Gender Differences, Reflected in Play – Dissertation Sample

Children in the primary years of school learn much both in and out of the classroom.  This is the time they begin reading, writing, and basic mathematics.  During these crucial years they are also learning who they are and how they relate to the world around them.  One important aspect of this development of self-concept is the idea of gender.  Children bring to their primary years an understanding developed through home, community, and previous educational experiences of their own genders and those of others.  However, gender concepts are often encouraged and reinforced significantly during the primary years, both in the classroom and through structured and unstructured play.


It is important to begin with an examination of what gender really is.  Most research into gender has been undertaken by those representing feminist, homosexual, or other non-traditional gender constructs, and possibly for this reason has received less attention in traditional media or education forums.  This leads to a misunderstanding of gender, its implications on the individual’s development, and its influence on the education and play of children.  However, the conscious or unconscious attitudes towards gender that surround children have great impact both on their concepts of gender definition and their own understanding of their freedom to develop a self-image within gender boundaries. 

Gender and chromosomal sex are often confused in the minds of many people.  A person is born with either male or female genitalia, which determines both their sex and gender.  This is a misunderstanding of both gender and its development within the individual.  Most people are born from a physical standpoint as either female or male, although some rare individuals are born with part or all of both physical attributes, and a rarer group with neither ().  However, physical equipment is not the determinant of gender, society is.  Most societies have historically held that physical “maleness” or “femaleness” determines gender, which then leads to the development of certain sexual desires, attributes and actions (Butler 1990). 

Physical differences were believed to create two distinct genders, male and female.  Being a man, that is, having masculine desires and performing masculine actions, is distinct and wholly separate from being a woman, with feminine desires and performances.  Masculine and feminine traits were believed to not be a matter of choice, which caused all individuals to be classified as either male or female (Hawkesworth 1997).  Importantly, this leads most societies to value a heteronormality, and try to conform to the male/female binary or somehow bring under control anyone with desires or actions outside of the these gender distinctions.  (Gamson and Moon 2004). 

People who behave outside of the traditional genders have been found to be stigmatised by society and considered deviant (Epstein 1997).  This is particularly difficult for young children who do not fit gender norms.  Little girls who excel at traditionally male activity, such as sport, or who have a boyish appearance are often the targets of slurs and bullying; even more often such are directed at effeminate boys or young men participating in traditionally feminine pursuits ().  Whilst there has been a relaxation of gender absolutes in recent years, children (and adults) still face a strong pressure from society to conform to the community’s ideas of male and female.  Society tries to “fix” individuals outside what it considers to be normative behaviour, often with the best intentions, by pressuring those in a minority gender role to conform to stereotypical patterns of behaviour (Epstein 1997).  Those who remain the male / female binary, refusing to conform, are “either excluded or demonised, and the border between the normal and the perverse is carefully patrolled” (Bem 1995, 331).

People, especially children, are therefore forced to choose one gender role or the other, or be socially outcast.  If androgyny exists, the community will typically assign gender to the individual based on appearance(Lucal 1999).  “Gender traits are called attributes for a reason:  People attribute traits to others.  No one possesses them.  Traits are the process of evaluation” (Weston 1996, 21).  Young children often use a variety of external appearance symbols to decide the gender of another, and some believe, for example, that if a boy grows long hair and wears nail polish he will become a girl. 

By the primary years, however, basic gender definition is already substantially established, both as part of the self-concept of the individual child and in the minds of children as a group (Jordan 1995).  Children are progressing during this period, however, in the development of their own gender identity, whether or not it fits with prescribed norms.  Children during the primary years are also continuing in the negotiation of gender definitions, and are subsequently open to an expansion of gender beyond the rigid “boys act this way” and “girls act this way” stereotypes (Jordan 1995).  Teachers at the primary level have the opportunity to expand these ideas of gender to allow a wider availability of self-expression, or confirm traditional gender stereotypes, often with profound affect on their students (Jordan 1995).

This development of gender concept has extremely important ramifications both for the child and society.  Gender not only determines many of the expectations for males and females, including behaviour, roles, and interests, it in some ways determines relative value (Murphy 2003).  Gender roles “prescribe the division of labor and responsibilities between males and females and accord different rights to them… creating inequality between the sexes in power, autonomy, and well-being, typically to the disadvantage of females”  (Murphy 2003, 205).  Children are socialized, through home, community and school, into gender-defined attitudes and behaviour (Murphy 2003).

