Gender roles have been around for centuries. A quick look back at the history of civilization shows us that traditionally, men have been the fixers of the world and women, the nurturers. And while there have been exceptions to this standard pattern, not much has really changed over the years. Nevertheless, given that we’ve just moved into a new decade, perhaps it’s time to dissect this issue and evaluate if gender roles are relevant, or even necessary, anymore.
What are gender roles?
You’ve probably experienced it without really being aware of it, but gender roles are everywhere. Essentially, they’re social constructs that determine the range of behaviors and mindsets that are considered appropriate for people of different genders. Simply put, gender roles are the parts we’re expected to play in the society, depending on our gender. It naturally follows that certain behaviors and practices are considered masculine, while others are tagged as feminine.
Are they the same as gender stereotypes?
Yes and no. The truth is that the line between gender roles and gender stereotypes is a very thin one. Given that gender roles have been established, what propels them into the category of gender stereotypes is how the society around you reacts to any deviations. For instance, a woman who cooks for her family is performing a role associated with her gender. However, expecting that a woman cook for her family because of her gender, or judging her for being unable to do so in spite of being a woman, is stereotyping the role.
The origin of gender roles
Like most things in life, gender roles also begin at home. The assignment of gender roles begins right from the time a baby is born. It’s subtly infused when pink is chosen to identify she’s a girl, and blue to mark he’s a boy. Sociologists find that even without being consciously aware, adults tend to treat infants of each gender differently. Naturally, parents are no exception to this tendency. After all, they weren’t treated any differently during their childhood. So, mothers and fathers translate the experience of their own childhood into the one they offer their children. Boys are taught to build and fix things, while girls are taught to cook and clean.
Scientifically speaking, gender roles can be traced back to biological and social factors. Biological factors influencing human behaviors include genetic, evolutionary, and even hormonal influences. Social factors, on the other hand, can be attributed to society. It is the collective perception of humans on how members of each gender are expected to behave and contribute to the society.
As an article in the American Psychologist revealed, there are two categories that people are grouped into – agency and communion. Agency refers to the pursuit of self-mastery and attainment of goals, while communion refers to the tendency of ensuring the well-being of another person. The article went on to show that the male stereotype is centered on agency, while the female stereotype has communion at its core.
Are gender roles still relevant?
The demarcation between masculine and feminine roles may not be as harsh in many modern households, but it certainly exists. New-age parents who are aware of the fine line between gender roles and gender stereotypes may strive hard to consciously raise their children without influencing their behaviors, but it invariably creeps in at some point in the child’s life.
This is because while the parents may be making efforts to ease out gender roles, society at large still expects boys and girls to play by the rules already laid out for them. So, when children who’ve been raised by tolerant parents head out to school, they encounter the roles that are prevalent in the world, and invariably, they’re forced to choose a side for themselves.
Here’s what needs to change
We have little control over the biological aspect of gender roles. Genetic and hormonal factors vary from one person to another, and typically, they cannot be changed. However, the societal element is still within our control. Society appears to have clearly defined lines separating masculine roles from the feminine ones. And any transgression is considered abnormal at best, or scandalous at worst.
For instance, when an adult woman chooses to adopt the role of a housewife, it’s considered normal (or even praiseworthy). On the other hand, if an adult man chooses to stay home and look after his family while his wife adopts the role of the breadwinner, the society around the couple looks up this as an odd turn of events. In the worst-case scenario, the man is branded as unskilled and the woman, as power-hungry.
So, while we cannot influence the gender roles our children will choose for themselves, we can certainly make conscious efforts to refrain from judging them for it. What needs to change is the unforgiving lens through which society views gender roles and how men and women choose to find a place for themselves in-between.
Saikrupa Chandramouli (Author)