The Social Learning Theory of Gender Development

The Social Learning Theory of Gender Development

This is the theory that children growing up will observe the behaviour of their same-sex parent or other role models and then imitate them. Role models are likely to include friends, teachers and older siblings.

Vicarious reinforcement is when observed behaviour leads to positive consequences and so encourages the child to follow in the same direction. A boy might watch his older brother receive praise for scoring a goal and so he will aspire to do the same. Television and other media, which reinforce gender stereotypes, also play a large role in a child’s gender development.

Williams (1986) was keen to investigate the role television played in the development of a child’s gender identity. He did this by assessing the attitudes of children who lived in towns where television had only just been introduced. Two years later he assessed them again and found that their attitudes were far more gender stereotyped than they were before.

Conclusions: Television plays a large role in shaping a child’s gender identity. Currently an average child watches around 2.6 hours of television a day. We might therefore assume that television plays an even greater role in shaping gender identity than it did at the time of Williams’ study.


Evaluation of the social learning theory This theory falls down on the nurture side of the nature/nurture argument and doesn’t take biological differences into account. Nevertheless it is a well researched theory and has a lot of evidence to support it. What the theory doesn’t explain is why children tend to be more observant of the behaviour of the same-sex parent, or why many children brought up in one-parent families don’t develop gender disturbances.