g. modelling, reinforcement). The emphasis is still very much on how children’s social experiences influence their behaviour, but SCT highlights the active role of children in their observational learning. They can attend selectively to particular events or people in the environment, then mentally organise, combine, and rehearse the observed behaviours, decide when to enact the behaviour, and finally monitor the outcomes of that behaviour.

What are the implications of SCT for an understanding of gender development? Just as in early social learning approaches, Bussey and Bandura (1999) point to evidence of negative parental and peer responses to children’s behaviour that runs counter to gender stereotypes as confirmation of the idea that gender development is heavily based on external sanctions early on. Children’s socialisation history, it is argued, provides distinctive information about masculinity and femininity from birth – for example, clothes, nursery décor, and the toys and activities provided. Moreover, there is undoubtedly widespread modelling of gender stereotypes in the family as well as in wider culture. When children’s gender role-inconsistent behaviour is met with open ridicule by adults and peers there is a clear motivation for the child to behave in a gender-stereotyped manner.

However, there is also evidence of choice and flexibility in children’s behaviour, and this is where cognitive processes come into play. Once children have begun to internalise the standards of behaviour appropriate for males and females, based on the social experiences described above, their own behaviour is no longer dependent on external rewards or punishments. Rather, they become capable of directing their own behaviour in such a way as to satisfy their internalised standards. Furthermore, they monitor their behaviour against those standards, so that they can feel pride on performing gender role-consistent behaviour, even if there is no explicit external praise.In a study which supported this view of gender development (Bussey and Bandura, 1992), nursery children aged three to four years of age were asked to evaluate gender-typed behaviour by peers (as presented on videotape) and to rate how they would feel about themselves if they were playing with masculine and feminine toys.

Even the younger children disapproved of gender role-inconsistent behaviour by peers (e.g. boys playing with dolls), but when they rated their own feelings they were the same for both masculine and feminine toys. In contrast, the four-year-olds not only disapproved of others’ role-inconsistent behaviours, but were also self-critical when judging how they would feel if they were playing with role-inconsistent toys. Furthermore, these self-evaluations predicted how the children actually went on to play with masculine and feminine toys. This was taken as evidence that while social sanctions for gender-typed behaviour are clearly present in the younger children, self-regulation becomes more important with age.

Cognitive-developmental theory

Despite the focus on cognition and internal self-regulation in Bandura’s more recent work, many theorists argue that there are more fundamental cognitive processes that need to be taken into account when analysing children’s gender development. In particular, researchers have suggested that children’s concepts of themselves as male or female play a critical role in encouraging children to identify and endorse gender roles. This notion was first set out at the same time as the early social learning approaches to gender development. The book that contained Mischel’s (1966) account of the social learning approach to gender development also included Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1966) equally significant report on his cognitive-developmental theory. While recognising the importance of observational learning, Kohlberg presented a very different account of how children come to understand and enact gender roles: in his own words, his theory “assumes that basic sexual attitudes are not patterned directly by either biological instincts or arbitrary cultural norms, but by the child’s cognitive organization of his social world along sex-role dimensions” (p. 82).

In Kohlberg’s view, boys think “I am a boy, therefore I want to do boy things, therefore the opportunity to do boy things (and to gain approval for doing them) is rewarding” (p. 89). His emphasis, then, is on gender role development as being self-socialised; certainly, there is plenty of information about gender roles in the social environment, but it is the child who actively seeks out, organises, and then behaves in accordance with that information. This contrasts markedly with the view of the child as behaving in a gender-typed way simply because he or she is rewarded – or sees someone else being rewarded – for it.

A major implication of this perspective is that children’s appreciation of – and adherence to – gender roles is dependent on their gender identity, their sense of being male or female. Kohlberg, and other proponents of this approach, argued that children develop a sense of gender identity in a sequence of distinct stages, an idea that owes a great deal to Jean Piaget’s influential work on cognitive development. Piaget had argued that children’s logical thought could be seen to develop through a sequence of discrete stages, each qualitatively different from the others. Kohlberg connected this development with growth in children’s sense of gender identity. The Kohlbergian sequence of gender identity development involves three stages.

Kohlberg’s stages of gender development

Stage 1: Gender labelling
Children can identify themselves and other people as girls or boys (mummies or daddies). However, gender is not seen as stable over time or across changes in superficial physical characteristics (e.g. length of hair, clothes).

Stage 2: Gender stability
Children recognise that gender is stable over time: boys will grow up to be daddies, and girls will grow up to be mummies. However, the unchanging nature of gender – that it remains the same regardless of changes in superficial appearance or activity choice – is not yet appreciated.

