The theory of gender schema was presented by the psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981. It is a cognitive theory that aims to explain how individuals adopt a gender in society and how the characteristics socially associated with each sex are maintained and transmitted to other members. of the same culture.
Bem said that children learn about male and female roles from the culture in which they live. According to this theory, children adjust their behavior to align with the gender norms of their culture from the earliest stages of their psychosocial development.
The author suggested that Freudian theories were too focused on the influence of anatomy on the development of gender and proposed a new conception. Thus, for Bem, the cognitive development of a child combined with social influences influences the thought patterns (schemes) that correspond to the accepted male and female traits.
The gender schema theory tries to explain how we adopt a gender in society.
Cultural influences in the gender scheme
Gender schemes have an impact not only on how people process information, but also on the attitudes and beliefs that direct behavior considered to be “appropriate for gender”.
For example, a child who lives in a very traditional culture might believe that a woman’s role is to care for and raise children, while a man’s role is focused on work and industry. In this way, they build an internal mental framework related to what men and women can and can not do.
Gender schemes also dictate the value and potential of a person in that culture. For example, a girl raised in a traditional culture might believe that the only way available to her as a woman is to marry and raise children. On the contrary, a girl raised in a more progressive culture, according to their assumed schemes, could pursue a university career, avoid having children or decide not to marry.
Many of these influences are manifest, while others are more subtle. In this sense, it is worth noting that even the placement of gender titles in the vocabulary (normally the masculine one in front of the feminine one) places women in a secondary position systematically.
All of these influences that flow through society, however imperceptible they may seem, influence the construction of each individual’s gender schema. Moreover, both men and women are tacitly aware of the consequences of not adhering to the cultural norm regarding their gender.
Therefore, when they are in a situation of social disapproval for not showing the expected features according to their gender, they may feel pressured to change their behavior or, they will face the rejection of those who do not approve.
Gender stereotypes according to the gender schema theory
Since the gender schema theory is a theory of the process and not of the content, it can also help explain other kinds of processes. For example, those through which gender stereotypes take root so strongly in our society.
Specifically, having strong gender schemes provides a filter through which to process all incoming stimuli in the environment. This allows the person to more easily assimilate the information that will remain stereotyped, which further solidifies the existence of gender stereotypes.
In this sense, and in relation to adolescent development, Bem hypothesizes that, although children can choose from a large number of dimensions related to sex, gender schemata will lead to the adoption of behaviors that conform to the cultural definition of what it means to be a man or a woman, with almost no possibility of choice.
In addition, the psychologist affirms that there is a primitive “subschema of heterosexuality”, which, probably, propitiated the development of the gender schemas that we know today.
In fact, most societies treat heterosexuality as the point of reference for the definition of appropriate masculinity and femininity. Or what is the same: the norm, in many societies, is heterosexuality.
Heterosexuality implies that men and women are different from each other. But also that individuals of the “sexual” type (those who identify with their assigned gender and process information through the lens of that gender scheme) are predisposed to use this scheme in social interactions, behaving differently towards individuals of the opposite sex, depending on whether they are more or less attractive.
About the theory of gender schema
Bem believed that gender schemas are limiting for men, women and society in general. In fact, she considered that raising children free of these stereotypes and limitations would lead to greater freedom and fewer restrictions when it comes to executing free will.