Gender Constancy

Gender constancy is a child's emerging realization that he or she is a boy or girl permanently; part of a sequence that includes gender identity, gender stability, and gender consistency.

The gender constancy theory was introduced by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) in 1966, influenced by the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Kohlberg advanced the idea that the development of sex roles depends in large part on a child's gradual awareness that gender remains constant throughout a person's lifetime. Children realize that they are male or female and are aware of the gender of others by the age of three. However, at these ages they still do not understand that people cannot change genders the way they can change their clothes, names, or behavior. Based on Piaget's cognitive development theory, Kohlberg hypothesized that children do not learn to behave in gender-appropriate ways until about age seven when they begin to understand that gender is permanent. At this point of gender constancy they start modeling the behavior of members of their own sex. Kohlberg's theory suggests that children's understanding of gender goes through stages linked to the development of thought processes as their brains mature. Although Kohlberg's theory is supported by research, it has been criticized on the grounds that children do show certain types of gender-associated behavior, such as toy and playmate selection, by age two or three. This points to the fact that there are others factors, such as parental reinforcement, that influence the adoption of gender-specific behavior.

The stages of gender awareness put forth by Kohlberg's theory of gender development have been described as follows:

Studies have reevaluated Kohlberg's idea that reaching the gender constancy stage motivates children to adopt gender norms, especially examining links to age. When 94 children ages three to seven were interviewed to evaluate whether constancy mediated age-related changes in gender beliefs, a general pattern was found of increased gender-specific or stereotypical knowledge. Children understood the importance of their own gender between ages three and five and even prior to reaching gender constancy held positive and rigid gender-related beliefs. Rigidity decreased in children older than age five and genderrelated beliefs were mediated by consistency.

The sex-type behavior of children also may be different in the presence of adults. When preschoolers were divided into gender-schematic or aschematic based on their measured responses to sex stereotype components and were then given gender typical and atypical attractive and unattractive toys to play with, the presence of an adult influenced the aschematic but not schematic children. For example, aschematic boys who were being observed played more with unattractive masculine toys than did the unobserved boys. This behavior, however, was not found to be significant among girls. Results of similar studies have shown that children, boys more than girls, who have reached gender constancy are more likely to choose sex-typed toys even if they are uninteresting. Such studies emphasize the complexity of gender schemas.

Spontaneous gender stereotyping in children aged about five (mean age 5.1 years) was investigated by assigning gender-stereotypical toys to boys and girls in either stereotype-congruent or stereotype-incongruent manner. It was found that these children took longer to adopt stereotype-incongruent toys compared to stereotype-congruent, indicating a tendency to accept gender-specific toys. In a group of children between ages 5 and 11, stereotype flexibility increased strongly, and stereotype knowledge and spontaneous stereotyping remained stable. These results indicate a lack of relationship between stereotype flexibility and spontaneous stereotyping, suggesting a closer association between spontaneous stereotyping and stereotype knowledge and adding credence to the relationship between gender constancy and cognitive development.

Piaget's cognitive development theory states that children's thought processes mature as they mature biologically and complex concepts will only be understood when they are biologically ready, not before. When it comes to arriving at gender constancy, gender development is surely an interaction between nature and nurture. As children mature biologically and pass through stages of brain and cognitive development, they achieve gender constancy when biologically ready. However, once at that gender constancy stage they also may behave in gender-typical ways as a result of socialization. Some psychologists believe that the cognitive development theory challenges the idea of gender constancy and do not view gender as something constant and immutable. Instead, gender constancy is a product of social learning.

Cognitive psychologists emphasize the role of thought processes in explaining how gender identity and gender roles develop, as well as how children's understanding of gender changes over time. They attribute the changes in understanding to the accumulation of information about gender obtained from the environment, in conjunction with biological development in the child's brain that gradually allows the processing of information in more sophisticated ways.

See also Gender identity .


Gender schema—
A cognitive theory explaining how individuals become gendered within society and how sex-related characteristics are maintained and transmitted to others; gender schemas are formed as children observe how society defines male and female within their culture.
An organized set of genderrelated beliefs that influence behavior.
An unconscious attribution of specific qualities or characteristics to a member of a certain group such as social group or gender group; applying a spontaneous or implicit stereotype.



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Banse, R., Gawronski, et al. “The Development Of Spontaneous Gender Stereotyping in Childhood: Relations to Stereotype Knowledge and Stereotype Flexibility.” Developmental Science 13 (March 2010): 298–306.

Rubie, D. N., et al. “The Role of Gender Constancy in Early Gender Development.” Child Development 78 (July/ August 2007): 1131–36.

Wilansky-Traynor, P., and T. E. Lovel. “Differential Effects of an Adult Observer's Presence On Sex-Typed Play Behavior: A Comparison Between Gender-Schematic and Gender-Aschematic Preschool Children.” Archives of Sex Behavior 37 (August 2008): 548–57.

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