Gender Schema Theory, Gender Role Expectation and Couple’s Relationship (Part I)



Last semester, I taught a class called “Human Sexuality.” In all the classes I have taught so far, this is probably one of my favorite classes to teach. This is probably not a surprise considering I am a couple’s therapist.

Most of the psychology classes start with the theory. So is the Human Sexuality. One of the theory, Gender Schema Theory, catches my attention again and I think it is worth mentioning for all of us to think about how our “gender schema” impact our expectation in the couple’s relationship.


Introduction: Gender Schema Theory

Gender Schema Theory was developed by Dr. Sandra Bem in 1981. What is “schema”? A “schema” is a framework for certain knowledge or information that a person has about a specific topic. For example, when we think about a medical doctor, we expect them to have a certain set of knowledge or information about human body and diseases.

The Gender Schema Theory proposed that there is a specific cognitive structure with attributes that we associate with male or female, such as behaviors, appearance, etc..These attributes associated with gender is also associated with our biological sex. An individual is “gendered” to his/her gender role through learning these gender-specific expectations, values, belief, and behaviors through the members of the society, such as the family, the church, the media, etc.

Here is an example. There is a recent commercial on TV that caught my attention. It was a cable company promoting voice control. A mother came out of her bath because the father claimed that she needed to see what their child did. The father handed the kid the remote control and encouraged the baby to talk o the remote for what he just taught him. The baby said: “Go Irish” and the football game started on TV.

As the ads ended, I can’t help but feel: “How typical!” The commercial portrayed a father, a male role, with the football game and the mother, a female role, with relaxation in the tub.

By all means, there is no “right,” “wrong,” “good” or “bad” in the gender schema theory. It is about understanding what is the “schema” that are maintained in the society and passing down to the next generation.

Implication to the Couple’s Relationship

Why is this theory important in the couple’s relationship? Let’s start with this exercise for you first.

I want you to complete this following free association exercise.

  1. Write down five people represent the male and female roles in your life.
  2. With each person, please write down one thing you remember them doing the majority of the time.
  3. What are the impression about these people’s behaviors and how do you feel about this person and the main thing this person do?
  4. How are these people’s gender, behaviors, and your interpretations about their behaviors connect to your expectation about being a male or female?

Please be sure that you finish this exercise before you read the next section.

If you really have trouble doing this exercise, here is an example.

Five people represent male and female roles in my life
Male: dad, my younger brother, uncles, grandfather, President Obama
Female: mom, my older sister, aunts, grandmother, my middle school teacher
(To be honest, I couldn’t come up five people for each of the roles but four.)

2) What do they do?

Dad, working, reading papers,
Brother, playing, working, driving
Uncles, working
Granddad, sitting on the couch and tell everyone around him what need to be done.
Obama, working, meeting, negotiating

Mom, cooking, cleaning, working
Sister, reading, studying, working, cooking
Grandma, cooking, cleaning, knitting, talking to me
Aunt, cooking, cleaning, working, shopping
My middle school teacher, teaching, grading homework,

3) Thoughts and Emotions
Males: work, drive, and tell people what to do
Female: cleaning, cooking, and serving other people

(To be honest, I don’t realize how much work my female relatives did until I wrote this now.)

4) Impact:
As I wrote about this example, I realized the importance of “cooking” in my life and how its connected to the females in my life. I am only writing a very simple observation here, but if you want to go deep, I suggest you do so.

How about yours? I would love to hear about your results from this simple exercise.

Please do spend some time doing this exercise and document your thoughts.  I will talk about its implication in the next article.

(To Be Continued)


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