Gender Roles in Society

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Gender roles have been assigned to members of a society based on their biological sex. If a child is born with female sexual reproductive organ then they are conditioned to act feminine, while those born with male reproductive organs are conditioned to act masculine. But what does it mean act feminine or masculine? Well based on the gender roles constructed by society and culture femininity is soft, warm, and sensitive. Masculinity, on the other hand, is logical, strong and aggressive. These stereotypical perception of men and women are usually what come to mind when we think of gender.

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Gender roles have been long studied by many sociologists and psychologist alike, but how is gender defined and how does traditional gender role affect members within a society?

First, let’s consider the role of biology in determining sex and gender in modern society. While both men and women share the same sex hormones, higher levels of testosterone have been observed in men and higher levels of estrogen have been observed in women. In humans, each individual has 23 pairs of chromosomes, and the 23rd pair is thought to determine biological sex. Males sex chromosomes are XY and female sex chromosomes are XX. An individual may inherit the X chromosome from their mother and/or father and a Y chromosome from their father. Y chromosomes have the Sex-determining Region Y gene (SRY) on the Y chromosome, which initiates the process of a fetus developing testes. Embryos with a Y chromosome and an activated SRY gene will likely develop into a male while embryos without a Y chromosome will likely develop in a female due to the absence of the SRY gene. In some cases, an embryo may have XY chromosomes however the SRY gene is not activated causing it to develop into a female. An active SRY gene may cause cells to secrete testosterone while an absent or inactive SRY gene may cause cells to secrete estrogen. There are a small percentage of people who are born intersex, their physical sex characteristics do not fit that of a typical male or female. While an individual’s biological sex will be used to define his/her gender role within society, it should be noted that biology does not determine an individual’s gender but rather his/her sex.

Females and males are assigned gender roles based on their sex when they are born and continue to learn those roles as they get older. However, social constructionism does not view gender as being biological but rather as a construct of social expectations that varies across culture and time. Children learn the stereotypical gender ideals from their parents, school, religious teaching and media. The family is the first institution of socialization and much of the behavior exhibited during the first years of life is learned from the family unit. When a baby is born parents begin to assign that baby gender by placing girls in feminine colors like pink and boys in masculine colors like blue. But it does not stop at colors as even toys are gender divided, dolls are given to girls while trucks are given to boys; this creates the stereotypical idea of what each gender should like. Stereotypical gender roles are reinforced in school when children learn to socialize outside of the family. In schools there are gender divided sports teams, most of the sports team are dominated by boys with cheerleaders being mostly female. Books, toys, movies, and advertisement all reinforce stereotypical gender roles which teach members within a society how to behave and how not to behave. There are instances where products are advertised to a specific gender. For instance, video games commercials frequently use males for their ads despite the fact that women also play video games. Commercial for cleaning products often shows women cleaning the home, doing laundry and caring for the children.

The cognitive theory on gender development asserts that children often observe adults in search of cues on how to make sense of the world. Children will observe their father for cues on how a male is expected to act while looking to their mother for cues on how a female is expected to act. They use these gender cues to form expectations about how different genders are supposed to behave. By around five years of age children would have a collection of gender stereotypes which they apply to themselves. They use these stereotypes that they learn from social interactions to guide their own behavior. By the age of eleven- and fourteen-months infants can distinguish male and female voices and match them to male and female faces. There are other theories which support the idea that gender roles are learned such as the gender schema theory which was proposed in 1981 by psychologist Sandra Bem. The theory suggests that a child’s schema about male and female traits is influenced by his/her cognitive development and social influences.

On the other hand, other theories such as the evolutionary theory posit that some modern-day gender roles are a result of ancestral humans’ adaptation to social roles in order to survive and reproduce. Social roles were divided between men and women which provided an advantage as the men would hunt while the women cooked and cared for the young. Women would also take part in providing food by planting and gathering, these were less dangerous activities and seemed like the logical choice as women were needed to reproduce. Men could take more risk, they were stronger and had better spatial visualization ability. On the hand, women had better manual dexterity and visual perception. Evolutionary psychologist assumes that the differences between gender are a result of natural selection, that humans have evolved throughout history to develop genes that aid in their survival. Those roles that were created during primitive times lasted throughout human history and still influences the way modern day society view gender.

Functionalist believes that early humans found the division of labor between genders beneficial and thus has survived throughout history, however, the traditional gender roles are problematic for modern society. Conflict theorist, on the other hand, believes that traditional gender roles had survived because it provided men with an advantage as it made it difficult for women to gain access to economic, social and political resources. However, they do agree with the conflict theorist that traditional gender roles are outdated for modern society. Sociologist Talcott Parsons’ (1950) theory on gender roles suggest that the socialization and complementary roles of men and women are necessary for the traditional nuclear family. The complementary role of women is to be homemakers while the complementary role of the man is to be the breadwinner. He also believed that girls are socialized to develop expressive attribute and boys are socialized to develop instrumental attributes.

Stereotypical gender roles are caused by the division of social roles between genders. Over many years these roles have been conditioned and reinforced by rewarding or praising a child for adhering to those roles. Women are viewed as having more communal qualities and men as having more agentic qualities. This is not based on biological makeup of men and women but rather the social roles assigned to them. Women were perceived has sensitive, caring and compassionate because their social role for many years was that of a caregiver. They occupied more caretaker roles such as stay-at-home mothers or nurses, leading to the assumption that women are biologically programmed to care for others.

