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Gender role
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Gender role

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In sociology the term gender role denotes a set of behavioral norms society imposes upon people according to their sex.

In sexology, on the other hand, gender role describes an individual or socially prescribed set of behaviours and responsibilities. In essence, gender role comprises all the things people do to express their gender identity. Gender roles then, are not norms that were established by some authority, but reflect the changing habits and customs of concrete individuals in actual societies. The human behavior is there first, and the ideologies and norms grow up by an inductive process that occurs informally within the societies and, later on, more formally by researchers. The sexologist John Money describes his reasons for borrowing the term "gender" to talk about the concrete behavior of individuals who were behaving in ways that stretched or breached society's norms for gender. Each person acts out a role that "he" or "she" creates by a complex process of self-understanding and understanding what other people in "his" or "her" society do to express their genders. The sexologists call the resulting complex of behaviors the person's gender role.

While some elements of gender role are biological in origin (for example, the shape of women's clothing is designed to accomodate female body characteristics such as breasts; men generally have more muscle mass so they may perform activities that require great strength), other components of gender role come from socialization (for example: men are expected to work to support a family, therefore they have to get better education; women are assumed to have an inherent talent for cooking). Gender identity can be expressed through choices of clothing and behaviour, hairstyle and so on, as well as through choices of work, personal relationships, and other factors. Such factors will vary according to culture because different cultures have different expectations of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for each gender.

Table of contents
1 Elements of gender role
2 Culture and gender roles
3 Gender role in social interactions
4 Gender role expectations
5 Many societies, many forms of gender roles
6 Elements of biology
7 Language
8 Transgender people
9 Gender roles and feminism
10 Lesbians, gays and gender roles
11 Examples of western gender roles
12 Notes
13 See also
14 External links

Elements of gender role

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

For example, one such male gender role could include wearing male clothing (such as just a pair of swimming trunks at the beach, a necktie and a business suit while at work), going to the pub occasionally, drinking beer and playing darts with his friends, swearing if he hurts himself, seeking heterosexual relationships, seeking or maintaining an executive job, and so on. Another male gender role could include wearing male clothing (such as jeans and t-shirts), enjoying watching movies with his significant other, seeking homosexual relationships, and seeking more traditionally "blue-collar" employment. Gender roles to express one's gender identity can be extremely varied.

Considerable debate exists as to whether gender roles are biological in origin, in the sense of the behavioural traits arising primarily from the biology of sex; or culturally created, in the sense of behavioural traits arising from early socialization. For example, within a certain society, one's gender role often conforms to that society's social norms. Behaviour that does not conform to these norms is often discouraged. As with many such debates, most researchers believe that both factors influence the development and propagation of gender roles. However, the relative influence of each, and the specifics of how that influence operates, are still hotly disputed.

Some elements of gender role are connected with body differences related to sex. For instance, with clothing, women's blouses make room for women's breasts and do not have pockets that cover the nipples. Men's shirts, essentially the same garment, are flatter and do have pockets over the nipples. Women frequently nurse infants. Men have mammary glands but they only very rarely nurse infants because the special hormonal states that produce lactation usually follow only from pregnancy (See also male lactation).

Some elements of gender role are however connected with socialization. One archetypal example is the comment that "boys don't cry". The biology of a boy does not forbid him from forming tears, but the society in which the boy lives in expects boys not to cry.

Culture and gender roles

Ideas of appropriate behaviour according to gender vary among cultures, although some aspects receive more widespread attention than others. For example, in most current and known historical cultures, martial combat has been seen as mostly (or only) appropriate for men, while child-rearing has been seen as mostly (or only) the domain of women. Androgyny is a term given to denote the display of both male and female behaviour. Sociologists have researched that strictly traditional gender roles have become less relevant and more hollow in Western societies since industrialization started. For example the cliché that women do not follow a carreer is obsolete in many Western societies.

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 be seen in modern society, where European medicine is most often practiced by men, while the majority of Russian doctors are women.

Gender role in social interactions

Gender role often signifies a person's gender identity. For instance, if someone identifies as a girl or woman, then they will ordinarily do the kind of things that will let other people know that they are a girl or woman, and likewise if someone identifies as a boy or man then they will ordinarily do the kind of things that will let other people know that they are a boy or man. However, in some instances, a person may identify as a woman and have elements of a male gender role (often called butch, especially for a lesbian woman), or vice versa.

It is common for men and women seeking heterosexual relationships to adopt conventional gender roles, generally expected by their partners. This may not necessarily be the case in same-sex relationships. However, potential partners may have different expectations. One typical example is an expectation by some women for a male to behave as a "sensitive new age guy" (SNAG). This could be described as a traditional male gender role with a more typically "female" empathy and other emotional responses. The SNAG phenomenon is much less common today, however.

Gender role expectations

Certain societies have different expectations as to what gender roles are acceptable and which are not. The behaviours in these gender roles must adhere to that society's norms. These expectations may differ from society to society.

For example, in the Western society, persons, generally male, who adopt elements of female gender roles, while maintaining a male sexual identity, are often criticised and ridiculed. It is seen by some in that society that such a gender role for a man is not acceptable. These, and other societies impose expectations on the behaviour of the members of society, and thus the gender roles of these 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.

