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Gender roles have permeated society for centuries, with the first examples going back to over 3,000 years ago. Gender roles are society’s expectation for how each gender is expected to conduct themselves, react to a situation, express themselves, and the activities they are supposed to do as well as what their preferences in color, beauty, and clothing should be. These exist in all ethnic groups, societies, and cultures, but can differ widely from social group to social group and can also change and evolve throughout time.
While some believe that gender roles have biological roots, they are also very correlated to social constructs. According to WebMD, “gender roles as we know them originated during the Victorian Era, which comprises most of the 19th century, and was characterized by strong ideas regarding the roles of each gender in society”. During this time, men were heavily involved in politics and business while women were confined to household chores and taking care of children. Unfortunately, this mentality remained, and is still very present in today’s world, where women who prioritize work and their career are scrutinized, while men are not expected to help around the house or take care of their children.
Over time different theories have come to light regarding the emergence of gender roles in society, namely, the evolutionary theory, the object relations theory, the gender schema theory, and the social role theory. The evolutionary theory is grounded in biological different that arose through the process of evolution as the cause of gender roles. It proposes that men and women developed differently to fulfill their functions which are necessary for survival. Differently, object relations theorists focus on the effects of society on gender, and specifically Nancy Chodorow emphasizes that women have gained the role of the primary caregiver throughout history. The gender schema theory proposed by Daryl Bem focuses mainly on each individual’s personal cognitive organization, which is based on how each culture and society defines gender roles for children since a very young age. Children’s perceptions are then affected, and they may incorporate these roles in both the way they interact with people in society as well as in how they see themselves. The final explanation is Alice Eagly’s social role theory, stating that the way work is divided based on social expectations of each gender is what then produces lasting gender roles. This theory suggests that gender roles are closely linked with stereotypes, and vary in four dimensions: traits, role behaviors, physical characteristics, and occupation.
Sadly, the existence of gender roles and stereotypes has a significant effect on the mental health of individuals of both genders, as well as the activities they choose to participate in, and the way they judge and are judged by their counterparts. Often, for example, men will be pressured to fill the strong masculinity standard through violence, which can lead them to suffer psychologically as they experience these traumatic socialization practices. Women, on the other hand, may have restricted educational and career opportunities due to the resistance of society to having them in a world that isn’t the home. As the article by Saima Ali and Gwen Adshead highlights, there is a complex relationship that still must be studied and understood between violence, gender and mental health, but we already know that stereotypes heavily influence and regulate human behavior.
Today the world is rapidly changing, and , for example, much documentation has shown a rise in women’s employment rate and birth control being available to most. Although this change is encouraging, it is important to acknowledge that these regulations vary from country to country, and even if on the surface the issue is being addressed, gender inequality is still present in many of our social environments and institutions, and it continues to be important to check our biases and help ourselves and others remove stereotypes form our daily lives.
England, P., Levine, A., & Mishel, E. (2020). Progress toward gender equality in the United States has slowed or stalled. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(13), 6990–6997. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1918891117
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Somech, A., & Drach-Zahavy, A. (n.d.). Gender role ideology. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss205
What are gender roles and stereotypes? (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/what-are-gender-roles-and-stereotypes