This social phenomenon typically manifests itself through some of the following characteristics:
There is a perceived correlation between tomboys and lesbianism. While some tomboys later reveal a lesbian identity in their adolescent or adult years, masculine behavior typical of boys but displayed by girls is not a true indicator of one's sexual orientation. "Throughout their history, tomboys have had to contend with the stigma of presumed lesbianism or the accusation of wanting to be male. Both assumptions were categorically refuted by twentieth-century psychology, which established the normality of the tomboy experience among girls of all identities. However, for many, the tomboy stage is the first manifestation of a gender-fluid life journey."
Historically, tomboys have been defined, as suggested in the examples mentioned above, by "boyish" behavior (like more physically active, technological, and scientific interests) and wearing boys' clothing. In recent times, as the ubiquity of traditionally female clothing such as dresses, blouses and skirts has declined among Western females, the distinction has become more and more one of behavior. A general increase in the popularity of women's sporting events (see Title IX) and other activities that were traditionally male-dominated, is today broadening tolerance and lessening the impact of "tomboy" as a pejorative.
Childhood gender roles are handled somewhat differently for tomboys and girlish boys. Gender scholar Judith Halberstam has claimed that while the defying of gender roles is often tolerated in young girls, older girls and adolescents who display masculine traits are often repressed and punished.
There has been little study of the causality of women's behavior and interests, when they do not conform to the female social gender role, since it has been considered, first and foremost, to be a phase one might go through in early years of life. It is unclear whether there is any correlation between these behaviors, and whether the causes are any different from what causes men to exhibit the same behaviors such as dress, or an interest in mathematics and science. One report from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children suggests that preschool girls engaging in "masculine-typical" gender-role behavior, such as playing with toys typically preferred by boys, is influenced by genetic and prenatal factors.