e University of Maine
Sociology School Faculty Scholarship Sociology
Gender Roles and Society
Amy M. Blackstone
University of Maine - Main, email@example.com
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Blackstone, Amy. 2003. "Gender Roles and Society." Pp 335-338 in Human Ecology: An Encyclopedia of Children, Families,
Communities, and Environments, edited by Julia R. Miller, Richard M. Lerner, and Lawrence B. Schiamberg. Santa Barbara, CA:
ABC-CLIO. ISBN I-57607-852-3
Additional structural conditions such as women
with high levels of education and high income-
earning potential might be necessary prerequisites
for such families to exist (Risman 1998,101). Gay
and lesbian couples also are less likely to organize
their lives in gendered ways because they do not
have the ease of creating gendered patterns of be-
havior on the basis of a person's sex category. Re-
search has found that lesbian couples are more
likely to share housework since obviously one per-
son is not delegated to the housekeeper role on the
basis of her sex (Baber and Allen 1992,207).
Gender is constructed in individual, interac-
tional, and structural ways to create environmen-
tal constraints and opportunities that usually ben-
efit men more than women. Gender does not,
however, affect families' lives in isolation. More re-
search is beginning to explore how gender inter-
acts with other characteristics such as race, ethnic-
ity, sexual orientation, and social class to affect
diverse family experiences (Coltrane 1998,8). For
example, unlike European American middle-class
women, working-class women and women of color
historically have had much stronger ties to the
workforce because of the necessity of their in-
comes to their families' economic well-being.
Thus, their experiences as wives and partners may
be different from their European American mid-
dle-class counterparts. Current research also finds
that factors such as race and social class affect
women's experiences of mothering (Walker 1999,
448). Since gender is constructed, these findings
are what one would expect, and they serve to make
more complete our understanding of all the factors
that create gender.
Contemporary Men's Movement; Gay and
Lesbian Studies; Gender Roles and Society;
Stereotypes; Work and Families
References and Further Reading
Baber, Kristine M., and Katherine R. Allen. 1992.
and Families: Feminist Reconstructions.
Blaisure, Karen R., and Katherine R.AlIen.1995.
"Feminists and the Practice of Marital Equality"
Journal of Marriage and the Family
Coltrane, Scott. 1998.
Gender and Families.
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
Komter, Aatke. 1989. "Hidden Power in Marriage."
Lorber, Judith. 1998.
Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories
Los Angeles: Roxbury.
Gender Roles and Society 335
Risman, Barbara J. 1998.
Gender Vertigo: American
Families in Transition.
London: Yale University
Thompson, Linda. 1993. "Conceptualizing Gender in
Marriage: The Case of Marital Care:'
Marriage and the Family
Walker,Alexis J.1999. "Gender and Family
Relationships:' Pp. 439-474 in
and the Family
2d ed. Edited by Marvin B. Sussman,
Suzanne K. Steinmetz, and Gary W. Peterson. New
West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 1991. "Doing
Gender:' Pp. 13- 3 7 in
The Social Construction of
Edited by Judith Lorber and Susan A.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Gender Roles and Society
Gender roles are based on the different expecta-
tions that individuals, groups, and societies have of
individuals based on their sex and based on each
society's values and beliefs about gender. Gender
roles are the product of the interactions between
individuals and their environments, and they give
individuals cues about what sort of behavior is be-
lieved to be appropriate for what sex. Appropriate
gender roles are defined according to a society's
beliefs about differences between the sexes.
Understanding the term "gender roles" requires
an understanding of the term "gender't''Gender" is
a social term that is often confused with the term
"sex:' Sex and gender are different concepts. Sex is
a biological concept, determined on the basis of
individuals' primary sex characteristics. Gender,
on the other hand, refers to the meanings, values,
and characteristics that people ascribe to different
sexes. Ann Oakley (1972) was one the first social
scientists to distinguish the concept of gender
from the concept of sex. According to Oakley, gen-
der parallels the biological division of sex into
male and female, but it involves the division and
social valuation of masculinity and femininity. In
other words, gender is a concept that humans cre-
ate socially, through their interactions with one
another and their environments, yet it relies heav-
ily upon biological differences between males and
females. Because humans create the concept of
gender socially, gender is referred to as a social
construction. The social construction of gender is
demonstrated by the fact that individuals, groups,
and societies ascribe particular traits, statuses, or
values to individuals purely because of their sex,
yet these ascriptions differ across societies and
cultures, and over time within the same society.
