Sex (Gender) Roles

Gender Roles Definition

Sex roles, or gender roles, consist of the social expectations about the typical and appropriate behavior of men and women. Generally, the female gender role includes the expectation that women and girls exhibit communal traits and behaviors, which focus on interpersonal skill, expressivity, and emotional sensitivity. In contrast, the male gender role includes the expectation that men and boys exhibit agentic traits and behaviors, which focus on self-orientation, independence, and assertiveness. In addition, gender roles include expectations about other elements, such as cognitive skills, hobbies and interests, and occupational choice. Because gender roles transcend many different situations, they can exert considerable influence, and thus studying them is critical to understanding the psychology of men and women.

Gender roles include both descriptive norms, which describe the behavior that is typically observed in men and women, and injunctive or prescriptive norms, which mandate the behavior that is socially approved for men and women. These beliefs are often consensually held: Studies of gender stereotypes, or beliefs about men and women, across a wide range of cultures have found that although some variability exists, people of different cultures generally agree about what men and women are like. In general, people believe that women tend to be more communal than men, and men tend to be more agentic than women. Regardless of the accuracy of such beliefs, this widespread consensus lends them considerable power. Moreover, gender roles tend to be socially approved; not only do people agree that men and women differ, but they also agree that such differences are good.

Sex (Gender) RolesWriters and philosophers have long considered the impact of different expectations for men and women (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792). The scientific study of sex roles began in earnest during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, when psychologists began to document and explain sex differences in behavior and cognitive skills. Explanations of sex-related differences include a wide range of social and biological causes. Although the general convention is to use the term gender to describe the social and cultural systems (e.g., socialization) and sex to describe the biological groupings of men and women, growing consensus suggests that these causes may not be easily separated. For instance, biological differences (e.g., pregnancy) can assume greater or lesser meaning in cultures with different social or economic demands.

Roots of Gender Roles

Gender roles are closely intertwined with the social roles of men and women. In the traditional division of labor, men occupy high status or leadership roles more than women do, and women occupy caretaking and domestic roles more than men do. When a group of people occupies a particular type of social role, observers infer that the group possesses the internal qualities suited to such roles, thereby failing to account for the power of the role to affect behavior. In the case of the gender groups, the observation that men occupy leadership roles and women occupy care-taking roles leads to the assumption that each group possesses role-congruent personality traits. Initial evidence supporting this inferential process came from a series of experiments in which respondents read brief scenarios about individuals who were described as (a) male, female, or sex-unspecified, and (b) an employee, homemaker, or occupation-unspecified. When no occupation was specified, inferences followed traditional gender stereotypes (i.e., that women were more communal and that men were more agentic). However, when the target individual was described as a homemaker, the respondents inferred that the individual was highly communal and not very agentic—whether the target individual was male or female. Conversely, when the target individual was described as an employee, the respondents inferred that the individual was highly agentic and not very communal—again, regardless of the sex of the target individual. Thus, gender stereotypes stem from the assumption that men and women occupy different types of social roles. The expectation that men and women possess gender-stereotypic traits is then elaborated into broader gender roles, including beliefs that men and women are especially suited for their social roles and approval for gender-stereotypic traits.

Effects of Gender Roles

Because of the consensual and widely approved nature of gender roles, they have considerable impact on behavior. Expectations related to gender may begin to exert an influence extremely early in life. Indeed, within 24 hours of birth, parents have been found to describe male and female infants in gender-stereotypic terms, although the infants did not differ on any objective measures. Such expectations elicit confirming behavior, as demonstrated in several experiments studying the self-fulfilling prophecy. In a classic experiment, each participant was asked to complete a set of male- and female-stereotypic tasks along with a partner, whom they did not meet. The experimenters varied whether participants believed they were interacting with a male or female partner. Task assignments followed gender-stereotypic lines: When participants believed they were interacting with a partner of the other sex, they negotiated a more traditional division of labor. Importantly, this gender-stereotypic division of labor occurred regardless of the actual sex of the partner. The simple belief that someone is a man or a woman—even if incorrect—can elicit behavior that conforms to gender role expectations.

The power of expectations to elicit confirming behavior within one specific situation is compelling, but even more so is the consideration of the power of expectations culminated over a lifetime. A wide variety of sources, including parents, teachers, peers, and the media, convey these expectations, which can have considerable impact on life choices. For example, the Eccles model of achievement choices has explicated how parent and teacher expectations about gender differences in ability lead to boys’ greater tendency to excel in achievement-related domains. Moreover, repeated experience in certain activities may lead to the development of congruent personality characteristics, which then may guide behaviors across different situations.

An important element of the power of gender roles is that people are rewarded for compliance and punished for transgressions. Those who violate gender-stereotypic expectations, whether because of sexual preference, occupational choice, or personality characteristics, often meet with derogation in their social environment. Such negativity has been documented in experimental findings that women who adopt dominant or self-promoting speech and behavior are penalized compared with similar men. This derogation can include sexism, heterosexism, and discrimination.

Sex-role expectations also contribute to differences in men and women’s behavior. For example, the tendency for men to aggress more than women is exacerbated for male-stereotypic behaviors, such as physical aggression, compared with psychological or verbal aggression. In contrast, the sex difference decreases or reverses for relational aggression, in which elements of relationships are used to harm others. Similarly, men’s greater tendency to help others especially appears in unfamiliar or potentially dangerous situations. Analyses of heroic behavior suggest that women tend to help in contexts that require long-term commitment (e.g., kidney donation), whereas men tend to help in physically demanding or immediate-response contexts. These patterns of behavior cohere with gender role expectations that emphasize women’s close relationships and men’s physicality.

Gender Roles Implications

Despite widespread persistence, gender roles have also shown malleability. Since the mid-20th century, these expectations have changed a great deal in the United States and many other cultures. Women’s entry into the paid labor force, and especially into formerly male-dominated professions, has resulted in the relaxation of many restrictions placed on women’s behavior. People generally believe that women have adopted many male-stereotypic qualities from the past to present, and they expect women to continue to adopt these qualities in the future. Men’s roles also reveal some signs of change, although less so than women’s roles. Time-use data suggest that men have increased their time spent caring for children since the 1960s, and expectations of more involved fatherhood continue to grow. Even so, men or women who transcend the boundaries of their gender roles still meet with resistance in many domains. Nonetheless, the belief that gender roles are changing may ultimately provide more men and women with the opportunity to follow their individual preferences and desires, rather than be bound by societal expectations.


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