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Gender Socialization Essay

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Updated: Nov 28th, 2019


Feminists and gender experts generally agree that, at birth, there is no femininity or masculinity. It is through early gender socialization that infants become engendered according to their sex (Scott and Jackson 41). Gender is defined as “a social symbolic construction that expresses the meaning a society confers on biological sex” (Wood 320). From an early age, boys and girls learn different gender-specific roles in their environment as taught by parents, siblings or caregivers.

Lorber observes that “parents produce gendered children through the toys they buy… they also encourage them to play in a gender-appropriate way – girls with dolls, boys with action figures” (61). Thus, parents influence early gender socialization by controlling “the patterns of gendered behavior, which, not only become part of a child’s identity as a boy or a girl but also become embodied” (Lorber 63). Besides, parents, the media, peers and school also influence early gender socialization.

It is evident that gender socialization is intertwined with culture. In patriarchal societies, “society is organized around certain kinds of social relationships and ideas” (Johnson 78) that seem to favor men. However, this “does not mean that all men – each and every one of them – are oppressive people” (Johnson 76).

Rather, it is the social system that breeds social oppression and male dominance that characterize patriarchy. It is through understanding the larger social system that society can identify the positive gender roles that can promote gender equity and reduce oppression. This paper reviews the arguments for and against early gender socialization, patriarchy and its effects, and the effect of engendered society on gender roles and performance.


Gender identity plays a big role in social stratification in many cultures including the American society. Typically, a patriarchal ‘system’ assigns males and females distinct heterosexual roles, a practice, which serves to perpetuate male dominance.

However, Johnson holds a different view; he views patriarchy as a system that “includes cultural ideas about men and women, the web of relationships that structure social life, and the unequal distribution of rewards and resources that underlies oppression” (84). He encourages society to view patriarchy as a system that all people participate in, not as an embodiment of masculinity.

From an early age children are taught, via explicit or subtle means, to conform to societal gender constructs (either feminine or masculine) in their behavior, looks and actions. Dworkin views this as a cultural product where “women live in fairy tales as magical figures, as beauty, danger, innocence, malice, and greed” (32). Culture creates distinctive and appealing identities through fairy tales – the wicked witch, the beautiful princess, the heroic prince – to define who we are” (Dworkin 32).

Therefore, patriarchy is intertwined with cultural norms, gender roles and identities in a given society. In many societies, social inequalities are attributed to patriarchy. This implies that, in such societies, more men than women occupy powerful positions and well-paying jobs in business, law and government. In light of this, Johnson defines patriarchy as “male-dominated, male-centered, and male-identified” (84).

A male dominated society places men in dominant and influential positions, a practice that increases social inequality in the society. Such a society is often organized around social control, with men, through oppression and threats of violence, exerting control over women, who need male protection and supervision. A patriarchal society is male identified when most socially valued attributes and personal qualities are associated with men while devalued qualities and roles are associated with women.

This explains why patriarchies feel threatened by movements related to class, race or sexuality/gender. A patriarchal society is also male-centered. In such a society, men and boys are the center of attention while women are pushed to the periphery. Moreover, men and masculine roles are the center of focus or public attention in patriarchal societies.

Allan Johnson’s definition of the term patriarchy dispels common misconceptions surrounding oppression. He contends that society erroneously associates patriarchy with males, which often leads to the conclusion that men are oppressive. However, he argues that patriarchy is “about standards of feminine beauty and masculine toughness, images of feminine vulnerability and masculine protectiveness, of older men coupled with young women, of elderly women alone” (84).

It is the patriarchal “system that encourages men to value women primarily in terms of their ability to meet men’s needs and desires and to support men’s self-images as potent and in control” (96). Thus, people should learn to distinguish between the individual male and the patriarchal system.

It is by recognizing this difference that people can begin to address the actual causes of gender violence and social inequality. In view of this, bias based on gender, race or social class is not oppression per se, but “the sum of individual failings on the part of blacks, women, and the poor, who lack the right stuff to compete successfully with whites, men, and others who know how to make something of themselves” (76).

Thus, to eliminate social inequality, it is important that people understand the misconceptions surrounding patriarchy. Patriarchy revolves around social relationships and structures, which may limit an individual to some extent. It is worth noting that, through his argument, Johnson’s gives a new perspective on patriarchy, whereby he portrays men not as villainous as commonly portrayed by gender many movements.

The social norms define how people act or behave, which explains why people make the decisions they make in a patriarchal context. Johnson observes that the symbols in our culture “make up the patriarchal culture” (84), which, in turn, “affect the structure of social life” (87). Thus, it is our culture that creates power relations and gender roles, which then shape people’s behavior and values in patriarchal societies.


Today’s dynamic society requires people to recognize that gender is closely intertwined with other social aspects in “a matrix” of social domination. In modern societies, gender, race and economic class shape the issues of inequality and power relations. Also, social identity is largely organized around social domination, stratification and oppression. Therefore, in order to reconstruct the role of race, class and gender in society, it is important to examine them in the context of power relations.

Sociologists, Andersen and Collins, have developed a framework for understanding these social categories. First, they propose that the three categories are not absolute as they are constructs of social interaction (76). Second, the social categories create binary social groups, not social identities. This means that individuals can either be male or female, poor or wealthy, etc. It is through these power-based groupings that power relations are played out in the society.

A third concept in Andersen and Collins’ framework is that the three categories, besides directly defining group identities, their effects result in distinct social structures in the society. In this way, they contribute indirectly to identity formation. The fourth element of this framework relates to the fact that the three categories affect social interactions, social institutions and each group’s consciousness in the society. Based on this framework, it is easier for people to understand the significance of the three categories on gender socialization.

