Developmental Trends, Processes, and Associations between Children's Gender Understanding and Felt Pressure to Conform to Gender Roles

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Schroeder, Kingsley Manning
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
March 29, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Lynn Susan Liben, Thesis Advisor
  • Jonathan Emdin Cook, Committee Member
  • Dawn Paula Witherspoon, Committee Member
  • gender development
  • felt pressure
  • parent socialization
  • gender understanding
  • gendered peer relations
Although many theories of gender development place emphasis on children’s cognitions as a precursor to gendered behaviors and attitudes, few researchers have attempted to examine children’s explicit access to and the content of their gender cognitions. The current study aimed to better understand children’s gender cognitions, both in terms of developmental trends and with respect to other gender-related constructs. Seventy-seven children between the ages of six and 12 years (Mage = 9.03 years; 48% girls) were interviewed about their understanding of gender. The interview, presented in both open-ended and forced-choice formats, was designed to tap three specific facets of children’s gender cognitions, namely: (1) definitions of gender category labels, (2) the prescriptive nature of gender, and (3) the origins of gender differences in behavior. The current study also measured children’s felt pressure to conform to traditional gender roles, as it was hypothesized to be associated with children’s understanding of gender. To measure potential precursors and outcomes related to felt pressure, parents responded to questions about their gender socialization strategies and opinions. Children responded to vignettes about their peers’ sexist comments and behaviors. Data showed that younger children defined gender labels by external traits (appearance and behaviors) more than did older children. Additionally, when asked about the origins of gender differences, younger children were more likely to agree with biological reasons than were older children. Contrary to hypotheses, younger children were also more likely to agree that gender differences were the result of socialization and expectations about future roles than were older children. Findings showed substantial support for hypotheses related to the processes surrounding children’s experiences of felt pressure to conform to traditional gender roles. Specifically, parents’ more egalitarian socialization strategies were related to children’s lower levels of felt pressure, and children’s lower levels of felt pressure were related to more frequent confrontation of peers’ sexist comments and behaviors. Data also showed that felt pressure was associated with children’s gender cognitions. That is, children who experienced greater felt pressure to conform to traditional gender roles showed (1) greater agreement with definitions of gender that included appearances and preferences and (2) greater agreement with the notion that children should act like same-gender peers than did children who experienced less felt pressure. Findings are discussed in terms of implications for gender development theory and the role of historical contexts in gender research.