Gender role

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A bagpiper in Scottish military uniform. In many parts of the West, wearing a skirt may be unacceptable as part of a male gender role, but in Scotland men have traditionally worn a kilt, which is somewhat similar to a skirt.
A bagpiper in Scottish military uniform. In many parts of the West, wearing a skirt may be unacceptable as part of a male gender role, but in Scotland men have traditionally worn a kilt, which is somewhat similar to a skirt.

In the social sciences and humanities, a gender role is a set of behavioral norms associated with males and with females, respectively, in a given social group or system. Gender is one component of the gender/sex system, which refers to "the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed needs are satisfied" (Reiter 1975: 159). Every known society has a gender/sex system, although the components and workings of this system vary widely from society to society.

In many ways gender identity and roles function as any other social identity and role. Every known human society presents individuals with a set of statuses by which members of the society identify themselves and one another. Such statuses may be assigned to an individual automatically, based on the status of his or her parents, or based on some physical characteristic (including ones that emerge through the aging process); such statuses are called "ascribed." According to one viewpoint of gender, other statuses may also be "achieved" based on the activities and accomplishments of an individual. In either case, gender, like any other role, involves socially proscribed and prescribed behaviors, which may take the form of rules or values. Such rules and values do not determine or control an individual's behaviors absolutely. Usually they define boundaries of acceptable behavior within which there is always variation and room for individuality. Most researchers recognize that the concrete behavior of individuals is a consequence of both socially enforced rules and values, and individual disposition, whether genetic, unconscious, or conscious. Some researchers emphasize the objective social system, and others emphasize subjective orientations and dispositions.

Moreover, such creativity may, over time, cause the rules and values to change. Although all social scientists recognize that cultures and societies are dynamic and change, there have been extensive debates as to how, and how fast, they may change. Such debates are especially intense when they involve the gender/sex system, as people have widely differing views about how much gender depends on biological sex.


Talcott Parsons' views of gender roles

Working in the United States, Talcott Parsons5 developed a model of the nuclear family in 1955. (At that place and time, the nuclear family was considered to be the prevalent family structure.) It compared a strictly traditional view of gender roles to a more liberal view.

Parsons believed that the feminine role was an expressive one, whereas the masculine role, in his view, was instrumental. He believed that expressive activities of the woman fulfill 'internal' functions, for example to strengthen the ties between members of the family. The man, on the other hand, performed the 'external' functions of a family, such as providing monetary support.

The Parsons model was used to contrast and illustrate extreme positions on gender roles. Model A describes total separation of male and female roles, while Model B describes the complete dissolution of barriers between gender roles3.

Model A — Total role segregation Model B — Total disintegration of roles
Education gender-specific education, high professional qualification is important only for the man co-educative schools, same content of classes for girls and boys, same qualification for men and women
Profession the workplace is not the primary area of women, career and professional advancement is unimportant for women for women, career is just as important as for men, therefore equal professional opportunities for men and women are necessary
Housework housekeeping and child care are the primary functions of the woman, participation of the man in these functions is only partially wanted all housework is done by both parties to the marriage in equal shares
Decision making in case of conflict man has the last say, for example in choosing the place to live, choice of school for children, buying decisions man cannot dominate over woman, solutions do not always follow the principle of finding a concerted decision, this may lead to separate vacations, or living in different apartments
Child care and education woman takes care of the largest part of these functions, she educates children and cares for them in every way man and woman share these functions equally

Both extreme positions are rarely found in reality. Actual behavior of individuals is somewhere between these poles. The most common 'model' followed in real life is the 'model of double burden' (see Gender roles and feminism below).

According to the interactionist approach, roles (including gender roles) are not fixed, but are constantly negotiated between individuals.

Gender role can influence all kinds of behavior, such as choice of clothing, choice of work and personal relationships; e.g., parental status (see also Sociology of fatherhood).


Changing norms of socialization: Louis XV in 1712, wearing the customary baby clothes of the time, would be considered "cross-dressed" in the 21st century.
Changing norms of socialization: Louis XV in 1712, wearing the customary baby clothes of the time, would be considered "cross-dressed" in the 21st century.