On the other hand, men were perceived as intelligent, competitive and aggressive because for many years’, men were more likely to be educated, to have a job and earn higher pay. They were often the primary breadwinners in their family and held more leadership roles within society. This led to the stereotypical perception of men being better leaders because they are more aggressive and logical.

The media and every institution of socialization have instilled in humans the idea of how a male and a female is supposed to look and act. It is through these socializations that people learn from a very young age that women are not supposed to be aggressive and men are not supposed to be sensitive. Children shows are full of stereotypical gender roles, like the Disney princesses. Fairytales like Cinderella often portray women as the damsel in distress who waits on a prince to save her. In these stories, the women are beautiful, helpful and nurturing while the female villain is portrayed as ugly, unhelpful and lacks nurturing qualities. The men are brave, strong and even athletic. In 1995 Thompson and Zerbinos analyzed 41 cartoons on American television and found that those produce before 1980 portrayed more stereotypical gender roles than those after 1980.

The stereotypical gender roles can often present some issues in modern society. The perception that real men do not cry causes men to bottle up emotions out of fear that they will be perceived as weak or feminine. When emotions are not dealt with in a healthy way it can cause stress and may lead to aggressive behaviors as the stress builds. The stereotype of men being breadwinners can also cause negative issues with marriages. Men are perceived as being the provider, therefore, when women become the primary breadwinner men can become resentful. Men may feel inadequate if their wives make more money than they do. Women are expected to be the nurturers and so when they don’t exhibit those characteristics they are frowned upon by society. While men who take on more caretaker roles are viewed as weak and feminine.

Women can also face a disadvantage in the workforce due to stereotypical gender roles. In the workforce, leadership roles are mainly awarded to men who are perceived as being aggressive and competitive. However, women who perform the same as their male counterpart are often perceived negatively because they don’t fit the stereotypical gender role set by society. This may also lead to wage gaps between men and women, as men tend to earn more than their female counterpart. Those disadvantages are often due to sexism which is the discrimination of a person based on their sex or gender. Apart from the inequalities of hiring and promotional opportunities as well as gaps in earnings, sexism can also present itself in the form of sexual harassment. Women are often viewed as sex objects and were more likely to face sexual harassment than men.

Gender roles with modern western society, however, changing as more women are taking on leadership roles. Women are working in areas that were once male-dominated, women make up 46% of the U.S workforce. Gone are the days when women weren’t even allowed to vote, women now have important roles within government, they are mayors, governors, and senators. 15.7% of corporate officers and 1.4% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women; additionally, in government women make up 14% of senators, 15% of congressional representative and 16% of state governors.

Additionally, the feminist movement which began around 1848 is gaining more support in fighting against the sexist behaviors towards women. Women have been fighting against stereotypical gender roles, so they are not only perceived as just mothers, housewives or sex objects but also leaders and business women. The feminist movement has been bringing attention to the inequality women face in society. The 1960s brought the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and the establishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW). But just how much fast are stereotypical gender roles changing? Data of 191 adults were collected in 2014 and compared to data of 195 college student from 1983. Researchers found that in 2014 people still held strong stereotypical ideals of men and women, particularly personality traits and gender role behaviors.

Gender roles have been long studied by many sociologists and psychologist alike, but how is gender role defined and how does it affect members within a society? It can be concluded that gender roles are a social construct that is assigned to members of a society based on their biological sex. While biological sex is inherited, gender is learned by socialization with members of society. While gender roles vary across culture and time, most traits are common in all society and time periods. Women are often assigned the role of caregivers and homemakers while men are assigned the role to provider and protector. Those stereotypical gender roles have existed since primitive time and are still held today.

The cognitive theory, social constructionism, functionalist and conflict theorist all seemed to agree that gender roles are learned through socialization. Functionalist and conflict theorist believe that traditional gender roles present an issue in modern society. Children learn gender roles from many different institutions of socialization like the family, religion, and school, as well as other avenues such as the media. Children learn gender norms as they are introduced to gender-specific colors, clothing, toys, and activities. Girls are dress in pink which are considered feminine and boys are dressed in blue which is considered masculine. Girls are given dolls while boys are given trucks and are taught how genders are expected to behave based on observation of adults around them.

The stereotypical roles applied to females portray women as weak, dependent, submissive and emotional. These kinds of stereotypes lead to sexism which can cause women to experience inequality in the workforce, abuse and to be unfairly treated when they don’t fit the traditional role. Men also face disadvantages of stereotypical gender roles, as men often face ridicule when they don’t fit the traditional roles. Men are taught to not get emotional, they are expected to be the breadwinners and are mocked when they make less than their women. Boys often feel inadequate, sad and angry when they are teased as being feminine.

There is a change that has been slowly happening in modern society has the feminine movement grows. There are men and women who are fighting to remove stereotypical gender roles and to redefine the definition of femininity and masculinity. Women are taking their place in government, owning businesses and being breadwinners while fulfilling their roles as mothers.

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Gender Roles in Society. (2019, Apr 20). Retrieved from