Gender roles are the roles that men and women
are expected to occupy based on their sex. Tradi-
tionally, many Western societies have believed that
women are more nurturing than men. Therefore,
the traditional view of the feminine gender role
prescribes that women should behave in ways that
are nurturing. One way that a woman might engage
in the traditional feminine gender role would be to
nurture her family by working full-time within the
horne rather than taking employment outside of
the home. Men, on the other hand, are presumed by
traditional views of gender roles to be leaders. The
traditional view of the masculine gender role,
therefore, suggests that men should be the heads of
their households by providing financially for the
family and making important family decisions.
While these views remain dominant in many
spheres of society, alternative perspectives on tra-
ditional beliefs about gender roles have gained in-
creasing support in the twenty-first century.
Different disciplines offer a range of perspec-
tives on gender roles. An ecological perspective on
gender roles suggests that gender roles are created
by the interactions between individuals, commu-
nities, and their environments. That is, while indi-
vidual people play a role in constructing gender
roles, so too do the physical and social environ-
ments within which people operate. A biological
perspective on gender roles suggests that women
have a natural affinity toward the feminine gender
role and that men have a natural affinity toward
the masculine gender role. The biological perspec-
tive does not, however, suggest that one role holds
any inherently greater value than another role. A
sociological perspective toward gender roles sug-
gests that masculine and feminine roles are
learned and that masculine and feminine gender
roles are not necessarily connected to males' and
females' biological traits. Sociologists study the
different meanings and values that masculine and
feminine gender roles hold in society. Related to
the sociological perspective, a feminist perspective
on gender roles might assert that because gender
roles are learned, they can also be unlearned, and
that new and different roles can be created.
The feminist perspective points out that gender
roles are not simply ideas about appropriate be-
havior for males and females but are also linked to
the different levels of power that males and fe-
males hold in society. For example, maintaining
economic control over themselves and their fami-
Gender Roles and Society 337
lies is one way that men experience greater power
in society than women. Because men are expected
to be the primary breadwinners for their families,
women often find themselves to be in poverty if
their marriages dissolve. In this example, a femi-
nist perspective would assert that men tend to
hold more power in their marriages than women
since men are less likely to lose power or social sta-
tus if their marriages dissolve.
Gender roles can be linked to expectations of
males and females in realms outside of the family
as well, such as work (Williams 1995).In the work-
place, men and women are often expected to per-
form different tasks and occupy different roles
based on their sex (Kanter 1977). Even in the early
twenty-first century, many corporations operate
from a perspective that favors traditional beliefs
about gender roles by, for example, offering
parental leave benefits only to mothers and deny-
ing such benefits to fathers. In addition, because
the traditional perspective toward gender roles re-
mains predominant in many corporations, the po-
sitions that women and men hold within corpora-
tions are often segregated by sex. Women are more
likely to be expected to work as secretaries, and
men are more likely to be expected to work as
managers and executives. Also, men are presumed
to be more ambitious and task-oriented in their
work, while women are presumed to be more in-
terested in and concerned about their relation-
ships with others at work.
As these examples demonstrate, gender roles
are sometimes created on the basis of stereotypes
about gender. Gender stereotypes are oversimpli-
fied understandings of males and females and the
differences between them. Individuals sometimes
base their perceptions about appropriate gender
roles upon gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes
tend to include exaggerated or erroneous asser-
tions about the nature of males and females. For
example, a common gender stereotype about
males is that they are not emotional. Females, on
the other hand, are commonly stereotyped as
being irrational or overly emotional. Political
movements such as the feminist movement con-
tinue to work to deconstruct gender stereotypes
and offer alternative visions of gender roles that
emphasize equality between women and men.
