What is male? What is female? Your answers to these questions may depend on the types of gender roles you were exposed to as a child. Gender roles can be defined as the behaviors and attitudes expected of male and female members of a society by that society.
Gender roles vary. Different cultures impose different expectations upon the men and women who live in that culture. The United States has experienced tremendous upheaval and revising of its traditional gender roles in the last generation. These changes in gender roles affect the home, the workplace, and the school, and they affect all Americans to some degree.
Gender Roles in the Workplace
Over the past few decades, Americans have made great strides in accepting and adjusting to new definitions of gender roles. Part of the cause is the increased number of women in the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white men (who once dominated the workplace) now account for about 45 percent of all workers. White women and women of color make up 47 percent of the workplace. In 1995, 76 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 worked outside the home, up from 50 percent in 1970.
With the increased presence of women in the workplace, old attitudes and behaviors have had to change. Men and women are more aware of sexual harassment than previously; whereas 20 years ago a woman who refused to have an affair with her boss may have had to quit, she now has other options. Companies are now experimenting with policies that are family-friendly, such as flex time, job sharing, and on-site child care--policies that benefit both men and women.
In the [recently] and experimentally egalitarian workplace, some men are concerned about being accused of sexual harassment, and they feel they must be extremely cautious in their everyday dealings with the women they work with; this caution may stifle creativity, some experts say. In addition, women still earn far less money than men do for the same work, even though their salaries are vital to maintaining their families' economic health.
Where Do Gender Roles Come From?
A person's sexuality comes from within him or her, making a person heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual, depending on the partners he or she is (or is not) attracted to. Unlike sexuality, however, gender roles are imposed from without, through a variety of social influences. Formed during the socialization phases of childhood and adolescence, gender role issues influence people throughout their lives; conflict can arise when someone does not feel at ease with his or her gender role.
The first and one of the strongest influences on a person's perceived gender role is his or her parents. Parents are our first teachers--not only of such basic skills as talking and walking, but also of attitudes and behavior. Some parents still hold traditional definitions of maleness and femaleness and what kind of activities are appropriate for each.
Parents start early in treating their baby boys and baby girls differently. Although baby boys are more likely to die in infancy than girls, and are actually more fragile as infants than girls are, studies have shown that parents tend to respond more quickly to an infant daughter's cries than they are to those of an infant son. Parents also tend to cuddle girls more than they do boys. They are also more likely to allow boys to try new things and activities--such as learning to walk and explore--than they are girls; parents tend to fear more for the safety of girls.
According to Dr. Benjamin Spock, people are likely to appreciate girls' cuteness and boys' achievements. For example, a girl may receive the comment, "You look so pretty!" for the outfit she is wearing. While this compliment isn't harmful in itself, repeated over and over the message the girl gets is that she is most appreciated for her looks, not for what she can do. Boys, on the other hand, are praised for what they can do--"Aren't you a big boy, standing up by yourself!" Many parents encourage and expect boys to be more active, to be more rough-and-tumble in their play than girls. A boy who does not like rough play (and so goes against the gender role he has been assigned) may be labeled a "sissy." A girl who prefers active play to more passive pursuits may be called a "tomboy."
Children look to their parents for examples and role models. If a girl sees her mother taking part in physical activities, for example, she will grow up with the idea that it's okay for girls to play sports. If a boy sees his father helping to take care of the new baby, he will integrate this image of "daddy as care giver" into his developing definition of masculinity.
But just as parents can provide positive role models, so too can they serve as negative role models. For example, children who grow up with parents who are in an abusive relationship have been found to repeat the same pattern as adults: male children of abusive husbands often grow up to abuse their own wives, and daughters of abused wives can grow up to be victims of domestic violence, because their parents have shown them that this is "normal."
Children develop their gender identity (knowing whether they are male or female) by the age of three. As preschoolers, they use some sexual stereotypes to help them differentiate between men and women--for example, to a preschooler, long hair may mean "female" and short hair, "male."
Another influence and reinforcement of gender roles comes from the toys children play with. During their infancy and toddlerhood, children get most of their toys from parents and other family members; their choice of toys supports their own view of gender roles. For example, parents may give their little girl a doll to sleep with, while the boy gets a teddy bear. A grandparent may give a grandson a toy truck but never consider giving the same to a granddaughter. Such gifts set children up early on for the roles they are expected to play.
