Sandra Bern's gender schema theory provides another perspective on the powerful influence of gender role expectations on identity development. Schema is a term used by cognitive psychologists to describe an organized set of mental associations used to interpret perceptions (Sharf, 2000). Bern (1981,1993) argued that gender schema is one of the strongest perceptual sets people use when looking at society and their place in it. When children learn society's views of gender and apply it to themselves, stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are reinforced. Children learn very early that certain behaviors are desirable for girls to be considered "feminine" and boys to be seen as "masculine." In adolescence, boys and girls tend to become highly gender focused as they become concerned with physical attractiveness and exploring their emerging sexuality. By adulthood, these gender schemas are deeply ingrained and they are limiting to both sexes.
According to Ellyn Kaschak, gender is the organizing principle in people's lives. In Engendered Lives (1992), she focused on the societal impact on gender role development. She argued that the masculine defines the feminine; that is, men determine the roles that women play. Because women are socialized to feel rather than to act, and because society values action more than feeling, women are placed in a subordinate role.
Feminist scholars, by positing different models of development for women and men, have provided us with a better understanding of relationships and a more comprehensive portrayal of human development over the life span (Gilligan, 1982). At the same time, they have been concerned that their work might be interpreted as dichotomizing the sexes. Although the validation of women's relational skills and the recognition of the needs for connectedness and individuation are important contributions of feminist scholars, Lemer (1988) noted that it is crucial to keep in mind that all people develop within the context of ongoing relationships and fail to thrive in the absence of human connectedness. A circular and reciprocal relationship exists between men and women, and an appreciation of the different filters through which they perceive and experience the world can broaden one's understanding of human nature and human growth and development.