Martin and Halverson suggested an alternative to the cognitive-developmental approach proposed by Kohlberg and called it the gender schema theory. In Kohlberg’s theory, children must reach gender consistency before they are able to begin imitating the behaviour of same sex role models.
In gender schema theory the early gender identity acquired at about the age of three is the starting point to which children will then begin to look for schemas, schemas are packages of organised clutters of information about gender-appropriate behaviour and children learn these schemas by interacting with people, such as learning which toys to play with, which clothes to wear etc. and these help children to make sense of the world around them and help children to organise their experiences and process new information and also to help self-evaluate themselves, this is to help them feel good about themselves.
Support for the gender schema theory was conducted by Martin et al 1995 who showed toys to children aged four to five. Children were informed, before choosing a toy to play with that it was either a girls toy or a boys toy, they were then asked whether they and other boys or girls would like to play with the toys. They found that if a toy, such as a magnet, was given the label of being a boys toy then only boys would play with it.
However if boys were told that it was a girl toy then they didn’t want to play with it. Similarly girls would not play with toys labelled for boys. The label given at the start consistently affected the children’s toy preference. It is an important finding in that it highlights the labelling and the categorisation of objects that children are subjected to from a young age, and how their toys can be labelled in the same way as appropriate gender behaviour.
A limitation of this research is that an observation of the children and although it has high ecological validity as it is in a real life setting, the children may have shown demand characteristics as the toys were stereotyped for their gender it is questionable if they had guessed the aim of the research and the results may have been due to the children trying to please the researcher as they may have thought they would get punished for choosing the wrong gendered toy to play with and how much of the children’s choice was due to free-will.
It was also done in a controlled environment which means that the findings cannot be generalised outside of the research setting. Bauer 1993 wanted to investigate this further and set out to study the way in which children call upon gender schemas when processing information. Pre-school-age and older children have been found to process gender consistent and gender inconsistent information differently so Bauer wanted to see if this was the case in very young children as well.
Bauer devised a way to test girls and boys as young as twenty-five months of age. Children observed the experimenter carry out short sequences of stereotypically female, male or gender neutral activities, for example, changing a nappy, shaving a teddy bear or going on a treasure hunt. She tested children by ‘elicited imitation’ both immediately after and 24 hours later to see if they would copy what they had seen.
Bauer found that girls showed equivalent quality of recall for all three types of sequence, boys on the other hand showed superior recall of male stereotyped activities, meaning they would not imitate any female behaviour and their recall for gender neutral activities was the same as for male stereotyped activities. These results indicate that boys more than girls tend to make use of gender schemas by the age of twenty-five months and boys appear to remember more accurately event sequences consistent with their own gender, whereas girls show no difference in recall of gender consistent and gender inconsistent information.
A limitation of this research is that it could be due to boys being more likely to be penalised by their parents, especially their fathers for carrying out female stereotyped activities, so the children may have played with the male stereotyped toys even if they wanted to play with the other female stereotyped toys.
The findings may also be down to that Bauer, who modelled the sequences, is female and the boys may have felt uncomfortable in copying her behaviour. Gender schema theory is parsimonious as it tries to explain gender through cognitive development and does not take into consideration biological gender differences, such as chromosomes, genes or hormones. It is also alpha-bias as it exaggerates the differences between men and women.