Stage 3: Gender consistency
Children have a full appreciation of the permanence of gender over time and across situations.

By the age of around three years, in the gender labelling stage, children become able to label themselves and others as boys or girls accurately. It is not for another couple of years, however, that children are thought to enter the gender stability stage and appreciate that this classification would remain stable over time (i.e. a boy would grow up to be a daddy, and a girl would grow up to be a mummy). But only in the final gender consistency stage, at around the age of 6 or 7 years, were children judged to have an insight into the constancy of sex regardless of the passage of time, changes in context, or transformations in physical features.

This understanding was thought to develop in parallel with classic Piagetian changes in children’s appreciation of conservation (e.g. understanding that the volume of water in a beaker would remain the same after the water is poured into a beaker of different dimensions). Most importantly, Kohlberg argued that the “child’s gender identity can provide a stable organizer of the child’s psychosexual attitudes only when he is categorically certain of its unchangeability” (1966, p. 95). Thus, the mature understanding of gender constancy was considered critically important for the gender-typing process.

The research literature provides some support for the notion that more advanced gender concepts are associated with selective attention to same-sex models. The classic study of Slaby and Frey (1975) assessed children’s understanding of gender as a fixed, unchanging attribute using a structured Gender Concept Interview. Children’s responses to the questions seemed to support Kohlberg’s sequence of gender identity development. Furthermore, the children who demonstrated an appreciation of the stability of gender were more likely than children with a less mature gender concept to attend to the same-sex model on a videotape that depicted both male and female models (see Research Summary below).

On the whole, however, the research evidence for a link between the appreciation of gender constancy and gender-typing is not strong (see reviews by Huston, 1983; Ruble and Martin, 1998). In fact, most of the evidence suggests that it is the most immature form of the gender concept – the accurate labelling of oneself as a boy or girl – that is often associated with gender-typed conduct and stereotyped beliefs. Bussey and Bandura (1999) note that “long before children have attained gender constancy, they prefer to play with toys traditionally associated with their gender, […] to model their behavior after same-sex models, […] and to reward peers for gender-appropriate behavior’ (p. 678).


Research summary

Slaby and Frey, 1975
Social learning approaches suggested that children’s gender development was largely based on observation of same-sex models. However, Kohlberg’s (1966) cognitive-developmental theory suggested that children’s understanding of gender as a permanent, unchanging attribute was of critical importance. Slaby and Frey (1975) set out to determine whether children’s attention to same-sex models was influenced by their level of gender constancy.

Fifty-five 2- to 5-year-olds’ level of gender constancy was assessed by using a series of fourteen questions and counter-questions. Several questions tapped gender labelling. For instance:

Is this a girl or a boy? (showing boy/girl doll)
Are you a girl or a boy?

Further questions tapped gender stability. For instance:

When you were a little baby were you a little girl or a little boy?
When you grow up, will you be a mummy or a daddy?
Could you ever be a [opposite of previous response]?

A final set of questions tapped gender consistency. For instance:

If you wore [opposite of child’s sex] clothes, would you be a girl or a boy?
Could you be a [opposite of child’s sex] if you wanted to be?

Children were classified as low on gender constancy if they answered incorrectly on the gender labelling or gender stability items, and otherwise were identified as high on gender constancy. Several weeks after this interview the children were shown a short film showing a man and a woman engaging in simple parallel activities on different sides of the screen. The amount of time that children’s eyes were fixated on each side of the screen was measured.

Slaby and Frey found support for their hypothesis that children with higher levels of gender constancy would show more selective attention to same-sex models. The data in the table below show that high constancy boys watched the male model rather than the female model more than did low constancy boys, while the opposite was true for the girls. Interestingly, the selective attention to the same-sex model was much stronger among the high-constancy boys than among the high-constancy girls. In fact, both boys and girls spent more total time watching the male model than the female model. Overall, the results indicate the influence of both cognitive and social factors in gender development.

Table: Mean (SD) percentage of model-watching time spent watching the male rather than the female model (standard deviation in brackets).

Sex of participant Low gender constancy High gender constancy
Boys 47.9 (8.5) 61.4 (9.6)
Girls 57.8 (9.9) 50.8 (11.7)


Gender schema theory

Despite the limited research evidence for the role of gender constancy in the development of gender-typed behaviour, many contemporary researchers have built on Kohlberg’s basic point that cognitive processes play a key role in driving gender development. In fact, the question now is not whether cognition is important – everyone agrees that it is – but which particular cognitions should be emphasised. Where Kohlberg highlighted the relatively late-developing full understanding of gender constancy, the gender schema theorists argue that it is the early cognitive processes underlying children’s ability to label themselves as boys or girls that play the key role in gender development (Martin et al., 2002).

