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).

Gender Roles: Selected full-text books and articles

Sex and Gender By John Archer; Barbara Lloyd Cambridge University Press, 2002 (2nd edition)
The Psychology of Gender By Alice H. Eagly; Anne E. Beall; Robert J. Sternberg Guilford Press, 2004
Gender, Nature, and Nurture By Richard A. Lippa Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005 (2nd edition)
Women's Rights in the USA: Policy Debates and Gender Roles By Dorothy E. McBride; Janine A. Parry Routledge, 2011 (4th edition)
Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America By Katherine J. Parkin University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
The Psychology of Stereotyping By David J. Schneider Guilford Press, 2005
Librarian's tip: "Gender" begins on p. 439
The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender By Thomas B. Eckes; Hanns M. Trautner Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Attitudes and Opinions By Stuart Oskamp; P. Wesley Schultz Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 17 "Gender-Role Attitudes"
Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality By Kingsley R. Browne Rutgers University Press, 2002
Gender through the Prism of Difference By Maxine Baca Zinn; Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo; Michael A. Messner Oxford University Press, 2005 (3rd edition)
The Gendered Society By Michael S. Kimmel Oxford University Press, 2000
Gender Equity in the Early Years By Naima Browne Open University Press, 2004
Undoing Gender By Judith Butler Routledge, 2004
Women and Men in Organizations: Sex and Gender Issues at Work By Jeanette N. Cleveland; Margaret Stockdale; Kevin R. Murphy Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History By Mary P. Ryan University of North Carolina Press, 2006
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