As they get older, children are influenced in their choice of toys by television. Remote-controlled vehicles, although they can be equally enjoyed by males or females, are generally targeted at boys by advertisers. Girls are the advertising targets of the manufacturers of dolls, craft kits, and so on; advertisers are careful not to call boys' toys "dolls"--they're "action figures"!Again and again, we see toys and toy advertisement reinforcing the traditional gender roles: boys are active and adventurous, while girls are passive and mothering. Parents need to be aware of the messages TV advertisements and toys present to their children. They need to help them understand and reconcile the person they are with the sexual stereotypes they may see on TV and in other media.
Nevertheless, parents can and do reinforce sexual stereotypes, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Not wanting to see a daughter fall and get hurt, a mother may forbid her from climbing trees--although her brother is allowed to do so with gleeful abandon, and his bumps and bruises are taken in stride. Clothing manufacturers produce (and parents buy) clothing in gender-neutral shades such as yellow and green, but the traditional blue for boys and pink for girls are still favorites. Even the cultural habit of assigning pink to girls and blue to boys raises a question--what's to become of the boy who genuinely likes the color pink? This question leads us to another group that has strong influence over gender roles: peers.
Peer pressure is a means of reinforcing a culture's traditional gender roles. It can come in the form of taunting or teasing a child who does not fit the traditional gender roles that other children in the peer group have been exposed to, even to the point of excluding that child from group activities.
Peers react more positively to children who fit traditional gender roles. For example, the Washington Post reported the case of a five-year-old boy whose favorite color was pink, and as a result, when the time came to buy him his first bicycle, he naturally wanted it to be pink. The parents had no problem with this, and the boy even told the salesman (who tried to tell him that boys should ride blue or red bikes) that color was just color. The ones who teased him about his bike were not the other boys, but the girls in the neighborhood. Not long after, the boy stopped telling other people that pink was his favorite color.
Resisting such teasing takes a strong ego, something that takes many people years to develop. In a study conducted at Suffolk University in Boston, researcher Krisanne Bursik studied the ego development of 209 undergraduates and compared the results to gender-related traits. She found that students who were more likely to express non-traditional gender role traits had higher levels of ego development. She found that among male students, those who had less-developed egos viewed high levels of traditional masculinity as the ideal. She noted that in these men, "gender role conflict may occur for men when rigid, sexist or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization, result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self." However, Bursik's research was unable to answer the chicken-or-the-egg question: which comes first? Do people who have strong, well-developed egos feel free to go against traditional gender roles? Or does early exposure to alternatives where gender roles are concerned lead people to develop strong egos?
Gender roles are also reinforced by school. Teachers and school administrators have great influence as they pass along cultural information and expectations.
In school, children are expected to sit still, read, and be quiet. Such expectations may have been part of the gender role that a child has been learning from the parents, especially if the child is a girl. But for a boy who has been encouraged to be loud and boisterous prior to starting school, these expectations can lead to trouble. In fact, some researchers maintain that all boys face difficulty with expectations such as these because the structure of their brains makes them less able to meet these expectations than girls are.
Although viewed with dismay by some, schools around the country are trying out single-sex classes. About three percent of the children in the Baltimore school system are enrolled in such classes. Not only have the children's scores on performance assessment tests increased, but the single-sex classes have given advantages to the children. Boys who had been shy to speak in class do well in them, and girls develop leadership skills. Students at other single-sex schools have been found to be less susceptible to social pressure. Are these successes due to the positive gender role expectations their teachers present, or does going to a single-sex school or class eliminate part of peer pressure? The research is continuing.
Differences between the Sexes
Physical differences do exist between males and females. Studies of the brain have revealed that female brains are stronger in the left hemisphere, which rules language. As a result, they do better when tested for language ability and speech articulation, for example. In males, the right hemisphere, which governs spatial perception, is stronger, giving them an advantage in tasks that require moving objects or aiming.
Tasks or tests that do not take into account the differences between males and females tend to penalize one gender or the other. For example, boys tend to score better on standardized achievement tests, but girls do better on tests that require writing. Math, science, and geography are subjects that males tend to do better in than females, but females may have the advantage in meeting the social expectations of school, such as behaving in class and producing neat work.
Even if a boy and a girl were raised identically, without gender expectations, they would not turn out the same, researchers say.