Many societies, many forms of gender roles

In many societies, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate gender role differences. Starting with the belief that men are generally stronger than women, people conclude, somehow, that men should be stronger than women, and that there is something inadequate about a man who is not very strong. Starting with the belief that women are generally more gentle and nurturing than men, people construct a socially supported ideal that says that women should be gentle and nurturing and should not be harsh or aggressive. Many societies jump from the observation that men are less likely to cry than are women to the practice of indoctrinating boys, virtually from birth, not to cry.

Some gender role differences are purely conventional. That is, they work the way laws about which side of the street to drive on work. As long as everyone in the United Kingdom drives on the left side of the road, and as long as everyone in the United States drives on the right side of the road, there will be no problem with head-on collisions. In most societies, men wear trousers and women wear skirts. But in a traditional Malay community it is an ordinary practice for men to wear sarongs. In the traditional society of Scotland, men wore kilts. As long as the cultural context matches the choice of clothing it would be unusual for any negative comment to arise in such cases.

Elements of biology

Gender role differences that are purely conventional are thought to be easier to change than are those that have some link to the biology of individuals. One consequence of social unrest during the Vietnam War era in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, was that men began to let their hair grow to a length that was previously considered appropriate only to women. Somewhat later, in response to other social changes, many women began to cut their hair to lengths previously considered appropriate only to men. The practical consequences of these changes were not onerous.

It would, to the contrary, be rather more difficult to get men to give up trousers that have a zipper. It would likewise be difficult to get women to wear tight-fitting fly fishermen's vests made of nylon netting with a half-inch mesh. Such a garment, regardless of how stylish it might be considered one fine year, would be too uncomfortable for a woman to wear unless she first bound her breasts with some other fabric to protect them from rubbing against the harsh netting and pocket contents of the vest.

Biological factors sometimes have a strong impact on which occupations are judged by a society to be appropriate for men, and which are judged appropriate for women. There is no reason why a large woman could not successfully shoe horses or deliver freight shipments from railway stations to the recipients' homes. However, there are not even very many men who have the strength and stamina to put shoes on a strong and uncooperative draft horse. Societies seem to frequently jump from a valid observation to a false conclusion in cases such as these. A society may jump from the observation that only a very few women would be physically suited to shoe a heavy draft horse to the conclusion that no woman should be a farrier, or jump from the observation that only a few women would be physically suited to serve as a fireman to the conclusion that women should not be eligible to apply for those jobs.

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", etc. But in China and the former Soviet Union countries, medical doctors are predominantly women, and in Taiwan it is very common for all of the barbers in a barber shop to be women.


Language is a system of abstractions and frequently deals with idealized cases. The more sharply masculine gender roles are distinguished from feminine gender roles, the less likely it is that any individual human being will comply perfectly with the requirements of that gender role. And besides that fact, every individual in a society is likely to have his or her unique definition of the "proper masculine gender role" and the "proper feminine gender role". Any individual, then, might well be expected to be in compliance with the gender role ideals held by some people and to fail to be in compliance with the gender role ideals held by some other people. When, for instance, a boy cries too readily for the tastes of some people, they will call the child a "sissy" to indicate that in their view he is not a very ideal boy. There are many such pejorative role-related terms.

Transgender people

As long as a person's 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 unless for whatever reason an individual adopts a gender role that is inconsistent with his or her gender identity. When that kind of thing happens, 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 trying to pass himself or herself off as a member of another 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 ususally highly problematic, however, is when the external genitalia of a person, that person's 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 is our language and system of traditional concepts.

In one example, a person may have a penis and scrotum, but may be a female (with XX chromosomal sexual identity) 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" penis.1 In addition, this person may have always accepted a gender identity that is consistent with "his" external genitalia or with "her" internal genitalia. Biological conditions which mean that a person's physiological sex is not easily determined are collectively known as intersex.

When we consider these more unusual products of nature's inventiveness, the simple picture that we saw 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 still do not accept these people and may even react violently and persecute them: this 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

Most feminists argue that traditional gender roles are oppressive for them. Feminists, possibly from a Radical feminist viewpoint, also note that a patriarchal society implies a gender role for women that helps to perpetuate this patriarchy.

Throughout the last century 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 traditional female gender role. However, some 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 massive: Women earn less than men, occupy lower ranking job positions than men and do most of the house keeping work.

Furthermore, there has been a perception of Western culture, nowadays, 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 children deprives women of spare time. Whereas the majority of men with university education 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 "womens' two roles: home and work" published in London.

When feminism became a conspicuous protest movement in the sixites 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 perfectly acceptable to Western society. Feminists argue that the choice and option to adopt such a role is key.

Lesbians, gays and gender roles

For lesbian and gay people, gender roles have specific legal consequences in some countries. They are, for example, denied the right to marry because they do not comply with the norms of society.

Examples of western gender roles

In the early 20th century, western gender roles were based around the idea of heteronormativity, and as such they were comparatively fixed. People who transgressed gender roles, such as women with high-powered jobs, frequently experienced often violent disapproval and discrimination.

Some examples of commonly seen gender role descriptions:

After the sexual revolution, gay liberation, and feminism movements of the mid to late 20th century (the 1960s in particular), new roles became available in Western societies, and gender roles became rather more flexible. Narrowly defined gender roles, such as those listed here, are generally recognised as stereotypes.

Other stereotypes:


[1] 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 penis."

See also

External links