The process by which the individual learns and accepts roles is called socialization. Socialization works by encouraging wanted and discouraging unwanted behavior. These sanctions by agencies of socialization such as the family, schools, and the media make it clear to the child what the behavioral norms it ought to follow are. The child typically follows the examples of its parents, siblings and teachers. Mostly, accepted behavior is not produced by outright coercion. The individual has choice as to if or to what extent he or she conforms. Typical encouragements of gender role behavior are no longer as powerful as they used to be a century ago.

Still, once someone has accepted a set of behavioral norms these are typically very important to the individual. Sanctions to unwanted behavior and role conflict can be stressful.

Criticism of biologism

Gender roles have long been a staple of the Nature/Nurture debate: traditional theories of gender usually assume that one's gender identity, and hence one's gender role, is a natural given. For example, it is often claimed in Western societies that women are naturally more fit to look after children. The idea that differences in gender roles originate in differences in biology has found support in parts of the scientific community. 19th-century anthropology sometimes used descriptions of the imagined life of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies for evolutionary explanations for gender differences. For example, those accounts maintain that the need to take care of offspring may have limited the females' freedom to hunt and assume positions of power.

More recently, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have explained those differences in social roles by treating them as adaptations. This approach, too, is controversial.

Due to the influence of (among others) Simone de Beauvoir's feminist works and Michel Foucault's reflections on sexuality, the idea that gender was unrelated to sex gained ground during the 1980s, especially in sociology and cultural anthropology. In some circles, it was believed that a person could therefore be born with male genitals but still be of feminine gender. In 1987, R.W. Connell did extensive research on whether there are any connections between biology and gender role4 and concluded that there were none. Most scientists reject Connell's research because concrete evidence exists proving the effect of hormones on behavior. The debate continues to rage on. Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge Univ. professor of psychology and psychiatry, has said that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, while the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

The current trend in Western societies toward men and women sharing similar occupations, responsibilities and jobs suggests that the sex one is born with does not directly determine one's abilities. While there are differences in average capabilities of various kinds (e.g., physical strength) between the sexes, the capabilities of some members of one sex will fall within the range of capabilities needed for tasks conventionally assigned to the other sex.

Women choose to be housewives more often than men chose to be househusbands. It has been suggested by scientists that biology plays a role in this, and it has been suggested by feminists that it is the result of gender roles. Many scientists and feminists believe that gender behavioural differences occur because of both factors. However, some have argued that gender roles themselves are abstractions of overall differences between men and women, introducing the idea of circularity and the idea of the social reinforcement of natural tendencies leading to a factitious separation between the activites of males and the activities of females.

Changing roles

Gender role is composed of several elements. A person's gender role can be expressed through clothing, behaviour, choice of work, personal relationships and other factors.

Gender roles were traditionally divided into strictly feminine and masculine gender roles, though these roles have diversified today into many different acceptable male or female gender roles. However, gender role norms for women and men can vary significantly from one country or culture to another, even within a country or culture. People express their gender role somewhat uniquely.

Gender role can vary according to the social group to which a person belongs or the subculture with which he or she chooses to identify. Historically, for example, eunuchs had a different gender role because their biology was changed.

A woman publicly witnessing at a Quaker meeting seemed an extraordinary feature of the Religious Society of Friends, worth recording for a wider public. Engraving by Bernard Picart, ca 1723
A woman publicly witnessing at a Quaker meeting seemed an extraordinary feature of the Religious Society of Friends, worth recording for a wider public. Engraving by Bernard Picart, ca 1723

Androgyny, a term denoting the display of both male and female behaviour, also exists. Many terms have been developed to portray sets of behaviors arising in this context. The masculine gender role has become more malleable since the 1950s. One example is the "sensitive new age guy", which could be described as a traditional male gender role with a more typically "female" empathy and associated emotional responses. Another is the metrosexual, a male who adopts similarly "female" grooming habits. Some have argued that such new roles are merely rebelling against tradition moreso than forming a distinct role.

