Gender Roles

Gender roles are a set of standards which impose expectations on the behavior of men and women. These norms for socially appropriate behavior vary from culture to culture and change over time. Some of the gender differences are biological but others are a product of socialization experiences.

American sociologist Talcott Parsons created a model in 1955, which compared a strictly traditional view of gender roles, as seen in 19th century American society, with a liberal view. The model showed that in traditional society gender roles are enhanced by gender-specific education, with men encouraged to acquire a higher professional qualification and focus on their career. Women are involved primarily in housework and children's upbringing. In case of conflict, the man has a say, while the woman's role is to agree. In modern society, on the other hand, co-education schools offer the same teaching content to boys and girls; men and women acquire the same qualification and there is more parity is household work and debates.

Yet even by the 21st century, education was still deemed inappropriate for women in some countries. In the United States and Europe, where boys and girls often study together and women are allowed to pursue a career, gender roles appear to persist in society. Men and women have different roles in education, in work, in the family and in relationships. Apart from having traditional male and female professions and activities, gender differences are expressed in clothing and behavior on a day-to-day basis.

Men and women have different communication styles and are also different in showing emotions, empathizing and nonverbal communication. According to cross-cultural research quoted by Eileen Kane in Gender, Culture and Learning (1996), children are already aware of gender differences by the time they are three years old.

Children's first encounter with gender roles and behavioral norms is in the family. Parents often treat boys and girls differently. They are also more likely to encourage boys to explore, while being more overprotective toward baby girls. Parents serve as role models for children, as girls try to imitate the mother, while boys try to join the father's activities. Therefore, labor division in the household immediately shapes the child's understanding of male and female roles in a family.

School teachers may implicitly reinforce gender roles, by showing gender-biased tendencies and tolerating different behaviors from boys and girls. School socializes girls towards a feminine ideal and expects them to be quiet and calm, while boys should be more independent and aggressive. Girls' assertiveness can also provoke negative response from adults. British researcher Diane Reay (2001) found out that "girls' misbehavior is looked upon as a character defect, whilst boys' misbehavior is viewed as a desire to assert themselves." Gender roles may also restrict boys' behavior: they are mocked at when "crying like a girl."

The reinforcement of gender roles is also embedded in textbooks and curricula. Often the contribution of women in history and science remains unnoticed, and language is gender-biased (Bailey, 1992). The late 20th century was marked by a tremendous revision of traditional gender roles, which affected home, workplace and school. The changes in attitude translated into a rise in the number of women in the workplace. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 1995, the percentage of women aged between 25 and 54 who worked outside home was 76 percent. In 1970, only 50 percent of women in that age group had jobs.

Studies show that many younger people in the United States are in favor of gender equality in marriage as well as household tasks and financial issues.

Meanwhile, traditional gender roles -- including the division of household chores - remain particularly widespread among white middle-class families (Belsky & Kelly, 1994).

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender
Thomas B. Eckes; Hanns M. Trautner.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Sex and Gender
John Archer; Barbara Lloyd.
Cambridge University Press, 2002 (2nd edition)
Attitudes and Opinions
Stuart Oskamp; P. Wesley Schultz.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 17 "Gender-Role Attitudes"
Changing Women, Unchanged Men? Sociological Perspectives on Gender in a Post-Industrial Society
Sara Delamont.
Open University Press, 2001
Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior
Bobbi S. Low.
Princeton University Press, 2000
Gender through the Prism of Difference
Maxine Baca Zinn; Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo; Michael A. Messner.
Oxford University Press, 2005 (3rd edition)
The Gendered Society
Michael S. Kimmel.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Gender and Social Theory
Mary Evans.
Open University Press, 2003
Gender Equity in the Early Years
Naima Browne.
Open University Press, 2004
Undoing Gender
Judith Butler.
Routledge, 2004
Women and Men in Organizations: Sex and Gender Issues at Work
Jeanette N. Cleveland; Margaret Stockdale; Kevin R. Murphy.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Childhood and Adolescence: Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Applications
Uwe P. Gielen; Jaipaul Roopnarine.
Praeger, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Gender Roles in Childhood and Adolescence"
Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History
Mary P. Ryan.
University of North Carolina Press, 2006
I Will Wear No Chain! A Social History of African-American Males
Christopher B. Booker.
Praeger, 2000
Brown on Brown: Chicano/a Representations of Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity
Frederick Luis Aldama.
University of Texas Press, 2005
Discourse on Gender/Gendered Discourse in the Middle East
Boaz Shoshan.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
Women's Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide
Bella Vivante.
Greenwood Press, 1999
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