Gender Roles

An important concept regarding socially sanctioned, sex-appropriate behavior is that of gender roles—behavior patterns that are considered appropriate and specific to each gender. Included in the notion of gender role are the behavioral prescriptions and stereotypes that society associates with each sex. A person may not adhere to a particular stereotype concerning the role and behaviors assigned to a given sex, but it is at his or her own peril. Those who fail to comply must be prepared to pay the cost in terms of criticism, ostracism, and other social sanctions.

Two other important concepts concerning sex-role development are those of gender schema and gender identity. Gender schemas are beliefs about what men and women are and how they are supposed to act. Gender identity, defined as how the individual views him- or herself with respect to gender, is the introspective part of gender role. Cultures have differed in many ways throughout human history, but there has been a great deal of cross-cultural similarity in the roles assigned to men and women. An exception is the Tchambuli of New Guinea, among whom the usual roles of men and women are reversed (Mead, 1935). In most societies, women, who require sustenance, shelter, and safety in order to bear and bring up their children, acquire a more nurturing, caregiving role. The typical role of men, however, is that of provider and protector. As human beings became more civilized, the male role translated into that of home-builder (or purchaser), wage earner, and defender of the family and hearth. And as life became easier, the traditional childcaring and housekeeping roles of women became more diversified.

How are gender roles communicated, and how are they internalized? Starting at birth, male and female children are perceived and treated differently. For the most part, they are assigned sex-appropriate names, dressed in blue or pink, referred to as "pretty" or "handsome," and given what society views as sex-appropriate toys with which to play. In order to develop a set of expectations and behaviors with respect to a particular gender, a young child must be able to recognize representatives of that gender. This, however, does not usually pose a problem. Children as young as 9 months can distinguish between male and female faces (Leinbach & Fagot, 1993). By the time they are 3 years old, boys and girls can identify their own sex and that of other children, and by ages 5 to 7 they know what being a boy or girl means (Guardo & Bohan, 1971; Kohlberg, 1966). Young children are continually encouraged to engage in what adults consider "sex-appropriate'' activities and interests (Lytton &Romney, 1991). Most first-grade children have a fair notion of what sex-appropriate behavior consists of and what happens to children who deviate from behaviors expected of members of their own sex (Stoddart & Turiel, 1985). By the fifth or sixth grade, children have a good knowledge of most sex-role stereotypes in the culture (Emmerich & Shepard, 1982).

Young girls are typically socialized differently from young boys. The emphasis on nurturance, responsibility, and emotional orientation in girls socializes them primarily for the expressive (emotion-oriented) behavior of companions and mothers, whereas the emphasis on achievement, self-reliance, and goal-directed orientation in boys socializes them principally for the instrumental behavior of breadwinners. The predominantly nurturing role of females and the achieving, environmental-manipulative role of males are further shaped in school by encouraging boys to take mathematics and science courses and girls to take language arts and social service courses. In keeping with these emphases, college women are more likely than men to major in humanities, the social sciences, and education, whereas more men major in scientific fields and engineering. Women who elect to attend vocational schools rather than senior colleges are found in larger numbers in health service, secretarial, and domestically oriented areas, while men are concentrated in agricultural, technical, and trade/industrial programs (Wirtenberg, Klein, Richardson, & Thomas, 1981).

According to Eagly's (1987) theory of social roles, the actual differences in the behaviors of men and women are amplified by inequalities in the social roles they occupy. This is a context effect, in which people, chameleon-like, take on the coloration of the roles they play. The actors in these dramas also participate in the delusion by being victims of the self-fulfilling prophecy of behaving according to how they are expected to and believing that they are actually the roles they are playing. Thus, the roles assigned to men and women in industrial societies lead them to develop attitudes and skills that are congruent with those roles. However, the degree of gender bias or gender discrimination can vary enormously from country to country. For example, the percentages of management positions held by women ranges from 48% in Switzerland, 28% in Austria, and 17% in the United States to only 3% in Ghana and 2% in South Korea (Triandis, 1994).

As indicated by statistics such as these, specific gender roles appear to be strongly entrenched in many, if not all, parts of the world. Despite the feelings of certain social scientists that gender roles will probably never completely disappear, some developmental psychologists maintain that children should be reared in a more androgynous, or non-sex-role, manner. According to these authorities, young children should be taught the value of both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine activities and encouraged to participate in each kind. In any case, during the past three decades, the emphasis on the civil rights of all social groups, exposure to a wider range of customs and ideas, and the increasing influence of women in the marketplace and the workplace have led to some erosion of traditional sex-role stereotypes. The concept of men as independent, dominant, competitive, and self-confident individuals and women as dependent, submissive, cooperative, and self-doubting has been changing. More and more, it is being recognized that adults need the positive features of both the traditional male and female roles in order to function successfully in contemporary society.

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