Gender identity refers to an individual's identification with a particular gender category; the term encompasses the sense of belonging, attitudes, and values associated with that gender. It can be considered one part of an individual's greater identity or the enduring sense of who one is and what one wants to do. Gender identity is different from sex, which is determined by physiological characteristics of a male or female; it is also different than gender, which is a social determination of what it means to be a man or a woman. In other words, an individual may be biologically female and viewed by society as a woman but may not necessarily identify strongly with the roles, attitudes, and values that most people in society associate with being a woman.
Much of the work on gender identity borrows heavily from research on gender roles and gender schema theory, associated with Sandra Lipsitz Bem. In Bem's theory, strong sex role identification leads to the acquisition of attitudes and behaviors in line with that role. Within this theory, individuals of either gender can take on masculine or feminine roles. Moreover, some individuals display a combination of masculine and feminine roles, while others do not identify with either set of roles. Bem would refer to the former group as androgynous and to the latter group undifferentiated.
Similarly, Janet Taylor Spence refers to differences between instrumental traits and expressive traits, which are similar in concept to Bem's masculinity and femininity, respectively. Spence argued, however, that such a unidimensional view was not enough to fully capture gender identity. She advocated instead for a multidimensional view of gender identity, with each dimension having unique developmental components and correlates. Further work on such a multidimensional conceptualization, by Susan Egan and David Perry, identified four factors based on previous gender research: knowledge of membership in a gender category, feelings of compatibility with gender, feelings of pressure to act in accordance with the gender's roles, and ingroup bias toward the gender. Knowledge of membership refers to the individual identifying of oneself as a man or a woman. Compatibility refers to the extent an individual feels like a typical member of one's gender and even the extent to which one feels content with the gender assignment. Pressure refers to the extent to which an individual perceives parents, peers, and self as wanting the individual's self to conform to gender stereotypes. Finally, ingroup bias refers to the extent to which individuals prefer the gender with which they identify opposed to the other.
Much of the research on the development of gender identity focuses on the development of gender constancy or sustained knowledge of one's sex. Between the ages of two and a half years and six years, children develop a sense of gender constancy. This means that by the age of six, children are able to answer the question, “are you a boy or a girl?” and realize that this answer does not change over time or with differences in appearance (e.g., a boy who wears a pink dress is not suddenly a girl).
Views on the development of additional characteristics of gender identity vary depending on whether one takes a unidimensional or multidimensional perspective on the construct. With a unidimensional view, the understanding of sex roles comes from the discovery of gender constancy, as children learn what is and is not appropriate for their gender. This view of learning and internalizing sex roles is addressed thoroughly using social cognitive theory. It is more difficult to summarize the development of specific dimensions of gender identity in the multidimensional perspective because each dimension has its own trajectory of growth and correlates.
Regardless of which perspective one takes when discussing gender identity, its development remains a salient issue among adolescents. Traditionally, during adolescence individuals begin coming to terms with their overall identities. As adolescents begin assessing who they are and what their roles in the world will be, they have questions regarding the extent to which they are aligned or not with gender-stereotypic behaviors. Just as research shows the importance of a strong general identity in positive psychosocial development, a strong gender identity is also associated with positive psychosocial outcomes. Gender identity need not be sex-stereotypical to be strong; rather, individuals with strong, positive gender identities are confident in who they are and have social support for their identity.
The general pattern of gender identity development may differ across groups. Most notably, several theorists have focused specifically on the development of gender identity among women. The work of Carol Gilligan on identity development in females, while not specifically related to gender identity, has several implications in this area. Gilli-gan's theory states that as girls enter adolescence, they must come to terms with the silent role of women in the social world. Often, this is accompanied in adolescence by a time when girls silence their thoughts and identity. Several theorists have similarly proposed models, specifically for the development of gender identity among women, referred to as feminist or womanist identity theories. These theories focus on the importance of reconciling negative social views of women with individual attitudes and values.