In 1981, Carol Martin and Charles Halverson presented a new account of gender typing that drew on the ideas of earlier cognitive developmental accounts but included considerably more detail about the exact cognitive processes involved in gender development (Martin and Halverson, 1981).

They proposed that the emergence of stereotypes in childhood was not purely a function of environmental input, but rather was the perfectly normal consequence of children’s information-processing. Stereotypes, in this view, are simply an efficient way of handling and predicting large amounts of information. If we do not categorise information and make generalisations (e.g. about what boys like and what girls like) on that basis, we simply would not be able to manage our lives effectively. For children exposed to an endless stream of new information and novel input, such processes of simplification are necessary in order to make sense of the complex world around them.

Activity: What’s in your gender schema?

Allow about 20 minutes
This activity will help you to explore your own use of gender schemas.

Do you make any automatic assumptions about people based on whether they are male or female to help you manage your everyday interactions? Imagine you are at a party and you meet a person for the first time. You really want to have fun and make a good impression. Would the person’s gender influence the way you approach the situation: how you behave, what you talk about, what you ask questions about, what you joke about etc.?

Now imagine that you had to look after a friend’s 8-year-old for the first time. You really want the child to have fun. Would the child’s gender influence the way you approach the situation: what activities you prepare, what you talk about, what you ask questions about, and so on?

Think about other everyday situations: going for a job interview, talking to the checkout clerk at a supermarket, meeting a new work colleague, etc. Try and list some of the inferences you make about people simply from knowing their gender.


Martin’s and Halverson’s theoretical framework reminds us that stereotypes are not necessarily an abnormal or irrational way of thinking; rather, they often play a key role in simplifying a very complex world. We often use gender stereotypes as rules of thumb to guide us in our social interactions. We have to be careful, however, that we do not rely on gender stereotypes too rigidly – we need to be prepared to revise our beliefs, expectations, and behaviour when we are presented with counter stereotypical information (e.g. a girl with ‘masculine’ toy preferences). Research suggests that children become increasingly flexible in their reasoning about gender as they grow older.

At the core of the theory is the notion of ‘schema’, a mental structure that guides the processing of information and experiences. According to the initial model proposed by Martin and Halverson (1981), two key schemas are involved. The first, the ‘in-group – out-group’ schema includes a broad categorisation of attributes, activities, and objects as being either for boys or for girls. In other words, boys and girls are said to have a mental representation of what is suitable for their in-group (boys for a boy, girls for a girl) and what is appropriate for their out-group (girls for a boy, boys for a girl). A second schema, the ‘own sex’ schema, involves more detailed information about those behaviours, traits, and objects that are considered to be characteristic of their in-group. As soon as children are able to label themselves as boys or girls, they will start to form these schemas in order to make sense of the world around them.

In many ways, the basic proposition of Kohlberg (1966) still applies: “I am a boy, therefore I want to do boy things”. The difference is that the notion “I am a boy” need only reflect basic gender labelling, as opposed to a full appreciation of gender constancy. Once this understanding is present and the environment provides information about certain toys or activities as masculine or feminine (which is organised in the in-group – out-group schema), children will be driven to find out more about the in-group set of toys or activities. In this way, the in-group – out-group schema determines what information goes into the more detailed and elaborate own sex schema: if a boy views an object or activity as masculine he will approach it, interact with it, and find out more about it. Thus, unlike the SCT view that internal standards for behaviour are formed through the internalisation of social rules taught through rewards and punishment (or observed through the outcomes of others’ behaviour), children are seen here as having internal, self-regulating standards as soon as they label themselves as boys or girls.

A major advantage of the gender schema approach is that we can begin to trace stability and change in children’s gender-linked cognition and behaviour by tracking the development of children’s schemas. For example, it offers a good insight into why children seem to cling so tightly to gender stereotypes, sometimes despite the best efforts of parents who are attempting to reduce or eliminate stereotyping. Schemas govern what we pay attention to, what we try to find out more about, what we interact with, and what (and how) we remember. For example, Bradbard et al. (1986) gave 56 4- to 9-year-olds some new objects to explore for six minutes. The children explored new objects more when they were labelled as being for their own sex than for the other sex, and subsequently remembered more detail about the own-sex toys than the other-sex toys one week later. In a similar vein, Liben and Signorella (1993) showed 106 primary school children sixty drawings of male and female characters engaged in masculine, feminine, and neutral activities/occupations (e.g. firefighter, washing dishes), and then asked them to recall as many of the pictures as possible. Children recalled more pictures of men performing masculine behaviours than of men performing feminine behaviours. The influence of gender schemas can be so strong that counter stereotypical information may be distorted to make it fit in with the schemas. Martin and Halverson (1983) showed 48 5- to 6-year-olds pictures of males or females engaged in activities that were consistent or inconsistent with gender roles. A week later the children showed distorted memories of role-inconsistent pictures, for example, a picture of a girl sawing wood was remembered as a picture of a boy sawing wood.

