Exploring the Complexities of Gender Identity Development: A Journey Through Four Theories and Beyond

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Gender identity is a complex and deeply personal aspect of human experience that shapes how individuals perceive and express themselves in relation to societal understandings of gender. It refers to an individual’s deeply-felt sense of being male, female, or something else entirely, encompassing how they perceive themselves in terms of gender and how they want to express this to the world (American Psychological Association [APA], 2015). It is important to note that gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which refers to the physical and genetic characteristics that differentiate males and females, and gender expression, which refers to the external manifestation of one’s gender identity (APA, 2015). In order to better understand and support individuals exploring their own gender identity, particularly those who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, it is crucial to examine the various theories and processes that contribute to gender development. By gaining insight into these factors, individuals can cultivate self-awareness, self-acceptance, and make informed decisions regarding their personal gender expression (Lev, 2004).


Gender identity refers to an individual’s deeply-felt sense of being male, female, or something else entirely, encompassing how they perceive themselves in terms of gender and how they want to express this to the world (American Psychological Association [APA], 2015). It is important to note that gender identity is distinct from biological sex, which refers to the physical and genetic characteristics that differentiate males and females, and gender expression, which refers to the external manifestation of one’s gender identity (APA, 2015).

Understanding the processes and theories behind gender development can be particularly beneficial for individuals who are exploring their own gender identity, especially for those who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming. Gaining insight into the various factors that contribute to the development of one’s gender identity can facilitate self-awareness, self-acceptance, and informed decision-making regarding personal gender expression (Lev, 2004).

There are four major psychological theories that offer different perspectives on the processes through which children develop their gender identities: social learning theory, maturational meta-theories focusing on biological and neurophysiological factors, cognitive developmental theory, and gender schema theory (Diamond, 2021). In addition to these theories, recent research has explored the dynamic systems approach, which attempts to explain the complex patterns and qualitative shifts in gender-related thought, behavior, and experience throughout development (Fausto-Sterling, 2012; Martin & Ruble, 2010). This blog post will provide an overview of these theories and approaches, with the aim of helping readers better understand and explore their own gender identity development.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory, rooted in mechanistic meta-theories, posits that behavior is learned through processes such as observation, modeling, reinforcement, and punishment (Bandura, 1997). Applied to gender development, this theory suggests that children acquire gender roles and behaviors by observing and imitating others in their environment, particularly older children and adults (Bussey & Bandura, 1999).

Each society has its own “gender curriculum,” which refers to the differential expectations and treatment of individuals based on their gender, beginning from birth (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). This curriculum includes cultural norms, values, and beliefs surrounding appropriate gender roles, behaviors, and expressions, which may vary across different societies and change over time (Lobel, Gruber, Govrin, & Mashraki-Pedhatzur, 2001).

In the context of social learning theory, children learn their gender roles through observation and modeling, as they watch and mimic the behavior of older children and adults around them (Bandura, 1997). Furthermore, reinforcement and punishment play crucial roles in shaping children’s gendered behavior; they are rewarded and reinforced for conforming to societal expectations regarding their gender and punished for breaking these expectations (Bussey & Bandura, 1999).

Parents are one of the most significant sources of influence in a child’s gender development, as they often serve as primary role models and enforcers of societal gender norms (Lytton & Romney, 1991). Fathers, in particular, have been found to play a vital role in reinforcing traditional gender roles and expectations, as they may be more likely to encourage gender-stereotypical behaviors in their children, especially their sons, and discourage behaviors that deviate from these norms (Lamb, 2000).

Biological and Neurophysiological Factors

Maturational meta-theories focus on the biological and neurophysiological factors that are present at birth, emphasizing the role of innate factors in shaping human development, including gender identity (Roselli, 2018). These factors are believed to interact with environmental influences to shape an individual’s gender identity and expression over time.

Research has suggested that factors such as genes, chromosomes, and hormones contribute to an individual’s gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation (Roselli, 2018). These biological foundations predispose individuals to certain gender and sexual preferences, which may or may not align with their assigned sex at birth. For example, prenatal exposure to certain hormones, such as testosterone, can affect the development of gender-specific traits and behaviors (Hines, 2011).

Similar to temperament, which is influenced by genetic and biological factors and affects how individuals respond to their environment, the innate “gender stuff” that children are born with can influence how they respond to societal expectations and pressures for conformity in gender roles (Diamond, 2021). This “gender stuff” can manifest as a child’s inherent inclinations towards certain activities, toys, or clothing, as well as their emotional and social behaviors.

It is important to note that while biological factors may predispose individuals to certain gender-related traits and preferences, these factors do not determine gender identity or expression in isolation. Instead, the interplay between biology, environmental influences, and individual experiences shapes the development of gender identity and expression throughout an individual’s life (Berenbaum & Beltz, 2016).

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Organismic meta-theories, which focus on cognitive developmental theory, propose that children’s understanding of gender and its meaning depends entirely on their current stage of cognitive development (Diamond, 2021). These theories emphasize the importance of the child’s active engagement with their environment and the cognitive structures that guide their understanding of the world.

As children’s cognitive capacities grow, they are able to represent and understand increasingly complex aspects of gender-related identity (Diamond, 2021). Their comprehension of gender shifts regularly as their cognitive development progresses. These cognitive changes influence how children perceive, interpret, and interact with their environment in gender-related ways.

Some of the clearest age-graded milestones in gender identity development include the emergence of gender awareness (i.e., recognizing one’s own gender) and gender constancy (i.e., understanding that gender is a fixed characteristic) (Diamond, 2021). These milestones are closely linked to cognitive development, particularly the development of classification skills, reasoning abilities, and conservation skills (Kohlberg, 1966).

