The focus of this chapter is on two decades of advances in theory and research involving cognitive theories of gender development. The primary ways in which contemporary research has built upon previous work include (a) expanding the measurement and conceptualization of gender identities, (b) broadening the scope of gender-related cognitive constructs, and (c) detailing more closely the processes underlying gender development and describing the interrelations among these processes. In this chapter, we review the major themes underlying cognitive approaches, detail recent advances in research involving cognitive theories of gender development, and provide suggestions for future work that will capitalize on these advances.
- Gender identity
- Gender schema
- Cognitive development
- Gender development
- Cognitive theories
- Identity development
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Editors and Affiliations
Spotlight Feature: The Malleability of Gender: Conceptualizing Gender as a Contextual Variable
Spotlight Feature: The Malleability of Gender: Conceptualizing Gender as a Contextual Variable
Theoretical and conceptual models of gender as contextually malleable have been around since the late 1980s. Deaux and Major (1987) were the first psychologists studying gender to propose a contextual model of gender. Their contextual model promoted a social constructivist approach to gender and posited that rather than reflecting an individual’s personality traits, all gendered attributes including gendered attitudes, behaviors, femininity, and masculinity reflect an individual’s interaction with their immediate context (Deaux & Major, 1987, 1998). Viewed this way, gender is dynamic, context dependent, and continuously enacted, changing across time, relationships, and social context (Deaux & Major, 1987, 1998; Leszczynski & Strough, 2008; Shields, 1998).
While this theoretical work has undoubtedly contributed to psychologists’ understanding of gender as contextually dependent, social constructivist theory has not substantially shaped how researchers conceptualize and study gender (Mehta, 2015) and many psychologists studying gender continue to largely conceptualize gender as a single aspect of personality that remains stable across time and contexts. There are, however, a few exceptions (e.g., Cota & Dion, 1986; Pickard & Strough, 2003; Leszczynski & Strough, 2008). Below, we briefly review research studies that have conceptualized and investigated femininity/communion and masculinity/agency as contextually malleable, state variables.
Pickard and Strough (2003) modified the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a measure of stereotypical gender-typed traits (Bem, 1978) to investigate variations in femininity/communion and masculinity/agency in a sample of college students. Specifically, they asked students to rate the extent to which they currently identified with feminine/communal and masculine/agentic adjectives (e.g., “I currently feel nurturing”; “I currently feel aggressive”) both before and after interacting with a same-gender peer and an other-gender peer. They found that participants endorsed more feminine/communal adjectives after playing Jenga® (a turn-taking game in which blocks are removed from a tower) with an other-gender confederate than after playing Jenga® with a same-gender confederate. Additionally, male and female’s self-endorsement of masculine/agentic adjectives did not vary by context.
Using the same methodology, Leszczynski and Strough (2008) replicated these findings in a sample of young adolescents. In this study, both female and male adolescents endorsed more feminine/communal adjectives after playing Jenga® with a female confederate than after playing Jenga® with a male confederate. It could be that some aspects of gender are responsive to situational demands. For example, stereotypical beliefs about appropriate ways of interacting with women (e.g., being polite, collaborative) may have led participants to endorse femininity/communion to a greater extent when interacting with females. In this sample, masculinity/agency once again remained constant across partners. This may reflect that Jenga® elicits masculinity/agency, as even when played collaboratively, the game is competitive as players seek to win.
While these experimental studies have made important contributions to our understanding of femininity/communion and masculinity/agency as contextually modifiable state variables, they are limited in that they have low ecological validity and do not tell us much about how gender varies outside of a research lab, in people’s real-life contexts. To address this limitation, my research group employed Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to study contextual variations in femininity/communion and masculinity/agency. EMA is a research methodology that allows for the repeated measurement of highly variable phenomena across time and contexts (Larson & Richards, 1994). Participants in EMA studies are prompted at random time points across a day to respond to a survey using a smartphone or other digital device (Mehta et al., 2014). Using this methodology, we are able to assess participants’ real-time endorsement of masculinity/agency and femininity/communion in their daily contexts, increasing ecological validity and reducing recall bias (Larson & Richards, 1994).
We used EMA to conduct a 2-week study investigating contextual variation in endorsement of femininity/communion and masculinity/agency. We found that femininity/communion and masculinity/agency varied over the course of the study. These variations were associated with social context. Specifically, men endorsed femininity/communion to a greater extent when they were in the company of women in comparison to when they were in the company of men. Men also reported greater masculinity when they were in the company of men (Mehta & Dementieva, 2017). It may be that masculinity norms—that encourage men to reject stereotypically feminine activities and behaviors (Bosson & Michniewicz, 2013)—lead men to exhibit and endorse low levels of femininity/communion and higher levels of masculinity when they are with other men (Mehta & Dementieva, 2017). Men may endorse greater femininity/communion when they are with women because they feel less pressure to conform to male gender role norms in these contexts (Werking, 1997).
There was no difference in women’s endorsement of femininity across female and male contexts, a finding that may be explained by our femininity measure picking up on a general activation of a socialized general communal/relational and cooperative orientation for women that exists across contexts (Mehta & Dementieva, 2017). Women did, however, report greater masculinity when they were in the company of men, perhaps reflecting women’s desire to build their own status by endorsing characteristics associated with a higher status gender group (Mehta & Dementieva, 2017).
To conclude, I believe that whether gender-related variables are stable or vary across time and context has important implications for the study of gender. In this brief spotlight feature, we have reviewed research that has examined variation in femininity/communion and masculinity/agency across the gender composition of people’s social contexts. However, other types of contexts such as physical context (e.g., home, school, and work) and activity context (playing competitive or cooperative games, volunteering, negotiating, etc.) should be considered. Researchers are often unable to find reliable and reproducible gender differences across a number of gender-related constructs. This is likely to be because many gender-related constructs are not reproducible as they vary across time and space. Consequently, if we do not incorporate context into gender research, our understanding of gender is likely to be incomplete. Furthermore, whether gender-related variables are stable or are contextually malleable has important implications for our broader societal understanding of gender. Shields (2013) describes a reciprocal cycle in which essentialized beliefs about gender differences, based on conceptualizations of gender-related variables as stable, are popularized by the media. The media in turn influences scientific enquiry, which then informs the media. By demonstrating that gender-related variables are not in fact innate pre-determined traits, but rather states that vary according to context, research that can illustrate the contextual specificity of gender-related constructs has the potential to break the cycle of gender essentialism that serves to underscore exaggerated societal beliefs about gender differences (e.g., Hyde, 2005).
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Cook, R.E., Martin, C.L., Nielson, M.G., Xiao, S.X. (2022). Contemporary Cognitive Approaches to Gender Development: New Schemas, New Directions, and New Conceptualizations of Gender. In: VanderLaan, D.P., Wong, W.I. (eds) Gender and Sexuality Development. Focus on Sexuality Research. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84273-4_5
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