The gender schema approach also helps us understand why younger children often seem to adhere to stereotypes more rigidly than older children. When children were asked to predict how much the characters in a story would like masculine and feminine toys the younger children relied only on the sex of the character to make their judgements (Martin, 1989). They predicted that a boy character would like to play with trucks regardless of the information given about that character’s interests. By contrast, the older children took into account both the sex of the character and the ‘individuating’ information about that particular character. So they would predict that a girl who is described as having counter stereotypical attributes (e.g. likes playing with airplanes) would be less likely to want to play with a doll than a stereotypical girl. This kind of flexibility is likely to be the result of changes in children’s cognition, such as an increased understanding of masculinity as distinct from maleness and femininity as distinct from femaleness, and an increased ability to draw on several sources of information (e.g. both sex and idiosyncratic interests) simultaneously. Younger children, with a more simplistic gender schema that links certain activities with boys and certain other activities with girls, seemed to rely only on the character’s sex when inferring his or her toy preferences.


The psychoanalytic perspective highlights the importance of early childhood experience in gender development, but the emphasis on psychosexual dynamics within the family has not received empirical support.

A dominant debate in current research on gender development concerns the relative importance of social and cognitive factors.

Mischel’s social learning approach suggested that children’s gender development is a product of their social experiences. This theoretical approach focuses on reinforcement of gender-typed behaviour by parents and peers, and on children’s observation of gender stereotypes in the world around them.

Bandura’s social-cognitive theory is a more recent version of social learning approaches that highlights the active role of children in their observational learning.

Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory proposed a developmental sequence of stages in children’s concept of gender. Children’s appreciation of the unchanging permanence or ‘constancy’ of gender was thought to underlie their tendency to seek out and adhere to gender role information.

Martin’s and Halverson’s gender schema approach suggests that children form cognitive schemas about gender as soon as they discover their own sex. These schemas drive gender development, guiding children’s attention and memory in such a way that they focus on and remember gender-typed information much more than counter stereotypical information.



Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory, Englewood Cliffs (NJ), Prentice-Hall.
Bradbard, M. R., Martin, C. L., Endsley, R. C. and Halverson, C. F. (1986) ‘Influence of sex stereotypes on children’s exploration and memory: A competence versus performance distinction’, Developmental Psychology, 22, pp. 481–6.
Bussey, K. and Bandura, A. (1992) ‘Self-regulatory mechanisms governing gender development’, Child Development, 63, pp. 1236–50.
Bussey, K. and Bandura, A. (1999) ‘Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation’, Psychological Review, 106, pp. 676–713.
Huston, A. C. (1983) ‘Sex-typing’, in Hetherington, E. M. (ed.) Handbook of child psychology: Socialization, personality, and social development (Vol. 4), New York, Wiley.
Kohlberg, L. (1966) ‘A cognitive-developmental analysis of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes’, in E. Maccoby (ed.) The development of sex differences, London, Tavistock.
Liben, L. S. and Signorella, M. L. (1993) ‘Gender-schematic processing in children: The role of initial interpretations of stimuli’, Developmental Psychology, 29, pp. 141–9.
Martin, C. L. (1989) ‘Children’s use of gender-related information in making social judgments’, Developmental Psychology, 25, pp. 80–8.
Martin, C. L. and Halverson, C. F. (1981) ‘A schematic processing model of sex typing and stereotyping in children’, Child Development, 52, pp. 1119–34.
Martin, C. L. and Halverson, C. F. (1983) ‘The effects of sex-typing schemas on young children’s memory’, Child Development, 54, pp. 563–74.
Martin, C. L., Ruble, D. N. and Szkrybalo, J. (2002) ‘Cognitive theories of early gender development’, Psychological Bulletin, 128, pp. 903–33.
Mischel, W. (1966) ‘A social-learning view of sex differences in behavior’, in E. Maccoby (ed.) The development of sex differences, London, Tavistock.Ruble, D. N., & Martin, C. L. (1998). Gender development. In N. Eisenberg (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Social, emotional, and personality development (Vol. 3, pp. 933-1016). New York: Wiley.
Slaby, R. G. and Frey, K. S. (1975) ‘Development of gender constancy and selective attention to same-sex models’ Child Development, 46, pp. 849–56.


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