In the modern American society, it is often thought that people are no longer classist, racist and/or feminist. It is generally believed that a person’s gender, class or race does not disadvantage him or her in the society. However, Andersen and Collins argue that these social groupings are still significant as “the system of privilege and inequality (by race, class and gender) is less visible to those who are more privileged” (78).

That is why women complain about male dominance while men believe that patriarchy does not exist. It shows that the American society tends towards the status quo, which favors the groups in power. In contrast, the other groups/categories are marginalized, making them victims of social injustice.

The dominant forms of knowledge help perpetuate this trend by stating that racism, sexism and classism does not exist in the modern society (Scott and Jackson 67). It is no wonder social inequality continues to persist in modern societies. Therefore, an understanding the role of gender, class and race in power relations would help unravel the issue of social domination.

Andersen and Collins note that the three categories affect social domination, which then influence “social interactions, access to power and group consciousness” (77). It is clear that the individual categories do not work in isolation, but rather their combined effects help define an individual’s social experience. Therefore, oppression, in power relations, is a product of the interconnections between the social groups in the society.

On her part, Dworkin, unlike other sociologists and gender experts, criticizes female oppression, pornography and sexual violence in her analysis of fiction books. In her work, entitled “Woman Hating”, she explores gender socialization in fairy tales and sexist writings.

She argues that cultural symbols and images are some of the way power-based gender relations are established and maintained in the society. To illustrate how cultural stereotypes are created, Dworkin writes that fairy tale characters “Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow-white and Rapunzel – all are characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence and victimization… they never think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, or question” (42).

From a social perspective, only good women have these attributes. Also, in fairy tales, females “are characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence, and victimization” (42). The same trend occurs in gender roles, whereby from an early age “culture predetermines who we are, how we behave, what we are willing to know, what we are able to feel” (35). Thus, culture has shaped women’s behavior and actions to conform to ‘acceptable’ social standards. They have to do what is deemed ‘good’ in the eyes of men and society.

Because of this, “women strive for passivity, because they want to be good” (48). It is the same ingrained mentality that “convinces women that they are bad, the bad need to be punished and destroyed, so that they become good” (48). The women, therefore, view oppression and male dominance as acceptable in the society. Dworkin’s arguments echo similar arguments made in many masculinity and feminine studies.

Scott and Jackson state that, in most societies, gender roles are fixed right from birth with each role viewed as a discrete and pure trait (51). People create a set of masculine and feminine traits, which they attribute to a particular gender (male or female trait). For example, being tough is considered a male trait, whereas being sensitive or caring is a female trait. In this regard, the traits or values are portrayed as mutually exclusive and nobody can possess both the male and female traits.

Lorber on Gender Socialization

Lorber holds the view that gender is a construct of human interaction, hence, like culture, relies on sustained social interactions. Lorber notes that gender socialization is created early in life.

From birth, children’s perceptions regarding masculinity and femininity are largely shaped by the body images they see. Even at birth, infants are perceived differently: “little boys have strong grips and hearty howls… and little girls have dainty fingers and gentle cries” (61). According to Lorber, parents create socially gendered children through the play toys they give them.

Parents buy action figures and Barbie dolls for their boys and girls respectively. They even encourage the kids to use the toys in ways they consider to be socially acceptable. In this way, younger children learn to act and behave in gender-appropriate ways. It also plays a role in shaping the children’s gender identity early in life. Lorber argues that parents influence early gender socialization through the naming of their newborn baby, mode of care and dress.

The children’s interactions with same-sex and opposite-sex siblings and relatives shape their self-identity in the context of gender. It is their cognitive development that allows children to identify and apply their actions in gender-specific ways and avoid inappropriate behaviors.

With regard to early gender roles, Lorber observes that the young children “perform of gender roles in ways that constitute them as two separate, opposed groups” (67), a trend, which is reinforced by “the adults’ approval of children’s performance of difference” (68).

The children interpret the adults’ approval of their gender-specific actions as an inherent difference that exists between male and female. Referring to the gendered roles he observed in children’s games, “Barbie Girls vs. Sea Monsters” Lorber observes that, in gender relations, the gender boundaries are clearly marked such that children have to “affirm their commitment to difference” (68) from an early age in their personal interactions.

Lorber regards gender as a social platform for assigning social statuses, responsibilities and behaviors. It is through early gender socialization that a social stratification system is created resulting to social inequalities that continues throughout one’s life. The gender socialization process creates distinct ways of differentiating a “male” from a “female”.

The early social interactions, children learn roles and behaviors expected of their gender, a trend that continues well into their adulthood. It is through social encounters that human beings learn to behave and act in a gender-appropriate manner and to object to differing gender norms.

Gender-based expectations or behaviors are enforced by peers, the media and other social platforms. Lorber notes that, “in sports, extreme body modification, in particular, steroid use to build muscle masses” (72) is a common trend among the youth because this action is considered a standard of excellence in sports. Thus, daily human interactions in sports build gender-based expectations for both male and female bodies.

The gender socialization process institutionalizes gender roles creating gender-stratified relations. Lorber’s argument that early gender socialization through play toys and body modification emphasizes the need for people to realize that gender constructs are products of human interactions shaped by culture and individual perceptions.

Boys and girls usually engage “in sports to emulate professional athletes who use extreme body modification, in particular, steroid use to build muscle mass” (71). Therefore, coaches and parents should focus on improving the children’s behavior patterns, taking into account their personality differences, rather than creating distinct gender roles and behaviors for their children.

Works Cited

Andersen, Margaret and Collins, Patricia. Race, Class, & Gender: An Anthology. New York: Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.

Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: Penguin Group, 1974. Print.

Johnson, Allan. Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Lorber, Judith. Gender inequality: Feminist theories and politics. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Scott, Sue and Jackson, Stevi. Theorizing Sexuality Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2007. Print.

Wood, Julia. Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

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