Gender Construction

“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; and fill me, from crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty”.

“To be or not to be”….. How does it happen?

(Shakespeare, 1606-7)

The following five points may be significant for an understanding of how gender is socially constructed. (1) The first point is that there are a range of sometimes conflicting theories that attempt to explain gender and gendered behaviours, that raise questions that further research may not answer absolutely. The second point is that gendered behaviours have been viewed as responses/reactions to power and authority in such things as British Colonization, Capitalism, Patriarchy, families, adult/child relations, workplace, groups, and institutions such as schools. Point number three is that messages from media, texts, history, popular culture and social structures are believed to have a powerful influence on gender construction. Point number four is that gender construction has been viewed as taking place through ‘discourse’. The final point, number five, is that public places such as schools are important sites of gender construction/production, reproduction. These points are all interrelated and cannot be discussed in depth without overlapping into another.


The concept of Gender is ‘one of the muddiest concepts’ according to Constantinople (Connell, 1993, 174). It is ‘problematic’ (Thorne, 1993, 58), because it means different things to different people. Some use the word interchangeably with the word sex. Eg. ‘Gender’ is written on some documents to find out the biological nature of the person filling out the form. For some who view it from a biologically determined perspective, it is a natural outcome of such things as genetics, hormones and brain organisation. (Weiten, 1998, 464). For some who view it from an environmentally determined perspective, the word is used when referring to the variable and negotiable, culturally and socially constructed ways of being ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in a particular historical or cultural circumstance (Measor and Sykes, 1992, 5). The concept is as problematic as the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate! It is also problematic because the concept of gender has introduced a range of influential and derogatory vocabulary that is reinforced, through popular beliefs and usage. E.g. ‘Tomboy’, ‘Wimp’, ‘masculine’, and ‘feminine’.

The concepts raise questions such as: Why use the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ when referring to behaviours and characteristics, thereby inferring that some are normal for a particular sex? Why not just call them behaviours and characteristics? Surely leadership qualities are not ‘masculine’ or male behaviours. Surely caring qualities are not ‘feminine’ or female behaviour.

Are there any behaviours that are only socially constructed? Are all but physical differences between the sexes socially constructed?

How much control does a person have in becoming and being who they are?

Would genderless behaviour mean eliminating the word ‘gender’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’? Do we want to become so indiscriminate that we accept as many ways of being that are possible or desired?

In the field of gender research there are ‘problems’ also. Although much research has been done on gender differences, conclusions have sometimes been postulated in the form of group stereotypes about ‘average people’ which fail to show the range of individual differences (Weiten, 1989, 462-3), and make the presumption that girls and women / men and boys are a homogeneous group (Sturrock, 1995, 127). Differences between and within the sexes, have been magnified because similarities have been neglected in studies. According to Howard and Hollander (1987, 12), differences between the sexes have been found to be minimal.

There are a number of frameworks that have been used to classify the different gender theories. E.g Connell (1993, 41-65) uses, ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ to classify theories. The frameworks make it appear that the dominant academic theory has moved in stages from (1) favouring a biological imperative orientation to (2) a socially contracted one, to (3) a socially constructed one and now to (4) a more holistic one. I will use the framework that Howard and Hollander (1997) have used as a base to explain and discus some of the gender theories. Ie. Essentialist Theory, Socialisation Theory, Social Construction Theory, and Post-structural Theory.

Essentialist theories suggest that ‘natural’ things like sex, genetics, hormones and brain organisation determine gender (Weiten, 1989, 464), (Howard and Holland, 1987, 153). These theories neglect to account for the interaction of cultural and structural influences and of human agency. They tend to equate gender with sex.

In Socialisation Theory gender differences have environmental origins and are mainly the result of socialisation via the three main processes of ‘operant conditioning’, ‘observational learning’, and ‘self socialisation’ (Weiten, 1989, 465-7). They suggest that children actively learn through observation of role models and the reinforcements of powerful ‘others’ to classify themselves as male or female and to further value the characteristics and behaviours associated with their sex. Families, schools and media are considered to be the three most influential sources of gender socialisation. These theories do not explain the structural and physiological influences, nor why people develop ideological positions contrary to the significant others in their environment. They do explain some gendered behaviour. E.g. A number of mothers excuse what could be called anti-social behaviour on the grounds that it is ‘real boy behaviour’, when boys are preschoolers. The community is not so pleased with similar behaviours when the boys get a little older.

Social Constructionists theorise that gender is constructed by individuals through their actions. It sees the influence of the positions people have in social structures, character, cognition, and resources as deterministic but neglects to include the effects of human agency.

Post-structural Theories suggest that gender is consciously and unconsciously constructed as the result of cultural and social activities. It takes into account the complex interactions of human agency with the ‘constraining nature of social structure’ (Howard and Hollander, 1987, 43). It views gender construction as a process of ‘subjectification’ not socialisation and this takes place through the discourses they have available to them (Davies, 1993, 13-14). These theories tend to leave out the influence of the physiological area in the gender construction equation. The human being is a complex creature. If gender is only socially constructed, then aggression, which is sometimes referred to as a masculine trait, must be self-controllable. Yet brain injuries and medications such as Ritalin, and hormone treatments such as Progestin are known to impact on this social (or anti social) behaviour (Fausto-Sterling, 1992, 134). (2)

Franzoi (1996, 156), suggests that ‘together’ some of the theories give a better understanding than any single perspective. Each of the theories has something to offer. Biological potentials filtered through cultural beliefs and understandings have influenced the gendered division of labour, which in turn influences gender construction. Eg. the ability to sing soprano will influence choices about whether to do so or not. Some aspects of Gender are learned and maintained through socialisation. Social position in various social heirarchies such as race, class, age and sex orientation have an influence as do various structures. Human agency can also be seen at work in constructing and attempting to deconstruct gender realities


Many cultural practices are involved in the construction of gendered subjectivity (Clark, 1993, 81) . (3) Cultural ideals about men, women, girls and boys are created and maintained through overt messages from media, and intrinsic messages everywhere. Messages are embedded in and affect every area of production, the labour force, the market and society. For example, when clothing is designed, it is influenced by messages from the past and present. These are popularised through various media channels. Even the production process sends messages about the product. Desires for the product are created and influenced by a whole range of things such as store layout and atmosphere, display design and advertising. Clothing is advertised and displayed using life style messages about its rightness, ‘coolness’, and appropriateness for a particular sex and group. The clothes become part of the stereotyping of a particular masculinity or femininity and send gender messages. Moral judgements about who do and don’t wear the particular clothing are formed. People then resist or accept the messages conveyed in the clothing package, although life style may preclude the power to but. These include lifestyle and promises of things like beauty, power and acceptability.

Gender messages have a powerful influence on gender construction. However they are not ‘simply absorbed’ (Clark, 1993, 81). They can be accepted or rejected. E.g. Hursthouse, a Victorian emigrant, immigrated to New Zealand because he wanted to ‘throw off the chains of effeminacy’ that pervaded/engulfed Britain, and ‘become a man’. He lectured and published a book that was ‘excerpted’ in a popular emigration publication. (Phillips, 1987, 4-5). Hursthouse, recognised and rejected the influence of the gender messages he perceived in the job situation in Britain (Phillips, 1987, 4-5). He rejected what he considered ‘effeminate’ masculinity, which he saw as the hegemonic masculinity in his English world and he encouraged others to do the same. Some may have been influenced by the overt messages Hursthouse published such as “New Zealand is a man’s country” and consequently emigrated. This may have increased the power of Patriarchy in New Zealand and the acceptance of the Fred Dagg image.


Power (force and influence) and authority (legitimate power) are ‘fluid and contextual’ (Thorne 1993, 159). They work in many ways through many means to genderize. According to the socialisation theory of operant conditioning, ‘gender roles are shaped by the power of reward and punishment’ (Weiten, 1989, 465). Significant others use the power of rewards and punishment to reinforce what they consider to be appropriate gender behaviour. They are able to do this because of their powerful positions. E.g. the adult/child relationship.

Power relations in cultural processes and social structure also genderize (Gilbert and Taylor, 6). According to James & Saville-Smith (1989, 14-16), New Zealand gendered culture emerged out of the ‘exigencies of British colonisation’. It was not imported, nor part of the Maori culture. It developed as a way to cope with struggles over land. This resulted in social problems which some believe resulted in the ‘elaboration of particular forms of femininity and masculinity’ and their organisation into distinct female (‘the cult of domesticity’) and male (‘the man alone’ and ‘the family man’) cultures. It is believed that these Patriarchal cultures were maintained because difference was seen as biological, therefore normal and desirable, benefiting those in dominant positions in the hierarchies of race, class and sex. There were also some benefits to some subordinated groups who were able to expand their access to power and resources. The ‘glass cellar’ effect, where men feel ‘drafted’ into hazardous jobs because of the money they pay, could be used to support this theory. (4)

Power has a constraining function on social practice (Connell, 1987, 107). Its role as a constraint can be seen in what is called the ‘glass ceiling’ effect where ‘male dominance’, among other things, has lead to conditions that keep women from advancing into positions of power and prestige (Connell, 1987, 83). 5 It can also be seen in the limiting, legitimising and/or marginalisation of some forms of masculinity and femininity. Power also plays a part in what is questioned or challenged. Clark (1993, 83) suggests that some forms of gender persist because they are not questioned or challenged.

Power shapes language and knowledge and this includes the definitions of words relating to gender. This power can be seen in how and what adults teach children, or what children learn from adults, and what educational institutions such as schools and universities put forward as acceptable language and knowledge to be learned. Some words, theories, and subjects are made more powerful in all sorts of ways because of the power that individuals, groups and institutions have . (6) Those who support, and /or use them are also invested in power.

Power works in all of the structures and processes of credentialing which in turn empowers those who are credentialed. 7 According to Connell (1993, 199) credentials open the door for a gendered identity for males, that include forms of passivity, rationality and responsibility, as opposed to ‘pride and aggression’ for those who are not. 8 According to Kerr (1991, 69 & 72) it is a sense of ‘separation’ and a refusal to acknowledge gender limitations, that allows eminent women to resist the ‘daily barrage of stereotypic sex-role images and media comments’, and ‘powerful peer group pressure to conform’. Fleming (1996, 138) puts forth an argument for social self-esteem as an important factor in androgyny and agency. (9) Perhaps the measure of the power within has the greatest influence on which form of masculinity or femininity (types of behaviour/characteristics etc.) a person exhibits/accepts/constructs/resists. (10)


The social construction of gender takes place through ‘Discourse’. Feminist Post-structural Theory changes the ‘ideological’ understanding of the word to mean the complex interactions between language, social practice and emotional investment (Yelland, 1998, 159).

Language is used to categorise people on the basis of sex and gender. E.g. wife/husband, masculine/feminine, waitress/waiter. These categories give rise to expectations about how people should be. E.g. The category ‘girl’ influences gender specific expectations about what a girl is, looks like and does etc. Patterns of desire become associated with particular categories and social practises arise. (E.g. Clothing is designed to distinguish girls from boys). Emotional investments are made to ensure that the social practices are ‘right’. Discourses produce a sense of what is right and/or normal and can become institutionalised enabling some people to exercise power. E.g. parenting theories and Piaget’s ages and stages theories. Those discourses that have more political or social power dominate and can marginalise others. This political strength can be derived from their institutional location. E.g. schools.

Although gender is actively negotiated, ‘powerful discourses circulate in and via social structures and institutions’ and shape desires, making some ‘ways of being’ more possible than others (Yelland, 1998, 160). According to Weedon (Yelland, 1998, 160), the range and social power of discourses, the political strength of the interests they represent and a persons access to them will determine some of the gendered choices people make.


Gendered behaviour is more often visible in public places particularly in public places such as schools (Thorne, 1993, 49-55). Schools are important sites of gender construction and reproduction because they are invested consciously and unconsciously (The not so Hidden Curriculum!) with authority to reproduce dominant ideologies, hierarchies, and gendered culture. E.g. ‘Hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity’ (Connell, 1985, 183). This is done through such things as age separation, the choice of knowledge, timetables, resources, teacher expectations, interactions, control of space, and heirachical structures. 11 They are important sites also because of the inequalities that their gendered structures and practices produce for their ‘captive audience’, and because it is a site where changes can and are wrought. E.g. One of the changes that primary schools made in the name of anti-sexism, was to eliminate the images of females in traditional sex roles and include images of men in non traditional sex roles. This powerful practice was another form of ‘sexism’ and gendering. It sent and continues to send value-laden messages about (behaviours/characteristics) which forms of masculinity and femininity are acceptable. This may have contributed to the loss of social status and other negative attitudes, that women who choose to ‘stay at home’ now often face (McKenna, 1997, 130-1).


Gender construction is as complex a subject as the human being, and would benefit from multi and interdisciplinary analysis (Miller, 1993, 17). It can be viewed as a form of self-preservation. As an individual and social construction, it is negotiated actively as a response and/or reaction to power and authority, and messages from everywhere including media. Gendered behaviours tend to vary with the context. Flexibility is seen not only in the development of a gender self-concept (Fausto-Sterling, 1992, 89), but also in its maintenance. It is not a rigid way of being or a passive form of ‘osmosis’ (Yelland, 1998, 7). However, desires can be shaped by external influences such as medications and the way in which powerful discourses circulate in, and via, social structures and institutions’ (Yelland, 1998, 149).

MacNaughton encourages people to continue to search for more effective ways to theorise and not assume to have found the ‘right way forward’ (Yelland, 1998, 172).

Perhaps the door might be opened to valuing the variety of behaviours that are possible and helpful for unique people to express themselves, not so much by deleting certain forms of masculinity and femininity, but by allowing more to be seen and experienced. Ie. Limiting the hegemonic nature of some forms.

Oh to be sexless where love can be unlimited!

To be or not to be? How does it really happen?

If the answer could be practiced, would it be what we really wanted?


1. ‘Are significant’ is too powerful for me to use after such a short excursion into this topic.

2. It is interesting to note also that a correlation has been found between giftedness and physical superiority, giftedness and intellectual ability, and intellectual ability and some forms of masculinity and femininity (Clark, 1992, 509, 516).

3. “Subjectivity” describes who we are and how we understand ourselves, consciously and unconsciously’ (Yelland, 1998, 13).

4. ‘Invisible barriers that keep men in jobs with the most hazards’ Farrell, 1994, 107)

5. ‘Invisible barriers and difficulties that prevent women rising in organisations’ (McLennan, 1995, 189).

6. The ‘sciences are connected to power”. ‘They represent an institutionalized version of the claim to power hat is central in hegemonic masculinity’ (Connell, 1993, 201).

7. According to Connell (1993, 200), ‘masculinity shapes education and education forms masculinity’. It could also be argued that femininity does the same thing. The ‘feminisation’ of schools is referred to as one of the reasons for boys lack of success in schools (Video Classroom).

8. It is interesting to note that gifted girls ‘who reject the traditional feminine sex typed behaviour have higher intellectual ability than those who accept the feminine stereotype (Clark, 1992, 509). Or put the other way, androgyny is a trait that is more often seen in gifted girls.

9. Instrumental traits (independence, decisiveness) that contribute to a ‘sense of agency are stereotypically viewed as masculine’ (Fleming and Hollinger, 1988, 254). Does a person need a sense of agency in order to construct it?

10. With more space and time, the links of power with fear could have been examined, as it has an important bearing on gender choices. Mckenna (1997, 132) calls it a ‘powerful adhesive’.

11. ‘Researchers found that gender separation and age separation went together’ (Thorne, 1993, 50).


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The Trouble With Boys. Education and Training Resources. Melbourne: VC Media Video Classroom