Gender roles are separate patterns of personality traits, mannerisms, interests, attitudes, and behaviors that are regarded as either "male" or "female" by one's culture. Gender roles are largely a product of the way in which one was raised and may not be in conformance with one's gender identity. Research shows that both genetics and environment influence the development of gender roles. As society changes, its gender roles often also change to meet the needs of the society. To this end, it has been suggested that androgynous gender roles in which both females and males are expected to display either expressive (emotion-oriented) or instrumental (goal-oriented) behaviors as called for by the situation may be better for both the individual and the society in many ways. However, this is not to say that traditional roles, reversed roles, or anything in between are inherently bad. More research is needed to better understand the influences of genetics and environment on the acquisition of gender roles and the ways in which different types of gender roles support the stability and growth of society.
Keywords Androgyny; Culture; Dyad; Gender; Gender Identity; Gender Role; Gender Stereotype; Norms; Sex; Socialization; Society; Subject; Twin Study
Gender roles have changed in many ways throughout history as well as within recent memory. In the 1950s, for example, little girls were said to be made of "sugar and spice and everything nice" and wore pastel organdy dresses and gloves to church. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, this all changed for many women; bras were discarded, and patched jeans became de rigueur. In fact, each succeeding generation has brought with it differing expectations for how men and women should act within society. Despite these changes, however, the truth is that modern society still has expectations for how men and women are to act. Although we may be more open to exceptions than were past generations, there still are expected norms of behavior for women and men in society.
Gender vs. Sex
In biosocial terms, gender is not the same as sex. Gender refers to the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral characteristics associated with being female or male. Gender is defined by one's gender identity and learned gender role. Sex, on the other hand, refers in this context to the biological aspects of being either female or male. Genetically, females are identified by having two X chromosomes and males by having an X and a Y chromosome. In addition, sex can typically be determined from either primary or secondary sexual characteristics. Primary sexual characteristics comprise the female or male reproductive organs (i.e., the vagina, ovaries, and uterus for females and the penis, testes, and scrotum for males). Secondary sexual characteristics comprise the superficial differences between the sexes that occur with puberty (e.g., breast development and hip broadening for women and facial hair and voice deepening for men).
Biology as Gender Role Determinant
It is relatively easy to see that biology has an impact on gender and the subsequent actions and behaviors that are thought to be more relevant to either females or males. For example, no matter how much a man might want to experience giving birth, the simple fact is that he cannot, except as an observer. From this fact it is easy (if not necessarily logical) to assume that biology is destiny and, therefore, women and men have certain unalterable roles in society—for example, that women are the keepers of home and hearth because of their reproductive role, while men are the protectors and providers because of their relatively greater size and strength. However, before concluding that biology is destiny in terms of gender roles, it is important to understand that not only do gender roles differ from culture to culture, they also change over time within the same culture. Early 20th-century American culture emphasized that a woman's role was in the home. As a result, many women did not have high school educations and never held jobs; instead, they quite happily raised families and supported their husbands by keeping their households running smoothly. Nearly a century later, this gender role is no longer the norm (or at least not the only acceptable norm) and sounds quite constricting to our more educated, career-oriented 21st-century ears. If biology were the sole determinant of gender roles, such changes would not be possible.
Culture as Gender Role Determinant
In 21st-century United States culture, gender roles continue to be in a state of flux to some extent, although traditional gender roles still apply in many quarters. For example, boys are often encouraged to become strong, fast, aggressive, dominant, and achieving, while traditional roles for girls are to be sensitive, intuitive, passive, emotional, and interested in the things of home and family. However, these gender roles are culturally bound. For example, in the Tchambuli culture of New Guinea, gender roles for women include doing the fishing and manufacturing as well as controlling the power and economic life of the community. Tchambuli women also take the lead in initiating sexual relations. Tchambuli men, on the other hand, are dependent, flirtatious, and concerned with their appearance, often adorning themselves with flowers and jewelry. In the Tchambuli culture, men's interests revolve around such activities as art, games, and theatrics (Coon, 2001). If gender roles were completely biologically determined, the wide disparity between American and Tchambuli gender roles would not be possible. Therefore, it must be assumed that culture and socialization also play a part in gender role acquisition.
Society as Gender Role Determinant
Socialization is the process by which individuals learn to differentiate between what society regards as acceptable and unacceptable behavior and act in a manner that is appropriate for the needs of the society. The socialization process for teaching gender roles begins almost immediately after birth, when infant girls are typically held more gently and treated more tenderly than are infant boys, and continues as the child grows, with both mothers and fathers usually playing more roughly with their male children than with their female children. As the child continues to grow and mature, little boys are typically allowed to roam a wider territory without permission than are little girls. Similarly, boys are typically expected to run errands earlier than are girls. Whereas sons are told that "real boys don't cry" and are encouraged to control their softer emotions, girls are taught not to fight and not to show anger or aggression. In general, girls are taught to engage in expressive, or emotion-oriented, behaviors, while boys are taught to engage in instrumental, or goal-oriented, behaviors. When the disparity between the way they teach and treat their daughters and sons is pointed out to many parents, they often respond that the sexes are naturally different not only biologically but behaviorally as well.
The teaching of gender roles does not only come through obvious verbal teaching from parents and other elders in society; it also occurs in more subtle ways as well. Many people have observed that children's toys are strongly gender-typed. Girls are often given "girl" toys such as dolls, play kitchens, and similar toys that teach them traditional, socially approved gender roles for when they grow up. Boys, on the other hand, are often given sports equipment, tools, and toy trucks, all of which help prepare them to act within traditional male gender roles. Even if nothing is ever said to children about the gender-appropriateness of these toys, research has shown that by the time they reach school age, many children have already come to believe that professions such as physician, pilot, and athlete are the domain of men, while women are supposed to have careers as nurses, secretaries, or mothers (Coon, 2001).
To investigate the influence of gender-specific toys on the development of gender roles, Caldera and...
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Children learn from their parents and society the conception of
"feminine" and "masculine." Much about these conceptions is not biological at
all but cultural. The way we tend to think about men and women and their gender
roles in society constitute the prevailing paradigm that influences out thinking.
Riane Eisler points out that the prevailing paradigm makes it difficult for us
to analyze properly the roles of men and women in prehistory "we have a cultural
bias that we bring to the effort and that colors our decision-making processes."
Sexism is the result of that bias imposed by our process of acculturation.
Gender roles in Western societies have been changing rapidly in recent
years, with the changes created both by evolutionary changes in society,
including economic shifts which have altered the way people work and indeed
which people work as more and more women enter the workforce, and by perhaps
pressure brought to make changes because of the perception that the traditional
social structure was inequitable. Gender relations are a part of the
socialization process, the initiation given the young by society, teaching them
certain values and creating in them certain behavior patterns acceptable to
their social roles. These roles have been in a state of flux in American
society in recent years, and men and women today can be seen as having expanded
their roles in society, with women entering formerly male dominions and men
finding new ways to relate to and function in the family unit.
When I was growing up a woman was never heard of having a job other than
a school teacher or seamstress. Our(women's)job was to take care
of the house. We had a big garden out back from which we got most
of our vegetablesâ¦A garden is a lot of work you knowâ¦We also had to
make clothes when there were none to be had(hand-me- downs)
Gender can be defined as a social identity consisting of the role a
person is to play because of his or her sex. There is a diversity in male and
female roles, making it impossible to define gender in terms of narrow male and
female roles. Gender is culturally defined, with significant differences from
culture to culture. These differences are studied by anthropologists to
ascertain the range of behaviors that have developed to define gender and on the
forces at work in the creation of these roles. The role of women in American
society was conditioned by religious attitudes and by the conditions of life
that prevailed through much of American history. The culture of Europe and
America was based for centuries on a patriarchal system in which exclusive
ownership of the female by a given male was considered important, with the
result that women were regulated to the role of property with no voice in their
own fate. The girl-child was trained from birth to fit the role awaiting her,
and as long as compensations were adequate, women were relatively content:
"For Example, if in return for being a man's property a woman receives
economic security, a full emotional life centering around husband and children,
and an opportunity to express her capacities in the management of her home, she
has little cause for discontent."
While this statement is arguable in the way it assumes that women are
not discontented under such circumstances, it is clear that for most of history
women were expected to be content with this sort of life and were trained for
that purpose. Clearly, circumstances of family life have changed in the modern
era. Industry has been taken out of the home, and large families are no longer
economically possible or socially desired. The home is no longer the center of
the husband's life, and for the traditional wife there is only a narrowing of
interests and possibilities for development: "Increasingly, the woman finds
herself without an occupation and with an unsatisfactory emotional life." The
change in sex roles that can be discerned in society is closely tied with
changes in the structure of the family. Changes in both family structure and
sex roles over the last century have produced the ferment we still see today,
and one of the problems with the changing role of women is the degree to which
society perceives this is causing unwanted changes in the family, though it is
just as true that changes in the family have altered the roles of women.
As women entered the early 1990s, they faced a number of problems.
Most of these problems have been around for some time, and women have challenged
them and even alleviated them without solving them completely. They are
encountered in the workplace, in the home, in every facet of life. Women have
made advances toward the equality they seek only to encounter a backlash in the
form of religious fundamentalism, claims of reverse discrimination by males, and
hostility from a public that thinks the women's movement has won everything it
wanted and should thus now be silent. Both the needs of women today and the
backlash that has developed derive from the changes in social and sexual roles
that have taken place in the period since World War II. These changes involve
the new ability of women to break out of the gender roles created for them by a
The desperation women feel has been fed throughout history by the
practice of keeping women in their place by limiting their options. This was
accomplished on one level by preventing women from gaining their the sort of
education offered to men, and while this has changed to a great extent, there
are still inequalities in the opportunities offered to men as opposed to women.
