What is gender schema theory in psychology?

Gender Schema Theory is a cognitive theory that was formulated by psychologist Sandra Bem in 1981. It states that gender roles stem from the culture in which a person is brought up rather than being inborn. This theory attempts to demonstrate how individuals become gendered and how the sex-specific characteristics are retained and further passed-on to other members of the society.  She asserts that children get to know about gender roles from the environment of their upbringing. According to the theory, children are conditioned to act or have an attitude that aligns with gender stereotypes. This process starts way earlier in the stages of social development.

The following article attempts to explore this psychological theory.

Table of contents:

  1. Gender stereotypes
  2. Some experimental evidences
  3. The role of culture
  4. The upshot of the theory
  5. How to bring a positive social change


Since gender schema theory is a theory that deals with the processing of information, it can very well explain why gender stereotypes are extensively psychologically ingrained in our society. An individual having strong gender schema processes stimuli from the environment through a filter which is induced by the gender schema itself. This results in an easier ability to grasp information that is stereotypical, hence further emboldening the gender stereotypes. While cognitive and social development of a child, Bem says that gender schemas are responsible for the regulation of children’s behaviour that match-up to the cultural definition of masculinity or feminity. Moreover, she argues that there is yet another underlying theory of heterosexuality sub-schema, which has encouraged the formation of gender schemas. Most cultures treat heterosexuality as the norm and that men and women are supposed to be different from one another.


According to the Gender Schema Theory, individuals are specifically sensitive to information related to their own gender identities. When people recognise higher similarities between their behaviour and gender-specific standards, they go through positive emotions and increased self-esteem.  On the other hand, behaviours in contrast to gender identities  give rise to negative emotions and decreased self-esteem.

For instance, in a study conducted by psychologist Wendy Wood (1997), men with a stronger masculine identity were delighted when recollecting incidents in which they acted dominant and assertive (perceived masculine traits), conversely, women with a stronger feminine identity felt content about themselves after when recalling incidents in which they acted nurturant. (perceived feminine trait).

Interestingly, in yet another study conducted by Josephs, Markus and Tafarodi (1992), it was revealed that emotion plays a significant role in self-regulating one’s behaviour. It acts as an indication to manipulate future behaviour. When one’s behaviour is inconsistent with perceived standards, it induces bad feelings,  which in turn brings forth the need to change behaviour to make it more aligned to the standards. Thus, emotions serve as a signal whether one needs to shift their behaviour in the future. In the study conducted, men and women were told that they have failed at an initial task (which was gender typical). High self-esteem men demonstrated greater success at tasks that were regarded as masculine, such as leadership roles or a competitive task. Similarly, high self-esteem women demonstrated greater success at future tasks which were feminine in nature, such as those involving interpersonal relationships. Thus, by aligning one’s subsequent behaviours guided by emotions, individuals are conditioned to parallel more closely to the gender identities and standards in the future.


Culture not only affects one’s behaviour and attitude but also influences the thought process of the person.

For example, in a traditional societal setup, where girls grow up seeing women only in care-giving and other domestic roles might conclude that women are only fit for getting married, being a housewife and raise children. On the other hand, boys may remain under the impression that men belong to work and industry.

The policing of gender norms starts right at schools. Boys are bullied for liking the colour pink, girls are shamed for having too much facial and body hair so on and so forth.

Another striking yet not surprising gender schema we see is the bias that certain occupations are best fit for men and others for women. For example, STEM and business-related professions are male-dominated while teaching and medical and even art-related streams have female dominance.

These classifications in the preconceived suited profession reinforces the idea that women are better at raising and care-giving roles as well as more emotionally intelligent than their male counterparts. On the contrary, men are thought to be better at analytical and administrative or leadership roles.

Media, as well as language and literature, play significant roles in fostering the gender bias. For instance, in the movie Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman says – “You are not brave, men are brave” enforces that bravery and courage are specifically masculine traits.

Also, the placement of gender titles as for example- “there were men and women in the hall”, subconsciously places women in a secondary position by rule.

But just like coins, everything has two sides. Gender conditioning is prevalent not only in traditional societies but also in progressive ones. A woman who chooses to stick to domestic roles like that of a housewife might come across as “culturally backward”.

It is interesting to note that in the progressive and liberal society, that we are proud to be living in, does not lag behind in enforcing the “modern culture” into our minds.

Such patterns of thought adversely affect all the genders be it men, women or other non-binary genders.  These cultural conditionings restrict unbounded cognitive and social growth of individuals. They lead to confining the characteristics of children into socially prescribed gender norms.


Sandra Bem’s gender schema theory was short-lived and quick to lose hold over the psychology of gender development. This theory was inspired by the cognitive revolution during the period of 1970-1980s. As more and more women were taking up into academic fields, psychology of gender was specifically gaining popularity. But as broad-ranging sociological theories started to become the mainstream in the study of gender psychology, the impact of gender schema theory eventually tailed-off. However, the theory does explain how gender stereotypes are propagated from generation to generation and their survival is ensured in the society.

Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI)

The longest-lasting contribution of the gender schema theory has been the Bem Sex-Role Inventory.

According to the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, people happen to be into one of the four different gender categories:

  • Sex-typed individuals are those who relate closely with their gender identities and process information within the scope of that gender schema.
  • Cross-typed individuals process information within the scope of the opposite gender’s schema.
  • Androgynous individuals manifest both masculine and feminine thought process.
  • Undifferentiated individuals do not show consistent use of sex-typed processing.


A potential source of sex-typing is the environment in which children are brought up. Sandra Bem suggests that to curb the sex-typing of children, access to media which encourages sex-typing should be prohibited and equal roles should be cast for mother and father within the household. However, such measures have limited outreach. As children start going to school and interact more and more beyond the four walls of a home, they are bound to get exposed to sex-typing information. Therefore, this issue has to be addressed collectively by all the individuals of the society. It can be effectively tackled by introducing an alternative schema to children. For example, the schema of individual differences which is based on individuality. In this, information is processed on a person-by-person basis instead of making broad presumptions about a group based on information from individuals belonging to that particular group. Also, children must be encouraged to spark moral outrage when and where they encounter any sexist information. This will help not only in preventing children from being sex-typed but also bring about a positive change in the society.





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Ushashi is a content writer at Sociology Group. She is a second-year student, pursuing Economics honours from Miranda House, Delhi University. An active participant in social entrepreneurship ventures, she has also been a part of Connecting Dreams Foundation of her college. Her writing is not the only thing having a creative aspect, she's equally creative in sketching and designing, not just her work but also the lives of the people around her.