According to sociological research, traditional feminine gender roles have become less relevant and hollower in Western societies since industrialization started. For example, the cliché that women do not follow a career is obsolete in many Western societies. On the other hand, in the media there are attempts to portray women who adopt an extremely classical role as a subculture8.

One consequence of social unrest during the Vietnam War era was that men began to let their hair grow to a length that had previously been considered appropriate only for women. Somewhat earlier, women had begun to cut their hair to lengths previously considered appropriate only to men.

Culture and gender roles

Ideas of appropriate behaviour according to gender vary among cultures and era, although some aspects receive more widespread attention than others. An interesting case is described by R.W. Connell in Men, Masculinities and Feminism:

"There are cultures where it has been normal, not exceptional, for men to have homosexual relations. There have been periods in 'Western' history when the modern convention that men suppress displays of emotion did not apply at all, when men were demonstrative about their feeling for their friends. Mateship in the Australian outback last century is a case in point."

Other aspects, however, may differ markedly with time and place. In pre-industrial Europe, for example, the practice of medicine (other than midwifery) was generally seen as a male prerogative. However, in Russia, health care was more often seen as a feminine role. The results of these views can still be seen in modern society, where European medicine is most often practiced by men, while the majority of Russian doctors are women.

In many other cases, the elements of convention or tradition seem to play a dominant role in deciding which occupations fit in with which gender roles. In the United States, physicians have traditionally been men, and the few people who defied that expectation received a special job description: "woman doctor". Similarly, we have special terms like "male nurse", "woman lawyer", "lady barber", "male secretary," etc. But in China and the former Soviet Union countries, medical doctors are predominantly women, and in the United Kingdom and Taiwan it is very common for all of the barbers in a barber shop to be women.

For example, in the Western society, people whose gender appears masculine and whose inferred and/or verified external genitalia are male are often criticised and ridiculed for exhibiting what the society regards as a woman's gender role. For instance, someone with a masculine voice, a five o'clock shadow (or a fuller beard), an Adam's apple, etc., wearing a woman's dress and high heels, carrying a purse, etc., would most likely draw ridicule or other unfriendly attention in ordinary social contexts (the stage and screen excepted). It is seen by some in that society that such a gender role for a man is not acceptable. This, and other societies, impose expectations on the behaviour of the members of society, and specifically on the gender roles of individuals, resulting in prescriptions regarding gender roles.

It should be noted that some societies are comparatively rigid in their expectations, and other societies are comparatively permissive. Some of the gender signals that form part of a gender role and indicate one's gender identity to others are quite obvious, and others are so subtle that they are transmitted and received out of ordinary conscious awareness.

Transgendered and intersexed people

As long as a person's perceived physiological sex is consistent with that person's gender identity, the gender role of a person is so much a matter of course in a stable society that people rarely even think of it. Only in cases where, for whatever reason, an individual adopts a gender role that is inconsistent with his or her perceived gender identity will the matter draw attention. When an individual exhibits a gender role that is discordant with his or her gender identity, it is most often done to deliberately provoke a sense of incongruity and a humorous reaction to the attempts of a person of one sex to pass himself or herself off as a member of the opposite sex. People can find much entertainment in observing the exaggerations or the failures to get nuances of an unfamiliar gender role right.

Not entertaining, but usually highly problematic, however, are cases wherein the external genitalia of a person, that person's perceived gender identity, and/or that person's gender role are not consistent. People naturally, but too easily, assume that if a person has a penis, scrotum, etc., then that person is chromosomally male (i.e., that person has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome), and that the person, in introspection, feels like a male. Nature is much more inventive than our language and system of traditional concepts allow.

In one example, a person may have a penis and scrotum, but may be a female (with XX chromosomal sexual identity and with normal female sexual organs internally). When that person reaches puberty, "his" breasts may enlarge to ordinary female proportions, and "he" may begin to menstruate, passing menstrual blood through "his" penis6. In addition, this person may have always accepted a gender identity that is consistent with "his" external genitalia or with "her" internal genitalia. When the true sex of the individual becomes revealed at puberty, the individual and/or the community will be forced to reconsider what gender role is to be considered appropriate. Biological conditions that cause a person's physiological sex to be not easily determined are collectively known as intersex.