As opposed to its historic one-or-the-other binary of male or female, gender has recently been recognised as a learned performance, a set of actions and self-beliefs developed by the individual in the context of his or her own feelings and the roles offered by society (Hawkesworth 1997).  This opens the possibility for gender roles beyond the binary male/female concept.  Consequently, whilst sex is biological, gender must be viewed as derived from cultural experience (Murphy 2003).  As a cultural construct, gender involves the incorporation of various symbols, which may support, exaggerate, or even distort the potential of the individual (Hawkesworth 1997).  

Gender is created over time by the repetition of these symbols, with how the acts are interpreted from society to society allowing for a diversity of norms in gender actions (Butler 1990).  For example, for two grown men to hold hands as they walk down the street would be considered a homosexual symbol in the UK, but is common practise and holds no such connotation in parts of Africa.  Each society has a distinct set of symbols for gender orientation, although there are many commonalities from community to community (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Within a given society, boys learn what it is to “act like a man,” and by repeating these actions over time establish their masculinity and themselves as males.  Girls learn to “act like women,” that is, to dress and behave in whatever society has defined as a feminine manner. 

This leads to a definition of gender as a performance, something each individual acts out, rather than a biologically based construct (Butler 1990).   This view provides a number of gender possibilities outside the traditional male/female, and also challenges what is “male” or “female” behaviour.  For example, who determined that girls should play with dolls but not trucks, and boys with trucks but not dolls?  Bem (1995) refutes such absolutes, holding that masculine is not the opposite of feminine, but that an individual can be both masculine and feminine at the same time, or even strongly one or the other at different times. “There is a co-dependence between femininities and masculinities which means that neither can be fully understood in isolation from the other” (Reay 2001, 153-154).  

Epstein (1996) describes Kinsey’s research into gender as determining genders to fall over a continuum rather than in two distinct groups.  This continuum spans male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, and everything in between.  Rather than being either “male” or “female,” with distinctly matching interests and sexual desires, an individual is somewhere in this fluid range of gender (Epstein 1996).  Each person performs repetitive actions and builds gender-based concepts, which determine his or her place on the continuum of gender identity.  This further determines whether he or she “feels” like a man or “feels” like a woman, or perhaps identifies with some other self-produced category (Bem 1995).

Research has indicated that children have a strong desire to mimic or be like those they consider similar to themselves.  (Pidgeon, 1994; Thorne, 1993).  For example, “Boys create and preserve their masculinity through fear and rejection of whatever might be construed as female” (Jordan 1995, 75).  The understanding of themselves as different from girls, the participating in activities that make them “feel” like boys, the avoidance of pursuits or behaviours others might associate with girls, and most importantly copying what they perceive to be masculine behaviours help boys determine and reinforce their feelings and understanding of being “male” in the traditional male/female gender binary. 

This is not limited to boys.  Most children are highly motivated to learn and practice whatever actions or concepts they deem necessary to achieve what they personally consider to be gender-appropriate behaviour.  This gender-appropriate behaviour is usually developed at home from a very early age, and reinforced through school and community experiences (Thorne 1993).  Unless those in positions of authority or influence specifically address issues such as social justice and gender bias, most children will come to believe that the two distinct genders, male and female, and their associated contemporary gender boundaries are both natural and correct. You can also order dissertation at our site


The definition of genders within society is often hegemonic.  To be able to recognise constricting or reinforcing behaviours within the area of gender, then, it is important to first examine how the society in question defines masculinity or femininity.  There tends to be more research on hegemonic masculinity than femininity, presumably because of its impact on world systems of governance, economics, and power (Cohn and Weber 1999).  The patriarchal society that still dominates world society rests on such masculine definition (Cohn and Enloe 2003).  Whilst women are increasingly included and allowed positions of influence in such systems, most would concur the systems still operate by and for men, as they were designed.  Women who participate must do so within a male construct and paradigm, which is sometimes at odds to their own preferences for dealing with a situation (Cohn and Enloe 2003). 

Male Hegemony

Connell (1995) first developed the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to describe the definition of masculinity preferred by society.  He argued that at any particular moment in history, there are number of different masculinities presented in a given society.  However, society values one or a few masculinities over the others, setting this definition up as the “ideal” to which men (and boys) should aspire.  This ideal is constructed in relation to both these other masculinities and to femininity in the society.  Setting up one type of masculinity as ideal allows the society to justify the dominance of this gender norm within it, justifying the domination of men who fit this definition over women and men outside it (Cohn and Weber 1999).  “Hegemonic masculinity preserves male power through the denigration of women” and men outside its boundaries (Ashley 2003, 258).  “It has led to a narrowing of cultural opportunities for boys through the perceived need to conform to narrow ‘macho’ stereotypes which requires boys to exclude themselves from any activity popular with girls” (Ashley 2003, 258).