For example, gender awareness typically emerges around age 2-3, when children become capable of labeling themselves and others as male or female based on physical and social cues (Martin & Ruble, 2010). As children’s cognitive development advances, they begin to understand that gender is a stable attribute that remains constant across situations and time. This understanding, known as gender constancy, typically develops around age 5-7 (Kohlberg, 1966).

It is important to note that cognitive developmental theory does not imply that children’s understanding of gender is solely determined by their cognitive stage. Rather, cognitive development serves as a foundation for children’s understanding of gender, which is then shaped by various social, cultural, and biological factors (Martin & Ruble, 2010).

Gender Schema Theory

Contextualist meta-theories, which underpin gender schema theory, argue that children are active learners who essentially socialize themselves by organizing the behavior, activities, and attributes they observe into gender categories known as schemas (Diamond, 2021). These schemas serve as mental structures that guide children’s understanding and interpretation of the world around them, particularly in relation to gender norms and expectations.

According to gender schema theory, children actively construct their gender identity by organizing the information they encounter into schemas that correspond to their understanding of gender (Diamond, 2021). These schemas help them process and categorize new information, guiding their perception and memory of gender-related experiences. As a result, children’s gender schemas influence their expectations, preferences, and behaviors in various social contexts.

People are more likely to remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes and forget those that are schema-inconsistent (Diamond, 2021). This selective attention reinforces existing gender schemas. For example, if children observe that most nurses are female and most construction workers are male, they are more likely to remember these schema-consistent examples and forget any schema-inconsistent instances they encounter.

By consistently remembering schema-consistent information and forgetting or misremembering schema-inconsistent information, gender schemas become strengthened over time (Diamond, 2021). This reinforcement process contributes to the stability of children’s gender-related beliefs and expectations, which can in turn shape their gender identity development and the way they navigate gender norms throughout their lives.

It is crucial to recognize that while gender schema theory emphasizes the active role of the child in constructing their gender identity, other factors such as biological, social, and cultural influences also contribute to the development of gender identity and expression (Martin & Ruble, 2010).

Dynamic Systems Approaches to Gender Identity Development

Dynamic systems approaches to gender identity formation provide a holistic and integrated perspective on how complex patterns of gender-related thought, behavior, and experience undergo qualitative shifts during different developmental windows (Fausto-Sterling, 2012; Martin & Ruble, 2010). These shifts can include disruption, transformation, and reorganization, reflecting the fluidity and complexity of the gender development process.

Researchers using dynamic systems approaches argue that children’s ongoing physical interactions and psychological experiences with parents, peers, and culture fundamentally shape and reshape their experience of gender developmentally (Fausto-Sterling, 2012). These experiences create a feedback loop in which children’s understanding of gender is constantly being influenced and updated by their environment, social interactions, and personal reflections.

These interactions involve different brain and body systems coupling and uncoupling over time, which influence the development of gender identity (Fausto-Sterling, 2012). For example, a child’s relationship with their parents and peers, exposure to cultural norms, and personal experiences all contribute to the dynamic development of their gender identity (Martin & Ruble, 2010). This interconnectedness means that changes in one aspect of a child’s life, such as a change in their social environment or the introduction of new gender-related information, can have cascading effects on their gender development.

According to dynamic systems approaches, gender is not a stable achievement but rather a “pattern in time” (Fausto-Sterling, 2012, p. 405). This perspective suggests that individuals’ gender identity is continually building on prior dynamics and adapting to current environments, emphasizing the fluid and evolving nature of gender development (Fausto-Sterling, 2012). This understanding of gender as a dynamic process can empower individuals to explore and embrace their unique gender identity and expression, as it acknowledges the many factors that contribute to the ongoing development of their gender experience.


This blog post has explored four major theories of gender development, including social learning theory, biological and neurophysiological factors, cognitive developmental theory, and gender schema theory, as well as the dynamic systems approach. Each of these theories offers unique insights into the complex processes that contribute to the formation of an individual’s gender identity.

Understanding these theories and the dynamic systems approach can provide valuable context for those who are exploring their own gender identity. Lev (2004) emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and informed decision-making when it comes to personal gender expression, and engaging with these theories can facilitate such understanding. We encourage readers to reflect on their own experiences and consider how each of these theories might have played a role in their personal gender identity development journey.

In conclusion, understanding the various theories and approaches to gender development is crucial for individuals seeking to explore and better comprehend their own gender identity (Lev, 2004). By examining these perspectives, readers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the factors that have shaped their unique gender experiences and continue to foster self-exploration and personal growth.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.

Berenbaum, S. A., & Beltz, A. M. (2016). How early hormones shape gender development. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 7, 53-60.

Diamond, L. M. (2021). Sexual and gender development: A dynamic, multidimensional, and nonlinear process. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of developmental psychology. American Psychological Association.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). The dynamic development of gender variability. Journal of Homosexuality, 59(3), 398-421.

Hines, M. (2011). Gender development and the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 34, 69-88.

Kohlberg, L. (1966). A cognitive-developmental analysis of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes. In E. E. Maccoby (Ed.), The development of sex differences (pp. 82-173). Stanford University Press.

Lev, A. I. (2004). Transgender emergence: Therapeutic guidelines for working with gender-variant people and their families. Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. N. (2010). Patterns of gender development. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 353-381.

Roselli, C. E. (2018). Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 30(7), e12562.

Sussman, R. W., & Garber, P. A. (Eds.). (2011). A theoretical framework for the study of the evolution of human childhood. In The evolution of human childhood (pp. 1-13). Wiley-Blackwell.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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