Boys and Gender Roles
Research into the differences between girls and boys is relatively new and is politically charged. Some researchers fear being labeled "anti-female" by delving into the study of boys and gender roles. But over the last three decades, gender roles have changed dramatically, and the impact on boys needs to be examined.
Some researchers maintain that boys may not develop their full capacity for emotional depth because of a combination of factors, including parenting, education, biological and genetic factors, and the messages they receive from popular culture. As a result, some boys are less able than girls to deal with the emotional upheavals that accompany adolescence; recent statistics show that teenage boys commit suicide at five times the rate teenage girls do. Ultimately, a lack of emotional development as a boy makes it difficult for the adult man to develop healthy relationships.
As gender roles have changed, they have opened greater opportunities for females (which will be discussed more fully below). But men face a dilemma. The old model of the "macho man" is less acceptable in today's world than it was even three decades ago, and men are struggling to reinvent themselves. Some men are so dependent on the old roles for their identity that they find themselves at a loss when confronted with new expectations. For example, some men cannot adjust when they discover that their wives or girlfriends earn more money than they do, and end the relationship. Silly? To some, perhaps. But plainly, for such men the new options they have regarding gender roles are limited and limiting.
What does it mean to be a man? That's a question many of today's men are wrestling with. In his book Reaching up for Manhood, author Geoffrey Canada wrote, "The image of male as strong is mixed with the image of male as violent. Male as virile gets mixed with male as promiscuous. Males as intelligent often gets mixed with male as arrogant, racist, and sexist." Small wonder that so many men in western society are flailing about for a new definition. However, today's parents have the opportunity to show their sons that they don't have to be violent to be strong. Rather than taking the attitude that "boys will be boys" if their son gets into a fight, parents can take the chance to teach their child new ways to solve conflicts--without using fists.
Women and Gender Roles
Just as men's gender roles have changed, women's gender roles have changed in the last few years, opening new opportunities. However, opportunities have their price, and some things are slower to change than others.
Women can no longer be discriminated against in the workplace. If a woman is qualified for a job, she is by law able to have it. However, few women hold top positions at large companies. A 1995 survey found that among Fortune 500 companies, only 90 had women as their chief executive officers. About 65 percent of Americans believe that women are discriminated against in getting such well-paying positions--a phenomenon called the "glass ceiling," in which a woman rises only so far in management and no further.
However, women are looking more and more at the tradeoffs involved. Even though they may be able to get ahead in the workplace, things at home remain remarkably the same as they did in their parents' generation.
Due to gender roles, women--even if they work full-time outside the home—are still perceived as having the primary responsibility for taking care of home and family. Generally, if a child is sick and both parents work, it is the mother who leaves the office, picks the child up, and stays home until the child is well enough to return to school. Researchers have also found that the woman is still the primary doer of housework (although today's men tend to do more housework than their fathers did). Working mothers do 20 hours of housework each week, compared to working fathers, who do 10. The tasks considered "male," such as yard work and car maintenance, were sporadic in nature and involved an aspect of leisure. The tasks considered "female" were generally repetitive, and had to be done daily--researchers called these tasks "unrelenting, repetitive, and routine." In addition, women are still responsible for most of the food shopping, child care, laundry, cleaning, cooking, and even for how the house looks.
Despite great changes in the workplace, life at home is still much the same as it was in past generations. Women do most of the work. Men earn most of the money. And this is not sitting well with women: researchers report that 38 percent have a problem with how much their husbands do. It's a dilemma for women to feel they have the right to choose their own career paths, an opportunity few of their mothers and grandmothers had, and then realize that they are still ruled by many of the same old gender role expectations.
The More Things Change
The shifting of gender roles in the past 30 years has been huge. It has happened so quickly that men and women are still trying to sort out what the new roles and rules mean to them. Although women are no longer expected to be the keepers of the house, in reality, they are in most families. Although men are generally open to the successes enjoyed by the women they share their lives with, some still find it hard to celebrate a woman's triumphs because they feel it diminishes their own.
However, rather than blaming each other for the situation, men and women are increasingly willing to work together to learn about their new roles. Successful marriage partners learn to negotiate and share tasks. Managers take employees aside and tell them when comments are inappropriate. It will take time to sort out all the implications of the changing gender roles of Americans, but new expectations should result in better workplaces, better relationships, better schools, and better lives.