Gender refers to the social, political, economic, and cultural attributes and opportunities typically associated with being a woman, man, girl, or boy. This includes social norms, expected behaviours and values, and familial roles. These attributes and their subsequent opportunities are both context and time-specific – changing and adapting as our society does.
Gender interacts with but is different from sex, which refers to the biological and physiological features of males, females, and intersex individuals – including chromosomes, reproductive organs, and sex hormones.
Gender identity refers to an individual’s innate experience of gender, whether it correlates with, or differs from their physiology or assigned sex.
So how do we arrive at our gender identity?
Stages of gender and identity development
The earliest exploration of gender and identity development was by Lawrence Kohlberg in 1966. Kohlberg proposed there were three complete stages of gender and identity development:
1. Gender labelling (0-3)
During this stage, children become conscious of the difference between girls and boys with the ability to correctly label themselves and others as such. At this stage children do not understand gender as unchanging.
2. Gender stability (3-5)
During this stage, children begin to understand gender is fixed and not a variable attribute, with the acknowledgement that girls will become women and boys will become men.
3. Gender constancy (5-7)
During this stage, children have full comprehension of gender as a constant and unchanging attribute. Children will begin to socialise within their gender, seeking to learn their gender-specific behaviours and expectations. Many of these gender-specific expectations are internalised through parental/peer observation, which is then reinforced and mimicked.
Following this, in 1980 Erik Erikson developed the theory of psychosocial development – with the fifth stage ‘Identity vs. confusion’ exploring gender and identity development. Unlike the rigidity of Kohlberg’s stages, Erikson highlighted the role of personal exploration and fluid experimentation with gender and identity. Further speculating that this process of gender and identity development surpasses early childhood and continues into adolescence – with this stage occurring between the ages of 12-18.
In modern times, there is an increasing understanding of the broader interpretation of sex and gender, with more of an emphasis on self-acceptance and fulfilment taking precedence over societal gender normative expectations. With our knowledge of gender and identity expanding, and our shifting understanding of biological sex and gender, it is likely that theories such as these will continue to develop and evolve – providing a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of sexuality and gender development.