Gender Role

September 12, 2011

Gender roles are generally defined as sex-based categories that specify appropriate rules of conduct for males and females in a particular culture or society. Although grounded in biological differences between males and females, gender roles are social constructs. Simply put, based on the anatomical difference between men and women, each is prescribed varying and often stereotypical social roles that are reinforced at the individual level and by larger society. For example, a father may chastise his son for crying, judging such self-expression to be inappropriate for males. Similarly, young girls are often discouraged from playing football or other contact sports (even if they show promise) because the muscle development and aggressiveness associated with these activities are selectively encouraged for males and discouraged for females. This elaboration of gender role constructs is carried on into adulthood, at which point men are assumed to be selfreliant, emotionally distant, and the financial providers for their families, while women are viewed as the primary nurturers and emotional caretakers of the home and family.

The term gender role is often used interchangeably with terms such as sex role and sex role stereotypes. However, there is disagreement about the extent to which these terms are related. Sex role theory (see Femininity and Masculinity) suggests an innate or automatic process of integrating appropriate behaviors based on one’s sex. interestingly, evolutionary theorists view sexual selection as defining such a process. Using this theoretical framework, women are more invested in their offspring through pregnancy and childbirth and therefore choose mates carefully, based on their ability to provide for their offspring. in turn, men compete with each other for the attention of women and thereby thrive on combative, competitive behaviors with other men. These theories are grounded in the assumption of superiority of males over females; thus making the arguments less scientifically driven and more determined by social convention.

Gender roles are not only socially determined but also culturally upheld. in most countries, children are taught from birth to define themselves based upon the social demands placed upon them. Perhaps the most noticeable way is through their clothing. in many cultures, young boys wear hats and/or pants to define their gender while girls wear shawls or skirts. in various parts of Mexico, Ghana, and India, for example, infants are also identified as females by wearing earrings, bracelets, and other jewelry.

Complementing sex-specific attire, gender roles are introduced to children by the division of labor practices modeled and assigned by their parents. in many agrarian societies, girls are more often assigned to chores defined as female oriented, such as caring for younger siblings and performing household duties in the home or in the immediate vicinity of the home. Conversely, parents usually teach their sons to participate in caring for animals and similar tasks that may take them to surrounding pastures. Many parents in the United States also divide tasks for their children according to gender. Historically, boys have been relegated to tasks outside the home such as taking out the garbage and mowing lawns, while girls have been encouraged to be domestically inclined, performing tasks such as cleaning or cooking.

Gender roles are solidified in many cultures during early adolescence through rituals, or rites of passage ceremonies, held to establish their proper placement in society. These are usually public ceremonies, during which youth are recognized and formally acknowledged as adults, and emphasize gender as a predominant and defining part of the youth’s adult status. For some cultures, the ceremonies may be in the form of celebrations to introduce the youth to the society (e.g., the Jewish Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, Quinceanera in Spanish cultures, Debutante balls, and so forth). In other cultures, the ceremonies may include giving the youth permanent markings or tattoos. These events reinforce social demands of gender roles and through their participation, confirm the community’s expectation that the youth will fulfill their necessary obligations according to their gender role.

Gender roles in families may differ according to race and economic status. For instance, economic pressures and constraints in many impoverished African American families often necessitate that sons and daughters share various household chores that cut across traditional gender lines. Additionally, many of these are single-parent families headed by females and exist in communities where there are shortages of males, which are often attributed to an inability to find work, homicide, or imprisonment. In this way, mothers perform duties stereotypically viewed as both male and female, and thereby teach their children to do the same. Some theorists relate this trend to African American women during slavery, who were required to maintain their homes as well as work alongside their male counterparts in field labor. Others have used this history to reference the pressures and challenges these women face in performing double duty, or functioning as the man and the woman in their homes. Still others view this history as a testament to the power and competence these women possess as matriarchs of their communities.

Over the past several decades, artificial distinctions based on gender have started to fade and in some cases even blend. In the United States and in other countries, there has been a significant pursuit toward addressing gender inequalities, thus allowing opportunities for both sexes to challenge preconceived notions of their functions in society. Researchers have determined that female college students hold similar job aspirations as men and place greater value on career attributes that have previously been viewed as male oriented, including power and leadership. This transition is perhaps most evident in the mass media’s portrayal of heroes and heroines. In mainstream society, men are now encouraged to be both strong and emotionally available. They are socially sanctioned to pursue professions that were previously dominated by women (e.g., nursing, teaching) and to share household duties with women as evidenced in movies such as Mr. Mom. Similarly, women’s roles have been expanded. They hold more professional positions of authority and power. In recent years, many movies have portrayed women as having the capacity to be militaristic, ruthless, and violent (e.g., Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, GIJane). Therefore, the portrayal of the doting, submissive wife and mother in mid-20th-century television serials such as Donna Reed and Father Knows Best is viewed as antiquated under current standards.

Despite these advances in redefining gender roles, many countries have not successfully made such efforts to reform. In fact, women continue to be viewed as subordinate in many parts of the world, a convention that leads to serious health implications based largely upon their unequal status. With the rising worldwide concerns about the AIDS epidemic, women in some African and Latin American countries often are unable to refuse sex or to ask a man to use a condom even if she knows that her partner is infected. In these countries, men also subject women to physical and verbal abuse. Women’s mistreatment is commonly ignored or assumed to be appropriate, given the roles of women in these cultures as being subservient, deferential, and powerless.

In many societies, married and single men are encouraged to have different sexual partners as part of a socially sanctioned masculine gender role construct, which places them at increased risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. In Latin American cultures, the male gender role is conceptualized within the construct of machismo, which defines men as masculine within the confines of risk-taking behavior, such as proving their sexual drive and aggressive tendencies by having numerous sexual partners (see Masculinity and Marianismo). Thus, they are not only at greater risk for contracting a sexually transmitted infection and transmitting it to their female (or male) sexual partners but also are at greater risk for death from other risk-taking behaviors (e.g., homicides, accidents).

In many nonindustrialized countries, men are viewed as the gatekeepers of society and therefore hold the most powerful public positions. Because of this, they also relegate the access of information to women in society as well as uphold the stringently defined gender roles that maintain their status. In this way, many women are afraid to retaliate against the harsh treatment they suffer at the hands of men. They are also afraid to divorce abusive husbands for fear of being shunned by friends and relatives because, in many countries, women are not permitted to divorce their husbands. Consequently, for many women, gender role is a painful reminder of their secondary and paralyzed position in society.

SEE ALSO: Domestic violence, Dowry, Femininity, Gender, Marianismo, Masculinity, Sexual harassment

Suggested Reading

  • Amott, T., & Matthaeim, J. (1996). Race, gender and work: A multicultural economic history of women in the United States. Boston: South End Press.
  • Lorber, J. (1994). Paradoxes of gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Whiting, B. B., & Edwards, C. P. (1988). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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