Children learn early on that there are different expectations of boys and girls. Cross-cultural studies show that children get aware of gender roles by the age of two or three. By four or five years of age, most children are firmly embedded in the culturally appropriate gender roles. Children acquire these roles through socialization, a process in which people learn to behave in certain ways dictated by society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, society often views motorcycling as a male activity and therefore sees it as a part of the male gender role. Attitudes like this are usually based on stereotypes, oversimplified ideas about group members. Gender stereotypes involve an over-generalization of the attitudes, characteristics, or behavior patterns of women or men. For example, women may be thought of as too timid or weak to ride a motorcycle.
Gender stereotypes form the basis of sexism; Sexism refers to biased beliefs that place one gender over another; varies in severity; In parts of the world where women are severely undervalued, girls may not have equal access to food. They will also grow up believing that they deserve to be treated differently from boys. While it is illegal as discrimination in the United States, inequality of women continues to permeate social life. It should be noted that gender discrimination occurs at both micro and macro levels. Many sociologists focus on the discrimination that is built into the social fabric. This type of discrimination is known as institutional discrimination. Gender socialization occurs through four main agents in socialization: family, education, peers, and media. Each agent reinforces gender roles by creating and maintaining normative expectations for gender-specific behavior. Exposure also comes from secondary agents such as religion and the workplace. Repeated exposure to these agents over time leads men and women to mislead them into thinking that they are acting naturally rather than following a socially constructed role.
Family is the first agent of socialization. There is considerable evidence that parents socialize sons and daughters differently. Generally speaking, girls are given more latitude to step outside of their prescribed gender role. However, differential socialization typically results in greater privileges afforded to sons. For instance, boys are allowed more autonomy and independence at an earlier age than daughters. They may be given fewer restrictions on appropriate clothing, dating habits, or curfew. Sons are also often free from performing domestic duties such as cleaning or cooking and other household tasks that are considered feminine. Daughters are limited by their expectation to be passive and nurturing, generally obedient, and to assume many of the domestic responsibilities.
The strengthening of gender roles and stereotypes will continue till the child has reached school age. Until recently, schools made an explicit effort to stratify boys and girls. The first step in stratification was segregation. The girls were encouraged to take courses in home economics or the humanities. Studies suggest that gender socialization in schools is still happening today, possibly in a less overt way. Teachers may not even realize that they are acting to reproduce separated gender behavioral patterns. Ask students to arrange their seats or to align by gender, teachers may indicate that boys and girls should be treated differently.
Imitating the actions of other important people is the first step in developing separate sense of self. Like adults, children become agents who actively promote normative gender expectations and apply them to their surroundings. When children do not conform to the appropriate gender role, they may face negative sanctions such as being criticized or marginalized by their peers. Though many of these sanctions are informal, they can be quite severe. For example, a girl who wishes to take karate lessons instead of dance lessons may be referred to as a “tomboy” and has difficulty gaining acceptance from male and female peer groups. Children in particular are severely ridiculed because of gender mismatches.
Mass media serves as another significant agent of gender socialization. In television and films, women tend to play a less important role and are often portrayed as wives or mothers. When women are given a lead role, it often falls at one of the two extremes: a healthy and holy figure or a malicious hypersexual figure. The same inequality is widespread in children’s films.