Many writers typify the military as the pinnacle of hegemonic masculinity, and use it in describing male gender definitions in Western countries.  Cohn and Weber (1999) describe the military as promising to mould boys into a “real” man, “the hegemonically masculine man, which is, of course, seen as something good” (462).  Typical characteristics of the successful soldier include physical and emotional courage, loyalty, ability to endure hardship, fearlessness, compartmentalisation of one’s emotions, and tolerance for and willingness to take risks.  “And male bonding – you can’t be a man until you’ve bonded with other men” (Cohn and Weber 1999, 461).

  Cohn and Weber (1999) argue, however, that instead of “producing all of these culturally admired qualities we associate with hegemonic masculinity,” such gender boundaries, compartmentalisation of emotion, and reduction of anything feminine "creates some of the crippling qualities of manhood (Cohn and Weber 1999, 463).  Men are forced to conform to such limiting boundaries, such as “real men don’t cry,” and are restricted in the socially acceptable means by which they can practise self-expression.  Men are categorised as dominant, aggressive and warlike, women as passive, compassionate and peaceful, and anything outside these definitions is not considered appropriate or positively reinforced (Tickner 1999).

This link between reinforcement of masculinity in the military and in the classroom is often played out in power struggles and bullying within a given class, or the school as a whole.  “In the early school years most of the boys' co-operative play revolves around such fantasies, and boys who are not capable of positioning themselves within these narratives are excluded from peer play” (Jordan 1995, 78).  There is further a strong reinforcement of “the 'warrior' discourse, a discourse that… depicts the male as the warrior, the knight errant, the superhero” (Jordan 1995, 78).  In this context, the masculinity of the hero or the boy in a position of power is derived from and dependent on the behaviour of others, above whom he positions himself, thus confirming his male dominance and masculinity (Jordan 1995).  This is often reinforced by girls, who will ignore their own wants or needs to make sure dominant boys feel comfortable, and are likely to simply agree with these boys or avoid them rather than explore issues between the two or assert their own rights (Moylan 2003).

Within the primary classroom, much of the power assumption and bullying documented is gender-based, aimed at girls, or more prominently, at boys outside traditional hegemony.  Sexualised harassment is common, and clearly linked to the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity (Renold, 2000).  Skelton (2001) has concluded from research that “primary school boys engage in the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity through a discourse of ‘gay’ and ‘girlie’ against peers who do not overtly engage in the hegemonic performance of ‘football, fighting and girlfriends’” (19).  However, “given the opportunity, far more boys than currently do would rebel against hegemonic masculinity and its cultural proscriptions… Many boys are unhappy with the enforced dichotomy between public and private self” (Walker, 2001, 132).

Social class is also a component of what type of man a boy aspires to be (Ashley 2003).  Roughness, for example, is more prized amongst working-class boys.  In a study of a typical British primary class, Reay (2001) notes the class of nearly thirty was primarily working-class, with two middle-class boys.  Although one of these boys was not particularly interested in sport or likely to participate in fights, he was still considered one of the most popular boys in the class.  Reay hypothesises the class adjusted its definition of the requirements of masculinity due to his social status, as a similar working-class boy was not afforded such acceptance.  She further concludes this variance “suggests that popular discourses may mask the extent to which white, middle-class male advantages in both the sphere of education and beyond continue to be sustained” (Reay 2001, 157).  There is an “almost unspoken acceptance of white, middle-class masculinity as the ideal that all those ‘others ’—girls as well as black and white working-class boys—are expected to measure themselves against. (Reay 2001, 157).

Overall, it is clear that encouragement and reinforcement of a narrow definition of appropriate masculinity is limiting for many boys, hampering both their growth and development of true self-identity.  If schools are able to expand the perceptions of acceptable gender behaviours, these boys will be allowed to express themselves freely and explore who they are, the same freedom afforded boys who naturally fall within the hegemonic stereotype

Female Hegemony

Considerably less research has been undertaken on hegemonic femininity, which should be noted in and of itself.  Studies find a greater array of acceptable behaviour for girls, however, although bounded strongly by social class.  For example, in a study of working- and middle-class primary school students, Reay (2001) found that whilst there were some shared attributes, the desirable characteristics of one group differed significantly from that of the other.  Quietness, propriety, and diligence in one’s studies were all found to be valued characteristics for the middle-class girls.  In addition, Reay’s study reaffirmed “findings of feminist research which position ‘being nice’ as specific to the formulation of white, middle-class femininity (Reay 2001, 159).  Working-class girls were more likely to be sexual in their expression, or present as tomboys.  For the majority of these working-class girls, “being a ‘nice girl’ signified an absence of the toughness and attitude that they were aspiring to” (Reay 2001, 159).

