Theories on Gender Development

There are several theories on gender development that explore the explanations for gender specific behaviour, the most common of which: biological approach, psychoanalytic theory, social learning theory, cognitive developmental theory, gender schema theory and biosocial theory.
The biological approach suggests that gender identity is initially preconceived due to various biological factors. Chromosomes, XX in the female and XY in the male, determine the outcome of the gonads and also the hormones (Gilbert, 2000). Hines, 2004, believes the biological theory is suggesting that future gender behaviour of children and eventually adults is already determined before the baby is born though genetic make-up, which is made up of chromosomes, gonads and hormones (citied in Gross, 2010).
According to Dr John Money, founder of the ‘Layers of Sex’ model and researcher of gender identity, humans are born with various types of sexual, biological “layers” that coexist and create a clear pathway which provide an insight into the biological theory of gender. The model consists of the following attributes: chromosomal sex, indifferent fetal (the American spelling of ‘foetal’) sex, differentiated fetal gonadal sex, fetal hormonal sex, fetal internal reproductive sex; these are the initial prenatal and infant layers of sex (cited in Fausto-Sterling, 2012). In short, the model explains the very earliest biological stages of gender development, starting with chromosomes, which due to secretions of hormones form the biological foundations of gender. Money believes that they have an impact on an infant’s own perception of their gender identity; babies become aware of their body image, according to his theory. The outcome of this biological process is established gender identity as an adult. Though Money created a basis for the understanding of biological development of gender, his theory is difficult to support and therefore lacks empirical evidence. It’s very difficult to obtain evidence that prenatal gender development and gender development during infancy can effect a person as an adult. This notion of Money’s theory also lacks ecological validity because babies and young children are usually constantly surrounded by gender specific colours (pink for girls, blue for boys), toys and behavioural expectations such as cooking, cleaning and maternal tasks for females and career, DIY and paying the bills for males. It could be argued by believers of the social learning theory that these influences from a young age effect our gender identity throughout our life. Money’s Layers of Sex model has social and biological limitations; it doesn’t account for the gender identity of an intersex child and it therefore fails to explain how their gender identity would develop. The model suggests a clear, defined link between each layer that then creates a person’s gender identity, there is no acknowledgment of external input from our social influences, or any biological differences in our genetics. Furthermore, Money and his colleague, Anke Ehrhardt believe that gender identity is fixed by the age of 2, again this is difficult to prove with scientific evidence and it’s difficult to rule out the impact that external sources have on our behaviour (cited in Fausto-Sterling, 2012).
Initially, the same psychologist, Money, who devised the biological ‘Layers of Sex’ model believed that gender identity was learned through social influences; he fully supported the SLT. He made an error when dealing with a victim of a surgical mishap that resulted in baby Bruce Reimer’s penis being burnt off during circumcision in 1966 (Cited in Colapinto, 2000). The results of which would later be psychologically damaging to Bruce; Dr. G.L Adamson, head of Neurology and Psychiatry at the Winnipeg Clinic explained that Bruce could psychologically suffer during his adolescence to his entire adult life. Adamson gave thee insight that Bruce would never be able to have a normal, heterosexual sex-life. Bruce’s parents contacted Money who agreed to help them, he was raised as a girl and renamed Brenda. Brenda claimed that he was never happy as a girl after he found out his true gender at the age of 14. Brenda played with boy’s toys and never felt comfortable behaving or dressing as a girl. When Brenda was told of his true gender he changed his name to David and became a boy. David Reimer’s despair of being raised as the wrong gender and having no male sex organs led to his suicide at 38 years old (cited in Colpinto, 2000). This tragic story supports the biological theory of gender because it suggests that although Bruce was raised as a girl and given girls clothes and toys, he never felt right, and he never felt happy. No amount of social influences could change how Bruce/David felt about his true gender identity which means that Money’s SLT theory wasn’t correct in this case and thus doesn’t bode well that social influence alone can alter a person’s gender identity.
Another theory is the social learning theory (SLT) which regards gender identity as behaviour that is learned by watching and copying authority figures and peers. It is believed that parents perhaps unknowingly promote gender specific behaviour in their children.
However, despite this discouraging evidence, Margaret Mead’s research argues that social learning theory is valid in disadvantaged cultures. Mead’s expedition of three tribes (Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli) in New Guinea began in 1931 (Mead, 2001- research originally published in 1935), her study was on the social influences of these tribes throughout their life. Mead’s observations concluded that generations followed the behaviour learned from childhood; they adopted the nature of their parents and grandparents. The Tchambuli tribe was said to be peaceful in nature, however, what is unusual about this tribe is that their gender roles are reversed, women have a more dominant than men. These in depth observations convey that biology played no part in gender behaviour, all behaviour was learned through socialisation and therefore this supports the SLT.
There are many more studies that credit or discredit these two theories, however, they are both shown to be important factors of gender identity. A combination of the two theories as an explanation of why we assume our gender role makes more sense than one or the other, this theory has simply been named the biosocial theory which literally combines the two theories. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason that causes gender identity but it’s fair to assume that because children learn through copying and through praise that the SLT theory is an important factor, furthermore, the tragic case of Bruce Reimer conveys how important biology alone was to his gender identity.

 

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