Finally, gender roles are often discussed in
terms of an individual's gender role orientation,
which is typically described as either traditional or
338 Gesell, Arnold Lucius
nontraditional. A traditional gender role orienta-
tion emphasizes differences between men and
women and assumes that each sex has a natural
affinity to particular behaviors. Those who main-
tain a traditional gender role orientation are likely
to be influenced by the rules and rituals of the gen-
erations that came before them, by their parents
and grandparents. Individuals with nontraditional
gender role orientations are more likely to believe
that an individual's behavior is not or should not be
determined solely by her sex. Individuals with non-
traditional gender role orientations are more likely
to believe in the value of egalitarian relationships
between men and women and in the power of indi-
vidual human beings to determine what roles they
wish to occupy and the extent to which those roles
are or should be associated with their sex.
Contemporary Men's Movement; Gay and
Lesbian Studies; Gender and Families; Sex-Role
Stereotypes; Sexual Identity Development; Work
References and Further Reading
Goldstein, Joshua S. 200 I.
War and Gender: How Gender
Shapes the War System and Vice Versa.
Cambridge University Press.
Hays, Sharon. 1996.
The Cultural Contradictions of
New Haven: Yale University
Kimmel, Michael S. 1996.
New York: Free Press.
Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1977.
Men and Women of the
New York: Basic Books.
Lippa, Richard A. 2002.
Gender, Nature, and Nurture.
Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum.
Oakley, Ann. 1972.
Sex, Gender, and Society.
Harper and Row.
Thorne, Barrie. 1993.
Gender Play: Girls and Boys
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Williams, Christine. 1995.
Still a Man's World: Men Who
Do "Womens Work."
Berkeley: University of
Williams, Joan. 1999.
Unbending Gender: Why Family and
Work Conf/ict and What To Do About It.
Oxford University Press.
Gesell, Arnold Lucius
Arnold Lucius Gesell, a noted American psycholo-
gist and pediatrician, was born on June 21, 1880, in
Alama, Wisconsin, and died on May 29, 1961, in
New Haven, Connecticut Gesell studied, through
the use of observation and innovative recording on
film, the physical and mental development of chil-
dren from birth to adolescence. His books in flu-
enced child rearing enormously in the United
States, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. He was
the director of the Clinic of Child Development at
Yale University (1911-1948), where he and his
team collected a vast quantity of information and
data on child development. The information he
published had a huge influence on both parents
and educators around the globe.
Gesell first studied psychology at Clark Univer-
sity, and was influenced by one of the earliest
American psychologists, G. Stanley Hall (1844-
1924). He received his Ph.D. in 1911, was ap-
pointed an assistant professor at Yale University,
where he established the Clinic of Child Develop-
ment, and served as the clinic's director between
1911 and 1948. He became convinced that medical
training was essential in his studies of child devel-
opment, therefore studied medicine and received
his M.D. from Yale in 1915. Gesell's team studied
large numbers of children (about 12,000), which
led them to several conclusions, known collectively
as Gesell's maturational theory. The findings of the
research demonstrated that all development in ba-
bies, children, and adolescents was similar and
consisted of orderly processes. Children must
reach quite specific maturational stages in their
development before their learning will influence
their behavior. Both physical and psychological de-
velopment of children occurs in a predictable and
patterned manner, which was termed maturation.
Maturation follows specific sequences (not neces-
sarily linear). All children will go through these
stages at their own pace, but the sequences remain
the same. Behavior was regarded as a function of
structure, whereas the role of the environment was
viewed as a secondary influence.
Gesell was also very interested in retarded de-
velopment, as he believed an understanding of
normal child development was absolutely essential
to understanding developmental abnormality. The
results of the research were published as
and Human Growth
(1928) and contained devel-
opmental schedules, using 195 items of behavior
in the areas of motor skills, adaptive behavior, lan-
guage development, and self-help and social skills.
Ten years later, the schedules were revised and
were used widely to evaluate children as early as
four weeks of age. The schedules and tests were
widely used to determine school readiness. There
was criticism of the schedules by some experts,
but Gesell's influence had become substantial. His