There was a considerable emphasis on appearance, all but the tomboy group highly valuing feminine clothing and accessories, such as hair ornaments or fingernail polish.  In another study, girls stressed “the difficulty and constant negotiation involved in positioning themselves as fashionable and desiring a fashion that at one moment rendered them attractive and at another labelled them a ‘tart’ in the regulation of their bodies and their bodily expression (Renold 2000, 314).  Interestingly, it was often other girls applying the pressure for such tight-rope positioning, further indicating the importance of peer influence on gender negotiation, even at a young age (Renold 2000). 

Girls were critical of their physical appearance, with a very narrow physical ideal presented to which they wished to conform.  “Typical daily rituals included checking and regulating arms, legs, hips and thighs, positioning their bodies and others’ as ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’ and advocating the need to diet” (Renold 2000, 310).  The tomboy group was the only one in either study to construct gender identities through differentiation from both “feminine” girls and boys.  This group was most likely to pursue alternative dress and fashion. (Renold 2000, 316)

In terms of relationships, girls are encouraged to be helpers of others and supportive of both the teacher and boys in the class.  Girls of all social classes are typically expected to be polite, kind, and compassionate to others in the classroom.  Women and girls are hegemonically expected to be collaborative, work together, and devise win-win alternatives to problem-solving (Rabrenovic and Roskos 2001).  Girls failing to perform within such gender determinants of appearance and action are typically ostracised from social and play activities, and often become the butt of the bullying and teasing, described above, by which other girls and boys position themselves within the group (Runker and Duggan 1991).


Prominent in both hegemonic masculinity and femininity is the emphasis on heterosexuality as normative behaviour.  This has an extreme effect on gender norming, even amongst pre-sexual children.  Although their is a prevalent believe that heterosexual relations somehow symbolise entry into adolescence, Epstein (1997) and others have documented how six-year-olds “date” each other, and how even four- and five-year-olds practise and reinforce heterosexuality in their interactions and play (Epstein, 1997).  There is considerable external pressure to conform to heterosexual gender norms for all children.

  Boys are often taunted homophobically if their classroom or playground interactions with other boys were questionably feminine, or if they themselves “failed or chose not to access hegemonic masculine discourses and practices”  (Renold 2000, 322).  Girls are reported to “construct their femininity, or what might be better described as ‘hyper-femininity’, through a specific, culturally coded somatic ideal, viewing their bodies as only desirable when, through the validation of others, they are heterosexualised” (Renold 2000, 311).  Boundaries of heteronomativity are fiercely enforced by peers, and also by authority figures such as parents and teachers (Frank et al 2003).

Renold (2000) and Reay (2001) both indicate a high number of heterosexual pairings, often refered to as boyfriend and girlfriend by the children involved, amongst children in the primary years.  These relationships further solidified the heterosexuality of the children involved, and called into question the gender boundaries of those who did not participate.  For example, Connolly (1998) noted that some primary-aged boys chose not to engage in heterosexual boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. 

Some stated they were not ready or too young, while others stated a desire to wait until they could experience a “real” relationship involving intimate sexual activity.  In a similar finding, unless boys such as these “successfully performed as ‘tough-guys’, ‘footballers’ or were ‘sporting competent’, their ‘heterosexuality’ would be called into question and they would often be ‘homosexualised’ and denigrated as ‘gay’” (Renold 2000, 320).  This provided two limited routes through which a boy in the primary years could establish his heterosexual hegemonic masculinity, either sport or girlfriends (Connolly, 1998). 

Heterosexual boundaries are therefore shown to further support the development of hegemonic masculinity and femininity, as the two are typically developed through rejection of the other.  That is, a true male rejects anything in or around him that is feminine, and separates from such “polluting” attributes.  The same is true in reverse, although less dramatically, for females (Cohn and Weber 1999).  This makes it all the more important that the school environment encourage a wide range of gender definitions, allowing students options later for legitimate self-expression, rather than forced conformity.