Another example is to consider transgender people, some who refuse to adhere to one set of gender roles or to transcend the scheme of gender roles completely, regardless of their physiological sex. Transsexualism also exists, where a person who is born as one sex and is brought up in that sex, but has gender identity of the opposite sex and wishes to live and does live according to the gender roles associated with that sex.

When we consider these more unusual products of nature's inventiveness, the simple picture that we saw originally, in which there was a high degree of consistency among external genitalia, gender identity, and gender role, then dissolves into a kind of jigsaw puzzle that is difficult to put together correctly. The extra parts of this jigsaw puzzle fall into two closely related categories, atypical gender identities and atypical gender roles.

In Western society, there is a growing acceptance of intersexed and transgendered people. However, there are some who do not accept these people and may react violently and persecute them: this kind of negative value judgment is sometimes known as transphobia.

Nevertheless, such incidents are rare. For the vast majority of people their gender is commensurate with their genitalia.

Gender roles and feminism

Main article: Feminism

Most feminists argue that traditional gender roles are oppressive for women. They assume that the female gender role was constructed as an opposite to an ideal male role, and helps to perpetuate patriarchy.

For approximately the last 100 years women have been fighting for equality (especially in the 1960s with second-wave feminism and radical feminism, which are the most notable feminist movements) and were able to make changes to the traditionally accepted feminine gender role. However, most feminists today say there is still work to be done.

Numerous studies and statistics show that even though the situation for women has improved during the last century, discrimination is still widespread: women earn a smaller percentage of aggregate income than men, occupy lower-ranking job positions than men and do most of the housekeeping work. Some women, such as the editors of the Independent Women's Forum, dispute this claim. They argue that women actually earn 98 cents on the dollar when factors such as age, education, and experience are taken into account. However, feminists believe these factors are not independent of gender. In fact, gender socialization informs the kind and length of education women receive, as well as the age in which women enter the workplace and the time spent working. Opponents counter that, regardless of what forces influence these factors, the evidence of wide-spread discrimination against working women is quite weak.

Furthermore, there has been a perception of Western culture, in recent times, that the female gender role is dichotomized into either being a "stay at home mother" or a "career woman". In reality, women usually face a double burden: the need to balance job and child care deprives women of spare time. Whereas the majority of men with university educations have a career as well as a family, only 50 percent of academic women have children. The double burden problem was introduced to scientific theory in 1956 by Myrdal and Klein in their work "Women's two roles: home and work," published in London.

When feminism became a conspicuous protest movement in the sixties critics oftentimes argued that women who wanted to follow a traditional role would be discriminated against in the future and forced to join the workforce. This has not proven true. At the beginning of the 21st century women who choose to live in the classical role of the "stay at home mother" are acceptable to Western society. There is not complete tolerance of all female gender roles — there is some lasting prejudice and discrimination against those who choose to adhere to traditional female gender roles (sometimes termed being a "girly girl"), despite feminism, in theory, not being about the choices made but the freedom to make that choice.


Note that many people consider some or all of the following terms to have negative connotations.

  • A male adopting a female gender role might be described as effeminate, foppish, or as a sissy. Even more pejorative terms include mollycoddle, milquetoast, milksop, sop, mamma's boy, and namby-pamby.
  • A female adopting a male role might be described as butch, as a tomboy, or as a mannish woman. More pejorative terms include amazon (see amazon feminism), virago.
  • Women who maintain a traditionally feminine identity might be described as femme or girly girls.

Sexual orientation and gender roles

Traditional gender roles include male attraction to females, and vice versa. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and others do not conform to these expectations. An active conflict over the cultural acceptability of non-heterosexuality rages worldwide. (See Societal attitudes towards homosexuality.) The belief or assumption that heterosexual relationships and acts are normal is described—largely by the opponents of this viewpoint—as heterosexism or in queer theory, heteronormativity.

