Gender Roles and Gender Stratification


(Images of young men and women in advertising send subtle messages and create norms about gender roles.  Also, most advertisements for Spring Break trips found posted on campus at VCU in the early 1990s excluded minorities).


Back to Table of Contents 

 Links to related web sites: 




Introduction: The distinction between the concepts of "sex" and "gender." 


Sex refers to biology-- "sex roles" refer to what the sexes do biologically-- male; female.


Gender refers to society-- "gender roles" refer to what rights, obligations, responsibilities, behaviors, society sets for the two sexes. Gender roles are "masculine" and "feminine".


Our text confuses these two concepts by defining "gender identity" as the self-concept of being either male or female and then defining gender roles as society's "expectations regarding the proper behavior, attitudes, and activities of males and females." (p. 307). (I would have preferred that the text use the term "sex" identity just to maintain the distinction between gender and sex defined above).


A child develops the sense of a "gender" (or sex) identity between the ages of 1.5 and 3 years old.


The power of society to define "gender roles"

The power of society to define "gender roles" appropriate to each of the sexes is illustrated cross culturally: World wide, there exists a wide variation of gender roles, as these examples illustrate:

Ojibwa Indians of North America: The few women who pursue careers as hunters and shamen (traditionally masculine roles) were considered to be endowed with supernatural powers. (Other women may view them as strange, but they are respected by the men).

The Blackfoot Indians of North America: The "manly hearted women"-- women who have wealth and property; who display aggressiveness, independence, ambition, boldness, and sexual prowess." Atypically, the manly hearted women dominates her husband, and runs business affairs-- controlling use of personal property, etc. She is, nevertheless, very much respected by all men in the tribe, including her husband-- (even hangs out with the guys).
The Zuni Indians: Two women seeking the same lover have brutal fist fight in village plaza. Men do not settle their love problems in a physical manner.


The Navajo: If gender is culturally (and not biologically) defined, it should be possible to have more genders than sexes. Reese (1980) describes this among traditional Navajo groups. He points out that in all societies there is a very small percentage of infants born with "ambiguous genitalia." In traditional Navajo societies, these individuals were called "nadle." But, these societies also allowed individuals who did not wish to identify themselves as males or females to take on a third gender.  Nadles preferred female clothing and activities, but...


1.  They could wear clothing prescribed for either males or females (or both)


2.  They could live in a marriage-like status with an individual of either genetic sex.


3.  Except for hunting and warfare, they could perform the duties assigned to either males or females.


Margaret Mead's work, Sex and Temperament also illustrates the wide diversity of gender roles cross-culturally.

Mundugumor of New Guinea: No dramatic gender distinctions-- Both men and women are equally fierce and viscous. Women are not submissive. If husband has a disagreement with his wife, he arms himself with superior force before hand-- the jaw of a crocodile.


Arapesh of New Guinea: Again there are no major gender distinctions, but in this society people behave just the opposite from the above. Both men and women are socialized not to be aggressive, but gentle. Also prudish about sex-- not for pleasure only associated with marriage. Concept of rape is utterly foreign to them. Sexual passion is considered dangerous and is repressed. (Shepard, p. 342)


Tchambuli of New Guinea: There are significant gender distinctions in this tribe: Men devote lives to art and ceremony, wearing frivolous costumes, curling their hair, etc. -- women are "unadorned" and run the economy.


Gender Roles in the United States:

The United States has sharply defined gender roles: Feminity and masculinity are clearly distinguished (and enforced) through the use of formal and informal sanctions. (Although discriminatory laws are increasingly being challenged in the courts, e.g. women in combat; opening of formerly restricted olympic events to women; etc.)

The U. S. A.: The aggressive women is considered "unfeminine," and "abnormal." Non-aggressive men are considered "wimps" or "fairies." In the 1980s, women runners have a special race all their own-- the Avon Classic-- in D.C.  Some of the fastest women in the country participate.  (Male runners have derisively referred to it as the "Dyke Derby")-- "all in fun," of course.  But what under lying sentiments does this reflect?


Gender Roles and Socialization:


What are they based on?-- process of socialization.  Can't say that they are biologically derived because we have observed wide differences across cultures.  We often fail to distinguish sex-- a biological term denoting physiological characteristics; from gender-- a psychological and cultural term which denotes learned behavior which is associated with biological characteristics.

Biological factors:


Are there any innate biological differences between males and females which produce characteristic behavior differences between men and women? (Nature vs Nurture)

Obviously there's the "biological division of labor in reproduction," which leads to the foundation and elaboration of gender roles (Shepard, p. 344). (But given this very basic distinction, society can shape these roles in many different ways).


Some studies have shown that genetic differences have predisposed males toward more aggressive behavior-- (hormones like testosterone and androgens in the male and progesterone and estrogen in the female). But outside of aggression, other biologically derived differences have not been conclusively discovered.


Cultural factors:


Margaret Meade studied the three primitive peoples of New Guinea described above, and found significant differences in gender roles. This, she took to indicate that human nature is sufficiently malleable to rule out biological determination of gender roles (Sheppard, p. 346).

But, Meade's societies were the exception, not the rule.  Cross culturally, the predominant feature has been for the men to be dominant and the women to be nurturing.  Women are usually found to do the domestic chores, care for kids, and promoting family emotional harmony.  Men, on the other hand, are more likely to provide for the family and to represent the family in activities outside the home (Sheppard, p. 346).


Why is this so?  Men have the physical advantage of size and women have been restricted to child care because of pregnancy and lactation.  Physical advantages lead to economic, political and social advantages. Once these have been gained, hard to give them up.


What happens when society tries to eliminate gender roles?