Susan Brownmiller writes:
The sad history of prohibitions on women's learning is too well known to
be recorded here. . . In much of the world women are barred from advanced
knowledge and technical training
Yet opening the world of business with new opportunities for women does not
dissipate much of this frustration because both men and women continue to be
ruled by their early training, by the acculturation process which decides for
them what sort of existence they will have. This can result in feelings of
guilt when their reality and the image they have been taught from childhood do
It would be a mistake to see changing gender roles in society as
threatening only to males who dominate that society. Such changes also threaten
many women who have accepted more traditional roles and see change as a threat.
"I don't know how your mother does it all. . . I think time are harder for women
these days. . . so many choices." This response is not new. When women first
united for the right to vote at the beginning of this century, they were opposed
by women's groups who wanted things to remain as they were. Many of these women
were ladies of means and social position in society:
The main burden of their argument was that woman suffrage placed an
additional and unbearable burden on women, whose place was in the home. . .
These arguments are heard today from religious fundamentalists who believe that
the women's movement is a threat to the family. The fact is that the family has
changed and that the traditional family structure of homemaker, husband as
breadwinner, and children bow constitutes only 10 percent of families. The role
for women has expanded with more women in the workplace and with a variety of
family structures with new roles for all members of the family. Business has
been slow to change and to acknowledge the new family, and for all the
complaints about the women's movement as anti-family, the movement has instead
followed the trend of placing the family in the forefront of addressing family
issues as vital to women.
There is much evidence that boys and girls are treated differently form
birth, and this fact has been noted in every world culture:
It may never be possible to separate out the precise effects of
physiology and cultural conditioning on human beings. Not only do they
individually influence people but they interact with each other and with each
person's unique essence to affect human behavior. To accord with the reality of
this complex interplay of factors, and to accord with an increasingly complex
external world, feminists ask simply for options in life styles.
Those stuck in sexism, however, cannot grant even the simple request to ask why
women are inferior. The reason sexism exists at all is because of an
acculturation process which subtly creates it, and it is perpetuated in part for
that reason and also because perceived changes in the roles and status of women
create a backlash based on fear of change.
Surveys have shown that identical resumes or scholarly articles are
rated lower if the applicant is though to be a woman rather than a man: "Man's
success is more likely to be attributed to ability and woman's to luck." While
advances have been made over the last decade, the challenge remains for the next,
and "as long as women constitute small minorities in nontraditional employment
contexts, substantial obstacles will remain." The women in the workplace must
work harder to succeed than their male counterparts, and once they have
succeeded they have to deal with the envy and anxiety this arouses. Women who
do not advance only confirm the stereotype for others:
The perception remains that women can't make it by conventional
standards, or are less committed to doing so. In either event, they do
not seem to warrant the same investment in training, assistance,
and promotion opportunities as their male counterparts.
Feminist theorists have been calling for some time for a change in the
political climate. They want more than just more women in office and the
political arena; they want a new type of political thinking, one that empowers
people rather than government and that addresses the issues that are of
importance to men and women:
If we can eliminate the false polarities and appreciate the limits and
true potential of women's power, we will be able to join with men
--follow or leadâ”in the new human politics that must emerge beyond
reaction. This new human liberation will enable us to take back the
day and the night, and use the precious and limited resources of our
earth and the limitless resources of our human capital to erect new kinds of
homes for all our dreams. . .
The perception the public has had on the role of men and women is
outdated and has been for some time, but public attitudes change slowly even in
the face of overwhelming evidence. More than 40 years ago, anthropologist
Margaret Mead noted the way the West had developed its concept of male and
There has long been a habit in Western civilization of men to have
a picture of womanhood to which women reluctantly conformed,
and for women to make demands on man to which men adjusted
even more reluctantly. This has been a accurate picture of the way in
which we have structured our society, with women as keepers of the
house who insist that the man wipe their feet on the door-mat, and men
as keepers of women in the house who insist that their wives
should stay modestly indoors.
Today, people are far less willing to accept these artificial roles even
reluctantly, and this includes the provision keeping women in the home and out
of the public arena. To have more women in office it is necessary to have more
As noted, public views change more slowly than the reality of gender
roles. They will continue to change slowly as long as we continue acculturating
children with the same sexual stereotypes that have so long prevailed. It is
necessary that we address this issue from early childhood, with parents
demonstrating a different view of gender and sexual roles just as the school and
church should take a part in eliminating the old stereotypes in favor of a more
reasonable and equitable way to view both men and women.
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