Perhaps it is an attempt to reconcile this conflict that leads to a common assumption that one same-sex partner assumes a pseudo-male gender role and the other assumes a pseudo-female role. For a gay male relationship, this might lead to the assumption that the "wife" handled domestic chores, was the receptive sexual partner in anal sex, adopted effeminate mannerisms, and perhaps even dressed in women's clothing. A related assumption is that all androphilic people, including gay men, should or do adopt feminine mannerisms and other gender-role elements, and that all gynophilic people, including lesbians, should or do adopt masculine mannerisms and other gender-role elements; it is unclear how bisexuality fits into this framework.

Same-sex domestic partners also challenge traditional gender roles because it is impossible to divide up household responsibilites along gender lines if both partners attempt to fill the same gender role. Like all live-in couples, same-sex partners usually do come to some arrangement with regard to household responsibilities. Sometimes these arrangements do assign traditional female responsibilities to one partner and traditional male responsibilities to the other, but non-traditional division of labor are also quite common. For instance, cleaning and cooking, traditionally both female responsibilities, might be assigned to different people. Some people do adopt the sexual role of bottom or top, but this is not universal, and does not necessarily correspond to assignment of household responsibilities.

Cross-dressing is also quite common in gay and lesbian culture, but it is usually restricted to festive occasions (though there are certainly people of all sexual orientations who routinely engage in various types of cross-dressing, either as a fashion statement or for entertainment). Distinctive styles of dress, however, are commonly seen in gay and lesbian circles. These fashions sometimes emulate the traditional styles of the opposite gender (for example, lesbians who wear t-shirts and boots instead of skirts and dresses, or gay men who wear clothing with traditionally feminine elements, including displays of jewelry or coloration), but others do not. Fashion choices also do not necessarily align with other elements of gender identity. Some fashion and behavioral elements in gay and lesbian culture are novel, and do not really correspond to any traditional gender roles. For example, the popularity of rainbow jewelry, or the gay techno/dance music subculture. In addition to the stereotypically effeminate one, another significult gay male subculture is homomasculinity, emphasizing certain traditionally masculine or hypermasculine traits. (See Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures.)

The term dyke, commonly used to mean lesbian, sometimes carries associations of a butch or masculine identity, and the variant bulldyke certainly does. Other gender-role-charged lesbian terms include lipstick lesbian, chapstick lesbian, and Stone Femme. "Butch," "femme," and novel elements are also seen in various lesbian subcultures.

External social pressures may lead some people to adopt a persona which is perceived as more appropriate for a heterosexual (for instance, in an intolerant work environment) or homosexual (for instance, in a same-sex dating environment), while maintaining a somewhat different identity in other, more private circumstances. The acceptance of new gender roles in Western societies, however, is rising6.

See also: Straight acting

Notes and references

  • Note 1: Talcott Parsons: Family Socialization and Interaction Process, New York 1955.
  • Note 2: Wolfgang Schulz: Einführung in die Soziologie, Vienna 1989, p. 288.
  • Note 3: Brockhaus: Enzyklopädie der Psychologie, 2001.
  • Note 4: Connell, Robert William: Gender and Power, Cambridge: University Press 1987.
  • Note 5: Franco-German TV station ARTE, Karambolage, August 2004.
  • Note 6: According to John Money, in the case of androgen-induced transsexual status, "The clitoris becomes hypertrophied so as to become a penile clitoris with incomplete fusion and a urogenital sinus, or, if fusion is complete, a penis with urethra and an empty scrotum" (see Gay, Straight, and In-Between, p. 31). At ovarian puberty, "menstruation through the penis" begins (op. cit., p. 32). In the case of the adrenogenital syndrome, hormonal treatment could bring about "breast growth and menstruation through the penis" (op. cit., p. 34). In one case an individual was born with a fully formed penis and empty scrotum. At the age of puberty that person's own physician provided treatment with cortisol. "His breasts developed and heralded the approach of first menstruation, through the pen15".

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