Numerous societies have made deliberate efforts to reduce or eliminate gender roles that have traditionally served to distinguish "men's work" from "women's work."  The results have been mixed:

 (Jean Block, 1973) compared U.S. to Sweden and Denmark (democratic-socialist countries) and did find less gender role differences.  But even in these countries, men have more power, independence, social respect, and wealth.

The Israeli kibbutzim are supposed to be examples of gender equality, but (Padan-Eisenstark, 1973) found women to be concentrated in "feminine occupations."


In former Soviet society, where sexual equality was an explicit goal, women were relegated to lower paying, lower status occupations and men dominated the economy (Lund, 1970).  (50% of wage earners in former USSR were women, but they worked in lower paying jobs and were not equally represented in managerial classes:


32% were engineers but only 12% were plant directors.


73% were schoolteachers but only 23% were school directors.


42% were scientists but only 204 women were members of the Soviet Academy of Scientists.


79% were doctors, but doctors only received 2/3rds the salary of a skilled worker (blue collar).


Only 3 (1.5%) of the Communist Party Central Committee were women.


Theoretical Approaches:

Functionalist Explanations of Gender Roles:

The division of labor based upon sex has survived because it is beneficent and efficient for society. This view states that even today, this is the case. (Parsons and Shills) argued in the 1950s that family stability was maintained because one member, the male assumed the "instrumental role" of bread winner; while the female adopted the "expressive role" of managing relationships within the family and keeping it together. (If both members were to work, this would place strain on the family because of role competition).   This sexual division of labor traces its roots to prehistoric times where women's movement was restricted due to child-bearing and nurturing.  Men had more freedom of movement and thus, adopted instrumental roles.


Conflict Theories of Gender Roles:

Conflict theorists will buy the idea of how gender roles developed, but they disagree as to why they have continued. In this case they would argue that such a division of labor is not necessarily beneficial to society, but has been maintained by those in power.  Men have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are because they enjoy economic, political, and social privileges.  Present gender role divisions are outdated-- ok for hunting and gathering societies but no longer appropriate to the modern world.


The Symbolic Interactionist Viewpoint:

From the micro perspective, symbolic interactionists examine gender stratification on the day-to-day level; e.g. men are more likely to interrupt women in conversations, their work spaces are different (reflecting greater power); etc. They also focus how gender roles are internalized by the sexes.


Gender Roles and Socialization:

Studies have been conducted of children who were mistakenly assigned the wrong sex at birth, intentionally raised as the wrong sex by their parents, or born as hermaphrodites.  These studies suggest that individuals can easily be socialized into the gender role of the opposite sex.  Furthermore, once socialized to this role, it's very difficult to switch roles.  It seems that male and female infants are neutral at birth with respect to gender (or sex) identity, but by age 3 a child's gender identity is well established.  Thus, gender role is independent of anatomy.  (This is also supported by cross-cultural studies that demonstrate the tremendous variation in gender roles).


Acquisition of gender roles: Several theories---


Social Learning Theory: children receive rewards for behavior appropriate to their sex; and receive punishments for inappropriate behavior. (Some of these are subtle-- an approving nod from dad for boy who wants to be a fireman-- a mild rebuke from mom for the girl who wants to be computer programmer. Others are obvious-- spanking a boy who acts like a sissy, or sending a girl to her room for being a tom-boy).  


Cognitive Development Theory: children acquire gender roles through their awareness of their own sex and their perceptions of behavior appropriate to their own sex. Two stages involved:


1.    Children become aware that their sex doesn't change. It stays constant over time.


2.    Over time children seek out and categorize those behaviors appropriate to the sex they've identified with.


Identification Theory: This theory asserts that we adopt gender roles through identification with a role model. Boys have a more difficult time in developing gender identities because in early childhood they have more contact with women than with men.


Sources of gender role socialization:

 Parents: Even before the baby is born, the process of socialization begins. (Boy-girl names decided upon, nursery set up. And if the sex is known in advance...) From the moment of birth on-- what is the first question asked by mom? (Is it a boy or a girl?) Girls get pink ribbon in hair-- pink clothes-- pink nursery wall paper; boys get blue.


Peers: The peer group has a powerful impact on gender role socialization-- often quite different from parents.

 The Media: (Killing Us Softly--)  Educator Jean Kilbourne has produced a series of lectures on gender role stereotyping in the media.  Based upon an extensive examination of print and film advertising she concluded that women are presented as objects of pleasure for men;  and that they are trivialized.


Women as a minority:

Four of the five Minority Characteristics fit women--  See the Chapter on Stratification by Race and Ethnicity-- (Obviously, women are not endogamous).  Because women lack power in society, sociologists consider them to be a "minority."



Only until most recently (within the last five years in the United States) has the gap between women's and men's salaries begun to close.  Between 1950 and 1990, women earned about .65 for every dollar earned by a man (even when comparing full-time workers within the same job category). In the mid-1990's it was about 70-75 cents.   In 2003 it was around 78 cents.


Even though today over 50 percent of women are not in the paid labor force as full time workers, and nearly half of the U. S. full-time labor force is comprised of women, women find themselves in lower paying "women's" jobs. Less than 5 percent are VP's or better in major U.S. Corporations.


However, the numbers are improving for women in business at the middle management level of this country's major corporations where approximately 40 percent of management, executive, and administrative positions are now held by females.


The Second Shift: Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has studied dual career and dual worker families extensively.  Her data indicate that when taking a job outside the home, a wife's "work week" increases because her husband does not pick up a proportional amount of household chores. (These wives have 15 hours less of leisure time than their husbands each week).  The "Second Shift" is a term she uses to describe what women must do when they get home from their jobs-- They take on a "second shift" at home, cleaning, preparing meals, and caring for children.


Poverty:  While families maintained by a women represent 18 percent of all American families, they represent over 50 percent of the households below the poverty level.