Gender role

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A person's gender role is made up of all of the things a person does to express their gender identity. It then becomes the set of signals by which others infer that persons gender identity. For instance, if someone identifies themselves 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, if someone identifies themselves 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. A man who wants to attract girlfriends would rarely if ever use his clothing, behavior, etc., to present himself in the guise of a woman. Similarly, a woman would ordinary be ill-advised to seek a man by presenting herself in the guise of a man. In most cases, when a man appears in the guise of a woman, or a woman appears in the guise of a man, then most people will agree that they are disguising themselves, that is, that they are engaged in deliberately deceptive behavior. (Because many societies impose expectations on the behavior of the members of society, and the expectations are linked to the gender identities of those individuals, there are prescriptions regarding gender roles, i.e., expectations that men and women will hold different kinds of positions in society. Failure to comply with these expectations can produce a wide range of sanctions.) 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.

Some elements of gender role are connected with body differences related to sex. For instance, 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. Men frequently find it convenient to urinate while standing, but women rarely do. 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 male_lactation.

Another set of gender roles are related to body differences related to sex, but the body differences are things like height and muscular strength for which there is a substantial overlap of the abilities of men and women. Some women are stronger than some men. Some women are larger and/or taller than some men. But if you average the heights of all men and the heights of all women, they won’t be equal. If you are looking for the world champion weight lifter, it is unlikely that it will be a woman.

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 Great Britain 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.

Gender role differences that are purely conventional are 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, Great Britain, 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 that facilitates urinating while standing. 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 an uncooperative Clydesdale 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, of 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.

As long as a person’s external genitals are 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.

It is not so entertaining, however, 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. Mother nature is much more inventive than is our language and system of traditional concepts. The 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. In addition, this person may have always accepted a gender identity that is consistent with “his” external genitalia or with “her” internal genitalia.

Just as there are individuals whose external genitalia make them falsely appear to be male, there are also individuals whose external genitalia make them falsely appear to be females. There are individuals whose genitalia are intermediate in appearance between those of an ordinary male and those of an ordinary female. An examination of their chromosomal sex and/or other tests may be necessary to determine what these people really are. And there are even individuals who have both male and female sexual organs in the same body.

Nevertheless, we must remember that such incidents are very rare and that such people represent an extremely tiny minority in the world.

When we consider these more unusual products of Mother 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.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that for the vast majority of people their gender is commensurate with their genitalia.

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 .


Sociologists and sexologists use the term gender roles to name the behaviors and responsibilities prescribed for each gender by a society.

Table of contents
1 Cultural views of gender roles
2 Another nature versus nurture debate
3 Examples of western gender roles

Cultural views of gender roles

Ideas of appropriate behavior according to gender vary between 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.

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.

Another nature versus nurture debate

Considerable debate exists as to whether gender roles are biologically mandated, in the sense of the behavioral traits arising primarily from the biology of sex; or culturally mandated, in the sense of behavioral traits arising from early socialization. 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.

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 a women with high-powered jobs, frequently experienced disapproval and discrimination.

Some examples of commonly seen gender role descriptions:

  • A man, is someone who enjoys sex, has a career, and has difficulty expressing his emotions.
  • A woman, is someone who wears cosmetics, and wants to get married, start a family and be a housewife.
  • An effeminate man, is a man who is more or less like a stereotypical woman.
  • A girl, is someone who wears skirts and dresses, plays with dolls, likes the colour pink, has long hair, and wants to wear make-up.

  • A tomboy, is a girl who behaves like a stereotypical boy.
  • A boy, is someone who wears rugged clothing, likes the colour blue, plays with toy soldiers, participates in competitive team sports, enjoys fighting, doesn't cry, and has short hair.
  • A sissy, is a boy who behaves like a stereotypical girl.

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:

  • Man
    • Head and breadwinner of the family
    • Responsible for contacts outward
    • Strong, rational, sexually active
    • Men as "hunters"

  • Woman
    • Dependent on and subject to a male commander (father, husband etc..)
    • Responsible for the social connections within the family
    • Weak, emotional and irrational, compensatorily, sexually passive or uninterested

See also: Gender and sexuality studies, Gender studies, Gender identity, girly girl, Sexual orientation, Feminism, Masculinism, Symbolic-interactionism, Patriarchy, Queer theory,Butch, Femme.

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