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Sex Roles

Sex-role stereotypes, Sex-role socialization

Sets of attributes, including attitudes, personality traits, abilities, interests, and behaviors that are defined as appropriate for each sex.

Men and women are different not only in anatomy, but also in terms of how they behave and in the interests they express. Certain behavioral differences are believed to be biologically determined. For example, the male sex hormone testosterone is believed to be the reason why males are considered more aggressive than females. However, many nonanatomical differences appear to be based on sex roles that are learned by every individual. In other words, people are born male or female but are taught how to be masculine or feminine.

Roles are sets of norms that define how people in a given social position ought to behave. For example, people who have a particular occupation are subjected to a set of expectations concerning the work performed and the style in which it is accomplished. While one might anticipate a mechanic's soiled appearance, such an appearance would be considered unsanitary and unprofessional for a dentist. In contrast to specific roles based on occupations (e.g., teacher, firefighter) or family relationships (e.g., mother, son), sex roles are diffuse because they pertain to virtually all people and apply to all parts of one's daily life. It is therefore important to understand

A little girl practices a typically feminine sex role, caring for an infant. (Vanessa Vick. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

how each of us learns his or her own sex role and the significance it has on our daily lives.

A sex-role concept is a set of shared expectations that people hold about the characteristics suitable for individuals on the basis of their gender. The notion of these roles being shared implies that most people endorse the expected behaviors as appropriate for men and for women. We all have beliefs about what males or females do and are supposed to do. In your family, whose job is it to send greeting cards to friends, buy gifts, remember a niece's birthday, organize parties, prepare food, and keep in touch with extended family members? You are probably thinking of a woman because the above activities are considered part of the woman's role in most cultures.

There is no direct relationship between biological sex and the various social aspects of sex roles. Accordingly, some psychologists have recommended that the term sex be used to designate biological maleness/femaleness as opposed to the term gender role, which refers to basic notions of masculinity and femininity. Much of what we consider masculine and feminine is learned as a result of socialization experiences. It is not a biological necessity that women tend to be the ones who remember birthdays and send greeting cards. Rather it is simply a cultural expectation that gets passed on from generation to generation.

Sex-role stereotypes

Sex-role beliefs become sex-role stereotypes when individuals employ those sets of behaviors as rules to be applied to all males and females. In western society, for example, women have traditionally been regarded as more delicate and compassionate than men. Stereotypes for femininity include expectations to be domestic, warm, pretty, emotional, dependent, physically weak, and passive. By contrast, men are thought of as being more competitive and less emotional than women. Masculinity stereotypes can be described by words such as unemotional, physically strong, independent, active, and aggressive. These implicit or explicit expectations are taught from a very early age. For instance, it is not uncommon to see family and friends play more roughly with baby boys than with baby girls. In terms of career expectations, until fairly recently women have traditionally been associated with homemaking and a relatively narrow range of occupations such as nursing or teaching, while men have been expected to hold a wide variety of jobs outside the home in business, politics, and industry.

Although certain common beliefs regarding the way each sex should behave are present across societies, substantial variations exist between cultures when examining sex roles and their accompanying stereotypes. For example, after studying the behaviors of men and women in three cultures in New Guinea, Margaret Mead found that each culture had its own sex roles and stereotypes. Interestingly, few of them corresponded to the stereotypes expressed in industrialized nations. This finding provides some support for sex roles as cultural constructions. The diverse characteristics associated with sex roles are not biologically determined, but rather culturally transmitted.

Stereotyping itself is a normal cognitive process. In fact, this act of forming general impressions is of great help in allowing us to categorize the tremendous amount of information we continually experience. However, the excessive use of masculine and feminine labels can place undue restrictions on people's behaviors and attitudes. Certain beliefs about sex-appropriate behaviors can determine the types of experiences to which we are exposed during the course of our lifetime. For example, some grade school teachers may form quick assumptions about a student's scholastic abilities largely on the basis his or her sex. As a result, a boy may be encouraged in math class while little effort is given to refining his talent for writing poetry. At more advanced levels, males may be more encouraged than females to enroll in mathematics, science, and engineering courses.

Sex-role socialization

From infancy to adulthood, people receive informal but potent impressions of the role they are expected to play in society. As infants, little girls may be cuddled and handled in a more delicate manner than little boys. As children mature, family members continue to cultivate masculinity and femininity by encouraging a child to act in ways and develop interests the family members feel are appropriate for the child's sex, while at the same time discouraging any conduct considered inappropriate. For example, parents may reward a daughter's interest in sewing and housekeeping with praise and encouragement while actively discouraging a son who shows similar interest. Once a child is of school age, his or her peers generally provide additional information about what is considered acceptable or unacceptable within one's own sex role.

In the 1960s, social learning theorists such as Walter Mischel and Albert Bandura emphasized the role of both direct reinforcement and modeling in shaping children's sex-role behavior and attitudes. Boys and girls learn new sex roles by observing and imitating their parents or some other person important to them of the same sex. For instance, little girls copy their mother's grooming activities by putting on makeup and dressing up in her jewelry while young boys imitate their father's behaviors by pretending to shave or work in the garage. Furthermore, parents seem to reinforce sex-typed activities in their children by either rewarding (e.g., a smile or laughter) their son for playing with trucks and their daughter for playing with dolls. They may also respond negatively (e.g., a frown or removal of the toy) when the form of play does not meet sex-role expectations. Another explanation for sex-role development is found in a cognitive developmental theory proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg. It is based on the view that children play an active role in the reinforcement of appropriate sex roles. Once children become aware of their gender label, they come to value behaviors, objects, and attitudes associated with their sex. Each child becomes highly motivated to learn about how members of his or her own sex act and then behaves in the way that is considered appropriate for that gender.

Sex-role development has been an area of extensive research over the past several decades. The first step in this process consists of acquiring gender identity. This is the point at which the child is able to label herself or himself accurately and can categorize others appropriately as male or female. For example, a two-year old child who is shown pictures of a same-sex child and an opposite sex child and is asked "which one is you?" will correctly choose the same-sex picture. By age four, most children understand that they will remain the same sex throughout their life, a concept known as gender stability. A child's ability to recognize that someone remains male or female despite a change of clothing or altered hair length demonstrates the development of true gender constancy that is not typically achieved until about the age of five or six.

Since the 1960s, sex roles in North America have become increasingly flexible. Whereas "masculinity" and "femininity" had long been considered to be opposite ends of the same continuum, (meaning a person could be one or the other but not both), psychologists today conceive of masculinity and femininity as two separate dimensions. Therefore, a person can be both compassionate and independent, both gentle and assertive. Many people no longer regard fearfulness or tenderness as unmanly emotions nor is it considered unfeminine if a woman is assertive. Men and women can also hold jobs that were once considered inappropriate for their sex. For instance, most women work outside their homes and are, in increasing numbers, entering professions traditionally considered to be almost exclusively male occupations such as medicine, engineering, and politics.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Jacobs, J. A., ed. Gender inequality at work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

Leaper, D., ed. Childhood gender segregation: Causes and consequences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Macoby, E. The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie