Lessons in gender

Researchers are learning that there is a broad spectrum of gender identity. And, many people today are expressing themselves in ways that defy easy categorization. But to a great extent, it’s still a male-female, blue vs. pink world.

Why is that? It has to do with gender as a social construction. Every society has ways of assigning characteristics of masculinity and femininity to people born male and female, and giving them certain roles in society. It’s these characteristics and roles that we’re referring to when we talk about gender as a social construction.

You might recall this little rhyme from childhood: “Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails, that's what little boys are made of. Sugar and spice and all things nice, that's what little girls are made of!”

Other examples include the stereotype that girls are naturally good at the arts while boys make better mathematicians and scientists, or that women are caregivers and men are breadwinners.

As a social construction, gender can be slow to change because it is embedded in everything from clothing and education to workplace norms and public policies. It is something we teach our children—usually without even realizing it.

How do we do that? It starts early! Think of the cakes designed for gender reveal parties, the different ways we decorate nurseries for boys and girls, or the ways that toys are organized in stores. All of these are ways that we begin to teach children about who and what they will be, based on whether they were born male or female.

Featured Content

How do parents model gender roles when they play with their children? Read this article about what researchers are learning.

Kids learn gender stereotypes at home

What do toys and Halloween costumes teach children about gender? Read this article from the New York Times to find out!

Boys and girls constrained by toys and costumes


Miller, C. (2015, October 30). Boys and girls, constrained by toys and costumes. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/31/upshot/boys-and-girls-constrained-by-toys-and-costumes.html?_r=1

Moskowitz, C. (2010, June 6). Kids learn gender stereotypes at home. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/6621-kids-learn-gender-stereotypes-home.html

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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