The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Gender role

In sociology the term gender role denotes a set of behavioral norms. Gender role is a special case of the sociological concept of role. Society tries to impose these norms upon an individual through a process called socialization. During this process a person usually accepts these norms, acts according to them, and develops a matching sense of gender identity. To what degree an individual incorporates these norms into his or her behaviors and personality differs widely from one individual to another. In general, the differences in the personalities of two people are much larger than are the differences between the feminine and the masculine gender roles. There is a general understanding among sociologists that gender role differences are decreasing and that gender roles are changing.

In Censored page, on the other hand, the term "gender role" describes an individual or socially prescribed set of behaviors and responsibilities. In essence, gender role comprises all the things that people do to express their individual gender identities. Gender roles are not norms that were established by some authority, but reflections of the changing habits and customs of concrete individuals in actual societies. Human behavior is there first, and then ideologies and norms grow by an inductive process that occurs informally within these 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. Sexologists call the resulting complex of behaviors the person's gender role.


Characteristics of gender role: internal and external functions

For the nuclear family, which is still a prevalent model of family organization today, Parsons 5 has developed a model in 1955. It represents the strictly traditional division of labor inside a family. Parsons believes that the feminine role is an expressive one whereas the masculine role is instrumental. Expressive activities of the woman fulfill 'internal' functions, for example to strengthen the ties between members of the family. The man represents the family towards the outside ('external' functions). For example, it is the man’s job to provide the financial means for the survival of the family by working in a job outside the house. The Parsons model is an abstract idea which today is hardly reflected on the behavioral level any more.

The Parsons model was used to illustrate extreme positions that are abstract concepts or ideal types of role differentiation. To describe total role segregation (Model A), activities are sorted into external and internal function — the result are two extreme role models, a feminine one and a masculine one. The other extreme position is a total disintegration of masculine/feminine role (Model B).3

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 below, section feminism).

According to the interactionist approach, roles, such as 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).


The process by which the individual learns and accepts roles is called socialization. Socialization works by encouraging wanted and discouraging, sometimes even forbidding, 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 follows the examples of its parents, siblings and teachers. Mostly, accepted behavior is not produced by outright coercion. The individual does have some choice as to if or to what extent he or she conforms. Also, typical encouragements of gender role behavior are no longer as powerful as they used to be a century ago. Statements like "boys don't play with dolls" could typically be questioned by a "why not?", young women would say "I don't want to become like my mother."2
Still, once the person has accepted a set of behavioral norms these are very important to the individual. Sanctions to unwanted behavior and role conflict can become stressful. Thus, gender roles are quite powerful.

Criticism of biologism

The argument that gender roles are determined by biology has been put forth mainly by anthropologists. They maintained that in the hunter-gatherer society the division of labor between men and women was nature-given.
Nevertheless, a probable explanation for this division can be deduced from animal behavior: the need to take care of the offspring may have limited the females' freedom to hunt and assume positions of power, but it has never necessarily meant that this situation is dictated by nature. Specific circumstances of the time and social structure are its most likely causes.
During the 1980s the definition of gender was established as being unrelated to sex. A person could therefore be born with male genitals but still be of feminine gender. In 1987, Connell did extensive research on whether there are any connections between biology and gender role.4 He concluded that there were none.
The current trend toward men and women sharing similar occupations, responsibilities and jobs shows that the sex one is born with has little to do with one's abilities or social duties.

Changing roles

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.

Gender role is comprised of several elments. 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 distinct gender role.

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" (SNAG), which could be described as a traditional male gender role with a more typically "female" empathy and associated emotional responses. Another is the Censored page, a male who adopts similarly "female" grooming habits.

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 subculture.8

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 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 four o'clock shadow if not a 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 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 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" 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. 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 Censored page.

Another example is to consider Censored page 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. Censored pageism 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 Censored pageed and Censored pageed people, however, there are some who still do not accept these people and may even 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

Most feminists argue that traditional gender roles are oppressive for them. 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, 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 a smaller percentage of aggregate income than men, occupy lower-ranking job positions than men and do most of the housekeeping work.

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 not being about the choices made but the freedom to make that choice.

Lesbians, gays and gender roles

The wider LGBT community and issues relating to its members have come into greater focus significantly in the West, and the analysis of gender role issues have been studied greatly.

Lesbians and gay people often adopt gender roles that are the same as those held by heterosexual people, or they may adopt other gender roles, for example, some gay men can adopt more effeminate gender roles, but still maintain a male gender identity. Terms such as butch, femme or transvestite can describe such alternative gender roles. The acceptance of these new gender roles in western societies is rising. 6

However, role conflicts and the problem of acceptance can still be significant for many individuals in these groups. For example, because of social intolerance, a person may act out one gender role in work life and a different one in private life. Newly defined gender roles may not necessarily represent a liberation of self.

Some see that the adoption of a 'gay' gender role de facto renders an individual out of sync with his true biological gender role, such as William H. DuBay , in his seminal work on gay sex role and identity, , says that

"The gay myth... [places] emphasis on sexual orientation as a component of personality to which the individual must accommodate himself to be 'authentic'."
"Far from being a stable condition, one's commitment to the gay role undergoes constant revision, adaptation, attenuation, and even abandonment."7

Others may reply to such claims as that being gay or lesbian per se does not mean that a person must adhere to a widely agreed "gay" or "lesbian" gender role. Many in the LGBT community welcome diversity in gender roles.

Because that to some members of a society, gay and lesbian people are not adhering to the norms of male and female gender roles, such as a norm that males are attracted to females and vice versa (see also Heteronormativity), these people may act in a negative way towards gay and lesbian people.

Notes and references

  • [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."
  • [2] Brockhaus: Enzyklopädie der Psychologie, 2001
  • [3] Wolfgang Schulz: Einführung in die Soziologie, Vienna 1989, p. 288
  • [4] Connell, Robert William: Gender and Power, Cambridge: University Press 1987
  • [5] Talcott Parsons: Family Socialization and Interaction Process, New York 1955
  • [6] Le Monde Diplomatique, 2004
  • [7] William H. DuBay: Gay Identity: The Self under Ban, McFarland & Company, October 1987 ([ISBN 0899502695])
  • [8] Franco-German TV station ARTE , Karambolage, August 2004

See also

External links

  • Gender PAC

Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:35:31
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01