The Psychology of Gender

Since the founding of the field of psychology, there has been interest in understanding the behavior of women and men. Many popular historical and contemporary psychological theories explain patterns in the behavior of men and women. Sigmund Freud developed theories about unconscious drives that became popular in the early twentieth century. However, his theories were largely criticized for their lack of solid evidence. David Buss popularized theories of human evolution focused on mate selection that emerged in the 1990s. There have also been cross-cultural theories of gender that have been developed by psychologists to explain differences between men and women based on the characteristic of the culture. More specifically, a large body of research demonstrates that gender differences in personality traits and well-being are larger in cultures with more egalitarian gender roles, gender socialization, and sociopolitical gender equity (see Schmitt et al., 2017).

Arising in the 1960s, feminist psychologists challenged the nature of gender that was popular prior to this time (Shields & Dicicco, 2011). Thus, they began to shift approaches to understanding the psychology of gender through a move from questions centered on sex-related differences in psychological processes and outcomes to a more contextual view of gender (e.g., Deaux & Major, 1987; Marecek, 2001; Spence et al., 1975).

The extension of this contextual view of gender during the 1970s by feminist psychologists and other researchers stimulated the need for explicit differentiation “between sex as categorization on the basis of anatomy and physiology, and gender as a culturally defined set of meanings attached to sex and sex difference” (Shields & Dicicco, 2011, p. 493).

Research on prenatal and postnatal gender development had a profound influence on this shift in differentiation between sex and gender psychological conceptualizations (e.g., Spence & Helmreich, 1978). Following these developments in psychology, there wasa wave of pioneering research that adopted a more social contextual view of the psychology of gender (e.g., Deaux & Major, 1987; Eagly & Wood, 1999; Eccles, 1987). And this is a view of gender that persists today among psychologists, though some psychologists have argued that more complex formulations of gender differences are necessary (Fine & Gordon, 1991; Shields & Bhatia, 2009).

Definitions and Analysis of Gender

Within the field of psychology, gender has been defined and analyzed in a variety of ways. Stewart and McDermott (2004) identified the following dominant orientations psychologists use to defining gender: (1) gender as sex differences on outcomes, (2) gender as a role and gendered socialization, (3) gendered power relations, and (4) intersections of gender identity with other social and sociostruc-tural identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation).

Gender-as-Trait: The Sex Differences Approach

Within this approach to gender psychology, the central question that psychologists pursue is: How and why do average differences in attitudes, ability, personality traits, and other behavioral tendencies appear? This approach assumes that differences arise from preexisting “essential” differences between males and females. The core idea of this approach is that differences between male and females are “natural, deep-seated, and of profound personal and social consequences. This proposal easily built upon Anglo-American belief in ‘natural’ gender differences as differentiating ‘advanced’ races from more primitive” (Shields & Dicicco, 2011, p. 491). In essence, this approach explains the differences between males and females as a result of genes and hormones (Kitzinger, 1994).

Gender in Social Context: The Within Gender Variability Approach

In this approach to gender psychology, the central question that psychologists pursue is: Within highly gendered psychological phenomena, what are the sources of within-gender variation? Highly gendered psychological phenomena are defined by average differences that researchers have discovered between men and women in various studies (i.e., attitudes, ability, motivation, personality traits, and other behavioral tendencies). More specifically, psychologists have demonstrated how the social environment shapes individuals’ expectation of success, ideas about the importance of a task, and perception of available options, as well as academic and career choices in science and mathematics (e.g., Eccles et al., 1983; Eccles, 2011).

Gender Linked to Power Relations Approach

In this approach to gender psychology, the central question that psychologists pursue is: How does gender structure social institutions’ practices, norms, and policies within which men and women operate? With this approach, gender beliefs and behaviors are ideologies that are embedded in sociostructural systems (Shields & Dicicco, 2011). Within this approach, “gender” does not merely operate at the level of sex differences or as the result of social interactions in which beliefs about gender are expressed in actions that actually create confirming evidence for those beliefs. Instead, “gender” also operates in the social structures that define power relationships throughout culture (Stewart & McDermott, 2004, p. 521). Psychologists have explored leadership, marital relationships, decision-making (i.e., choice) and conflict, and task performance using this conceptualization of gender psychology. There are various configurations of relationships in which these behaviors take place, including dyads, organizational hierarchies, and broader cultural political structures (Deaux & Major, 1987).

Gender as Intersectional: The Identity Role, Social Identity, and Social Structural Approach

Within this approach to gender psychology, the central question that psychologists pursue is: How do gender roles, social identities, and social structural dynamics operate individually and interactionally to shape psychological processes and outcomes of men and women? This approach adopts orientations grounded in personal individual identity theory rooted primarily in personality psychology; social identity theory anchored largely within social identity theory; racial identity theory cutting across personality, social, and developmental psychology; and intersectionality theory that encompasses boundaryless subareas of psychology. The kinds of topics that psychologists have explored within this approach are ego identity development, gender role identity (Eccles, 1987, 2009), social identity (Gurin, 1985), racial and ethnic identity (e.g., Sellers et al., 1998), and intersectional ity (e.g., Cole, 2009; Crenshaw, 1994; Hurtado & Sinha, 2008; Ireland et al., 2018). One example of gender role theory was the research of psychologists who explored gender socialization in terms of the experience of having one’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes shaped by culturally defined, gender-specific roles (Shields & Dicicco, 2011). For example, increasingly, psychologists are adopting feminist theories and critical race theories to develop theoretical, methodological, and practical formulations of intersectional ity, which refers to the simultaneous meaning and consequences of multiple categories of identity, difference, and disadvantage, particularly related to the intersections of race, gender, and social class (Cole, 2009).

The Nature Versus Nurture Debate in Gender Psychology

One common way to classify these dominant approaches to the psychology of gender is as a result of nature, nature, or a combination of the two. This classification has been hotly debated by psychologists for decades. The fundamental question that undergirds this debate is as follows: Is nature or nature responsible for differences and similarities found in the beliefs, attitudes, abilities, motives, personality traits, and other behavioral tendencies of men and women? It is common for researchers to focus on one cause to the exclusion of the other or to treat them as competing explanations (see Eagly & Wood, 2013).


Psychologists have used a variety of definitions of gender across time. There are promising are new areas of research on the brain and behavior that are opening up new questions and providing insights about the psychology of gender. Understanding the varied approaches psychologists use to understand gender can inform how to identify, analyze, and manage behavior involved in cybersecurity events faced by individuals, as well as within organizations.


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