Gender from the primary years

“Gender behaviours and differences are learned from birth and have a profound impact on identity and social roles” (Pidgeon, 1994). Most children learn these gender definitions through interaction with their families and to a lesser extent their community.  Many are also influenced through previous educational environments such as infant school.  “Children who spend full days in a childcare environment learn much about what it means in such a setting to be a boy or a girl. Children also learn gender roles at home and bring rules of gender socialization into their childcare settings” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 153)

  It is important to note, however, that children’s gender definitions are not fixed in the primary years.  Rather gender roles are socially constructed throughout a person’s life in ways both ongoing and active (Thorne, 1993).  Another facet of note is the finding by Pidgeon (1994) that children do not learn what is and is not a gender-appropriate behaviour by imitating the actions of others.   While the actions of others and the positive or negative reinforcement they provide has a profound and fundamental affect on gender definition, children also make choices related to gender negotiation, and “demonstrate their own ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl” (Pidgeon, 1994, 24).

Young children become aware of gender gradually in relation to themselves, and later in relation to other people.  Most have achieved some type of gender identity by age three (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  In a hegemonically traditional environment, they come to accept that all persons will be either male or female, and that gender will generally be constant by the age of five.  Most learn that gender is stable, and remains fixed throughout a person’s life (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  This makes it important to examine the gender constructs children are already likely to have developed before entry to primary school.  Studies have shown that strong hegemonic conceptions of gender are already dominant in most children’s thinking by this time (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  

Infant schools, day-care facilities, and even home environments are often heavily stereotyped to “male” and “female” conventions.  Boys are conventionally dressed in clothes that allow for range of movement and active play, while girls are often “dressed up” in clothing that promotes quiet or less active play (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Similarly, boys’ toys are typically bright, primary colours, and include things that require larger movement for play, such as cars, trucks, blocks, and balls.  Girls’ toys are more likely to be pastel in colour, with pink being the most favoured colour for girls amongst toy manufacturers.  Girls’ toys are typically replicants of items associated with the traditional roles of women, such as miniature kitchens, dishes, and houses.  Dolls require smaller, less aggressive movement in play, with typical doll-based activities including tending the doll, such as through dressing or bathing, and role-playing with the doll, reinforcing relationship priorities amongst girls (Runker and Duggan 1991). 

Books were found to strongly favour males, although there is some evidence this pattern is decreasing.  Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter (2002) found that “when the caregivers in the young toddler room read to the children, the main characters in the books were usually male” (52).  Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) also came to similar conclusions in their study on the gender roles typically depicted in children's literature.  While they found a greater equality in representation of male and female characters in recent years, the depictions of gender were highly conforming to stereotypical gender roles.  The vast majority of books reviewed in the study represented male characters in positions of leadership, problem-solving, and power. 

Girls were likely to be represented as nurturers, helpless, and dependent (Kortenhaus and Demarest 1993).  Evans (1998) similarly found that girls who did occupy leading roles in children’s stories typically “still required the assistance of males to solve some type of dilemma” (Evans 1998, 84).  Evans cites a number of other studies that concluded “males were more often the powerful and active characters. Females, on the other hand, were described or depicted as sweet, weak, frightened, and needy. These researchers argued that children's literature may do a disservice to children if it does not accurately represent men and women and the different roles they portray in our Society” (Evans 1998, 84).

Children are also often treated differently according to hegemonic gender expectations.  Thorne (1993) found that boys in infant school consistently received more attention than girls, even though this attention was often associated with inappropriate or disruptive behaviour.  Boys typically exhibit a much higher activity level than girls, and while a small proportion of this difference is shown to be biological, most has been documented to be from gender conditioning in the environment (Thorne 1993; Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).  Infant boys received positive reinforcement for assertiveness, rowdiness, and rough play, whilst girls were negatively reinforced for such behaviours. 

Accordingly, girls were positively reinforced for helpful or caretaking behaviour, passivity, and cooperation in the infant environment, whilst boys were often asked if something was wrong when they displayed such behaviour (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).  Boys were expected to be more active and therefore require more attention, which researchers noted to be provided by caregivers.  “Extra attention to boys was evident also in the infant room, where they were held and spoken to more frequently” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 150).  Infant girls were more likely to occpy themselves quietly and not demand consideration, and accordingly received less attention (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).

It can therefore be concluded that most children enter their primary years with a good amount of hegemonic gender reinforcement already under their belts.   “The process of the socialization and formation of sex roles begins long before school instruction begins: from birth on, parents treat boys and girls differently; they make different demands on them; children are given different toys to play with; they acquire different kinds of experience, and so on” (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).  By the time they begin their primary years, boys’ and girls’ behaviours and self-concepts already include a number of gender-based characteristics, from a wide variety of origins (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).

Gender int the primary Classroom

By the time they enter the primary school years, children usually have become aware of culturally accepted gender norms in their society and have at least partially negotiated their gender self-construct (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  At this point children typically prefer playing with those of their own gender, reinforcing gender hegemony