In addition, several studies have concentrated on the extent that race and ethnicity moderate the development of gender identity. Much of this work focuses on African American children and adolescents and has found that negative stereotypes associated with being a Black boy or girl are a risk to positive gender identity development. Some researchers have amplified these general findings by asserting more specifically that stereotypes of the perfect boy or the perfect girl are often White; therefore, the negative outcomes among racial-minority adolescents come from a desire to oppose this standard. Positive identity development is achieved by guiding these adolescents toward more prosocial ways of opposing this standard of perfection.
Another line of research focusing on racial/ethnic variation in the development of gender identity addresses the relationship between gender identity and positive psychosocial outcomes. One such study found that several dimensions of gender identity related to positive psychosocial development for White adolescents were not related for African American adolescents. Among Hispanic students, stronger gender identity was related to negative development for females but related to positive development for males. More research in this area is needed to understand why these differences occur.
Compared to the literature on gender differences in school outcomes, research specifically related to gender identity is lacking. However, the consideration of gender identity is important for more fully understanding observed gender differences in many school-related outcomes.
One line of research relating gender identity to academic outcomes focuses on achievement motivation, and in particular on self-efficacy and stereotype threat. First relating to self-efficacy, some research shows that students with more masculine or androgynous orientations have higher levels of general and academic self-efficacy than do students with feminine or undifferentiated orientations, regardless of gender. Other studies suggest that this relationship between gender identity and self-efficacy may be more subject-specific. For example, some research has found that feminine-oriented students hold higher self-efficacy in writing.
The consideration of gender identity in relation to achievement motivation also has implications for research on stereotype threat or the decrease in achievement when faced with the possibility of confirming a negative belief about one's ingroup. Studies find that female students' mathematics performance diminished when confronted with a threatening gender-related stereotype. Together, research on self-efficacy and stereotype threats approach gender differences in performance as due to enhanced efficacy or anxiety resulting from the requirement of characteristics that are supposedly like or unlike the individual. Improving performance then becomes a matter of persuading students that they can succeed in any subject regardless of their gender.
Additional research focuses on the interaction between students' gender identities and their identities as students. According to research in this area, students view the perfect male and female students differently. The ideal female student is beautiful and does not have to work too hard at being smart; the ideal male student is loud and funny. At the same time, ideal male and female students are good at different subjects, with the ideal male student excelling in the sciences and the idea female student excelling in the arts. Male students hold the most gendered views of good students and are less likely to report liking non-conforming students. This line of research has implications for understanding both how the social context of schools shape gender identities and how students with non-conforming gender identities perform and are accepted in school.
See also:Gender Role Stereotyping
Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 369–371.
Choi, N. (2004). Sex role group differences in specific academic, and general self-efficacy. Journal of Psychology, 138(2), 149–159.
Corby, B. C., Hodges, E. V. E., & Perry, D. G. (2007). Gender identity and adjustment in Black, Hispanic, and White preadolescents. Developmental Psychology, 43(1), 261–266.
Egan, S. K., & Perry, D. G. (2001). Gender identity: A multidimensional analysis with implications for psychosocial adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 37(4), 451–463.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hoffman, R. M. (2006). Gender self-definition and gender self-acceptance in women: Intersections with feminist, womanist, and ethnic identities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 84, 358–372.
Isom, D. A. (2007). Performance, resistance, caring: Racialized gender identity in African American boys. Urban Review, 39(4), 405–423.
Kessels, U. (2005). Fitting into the stereotype: How gender-stereotyped perceptions of prototypic peers relate to liking for school subjects. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 20(3), 309–323.
Neuville, E., & Croizet, J. C. (2007). Can salience of gender identity impair math performance among 7–8 years old girls? The moderating role of task difficulty. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(3), 307–316.
Niemi, N. S. (2005). The emperor has no clothes: Examining the impossible relationship between gendered and academic identities in middle school students. Gender and Education, 17(5), 483–497.
Pajares, F., & Valiante, G. (2001). Gender differences in writing motivation and achievement of middle school students: A function of gender orientation? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 366–381.
Spence, J. T. (1993). Gender-related traits and gender ideology: Evidence for a multifactorial theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(4), 624–635.
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