Gender Roles

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Gender Roles

This entry contains the following:

Judith Roof

Kristina Quynn

Barbara Postema

Michelle Parke


Gender roles are sets of culturally defined behaviors such as masculinity and femininity. In most cultures this binary division of gender is roughly associated with biological sex—male or female. There is much variation within the categories of the masculine and the feminine, both in terms of the possible presentations of gender and the tasks deemed appropriate to each gender. There is also great variation in the degree of relation between gender and sex within and among cultures. Some cultures understand gender as only loosely linked to biology, while others, including the United States, assume gender is an effect of and flows naturally from biological sex.

Gender roles seem to reflect the biological roles of reproduction as well as degrees of relative physical strength and other perceived qualities such as the ability to nurture, intelligence, and aggression. In the context of reproduction, gender roles seem both natural and essential; that is, the qualities attributed to appropriate gender presentations are understood as an effect of a person's biological sex. The essential character of gender roles as well as their binary division unfortunately has the effect of reducing human capabilities to artificial sets of complementary traits in which some, generally belonging to masculinity, are valued, and others, usually belonging to femininity, are devalued. The structural binarism of gender roles produces an artificial opposition in the qualities imagined to belong to each gender. If males are smart, females must be less smart. If males are strong, females are weak. This binary system sustains the oppression of women as an inferior class of beings and keeps most people from realizing their full potential. Gender roles neither represent the way most people combine traits from both genders nor provide a realistic picture of the capabilities of males and females in cultures no longer dependent on physical strength or divisions of domestic labor.

The qualities and behaviors considered appropriate to each gender change through history and from culture to culture. What is permitted in modern Western cultures seems comparatively less repressive and oppositional than the range of behaviors that were permitted to males and females in Western cultures one hundred years ago. More liberal cultures in general permit a broader range of deviation from gender norms, whereas more conservative cultures restrict and police gender behaviors.

Attention to gender roles as an object of study began at the end of the nineteenth century, as sexologists such as Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) and psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) became interested in sex and particularly in patients whose desires seemed to deviate from normative gender roles. As it became evident that sexual desires were not always heterosexual, analysts questioned the ways individuals positioned themselves in relation to gender. If, for example, one explained homosexual desires as incidents of a person of one sex inhabiting the body of another (called sexual inversion), how did such an inversion come about? Breaking apart what had seemed to be a natural alignment among sex, body, gender role, and sexual desires brought each of these categories into question. Psychoanalysis, psychology, biology, and sociology have all been disciplines brought to bear on the questions of where gender comes from, how individuals adopt their gender (is it nature or an effect of nurture?), and what gender normalcy might mean in a species with wide variation. In addition feminists have also raised the social and economic disadvantage based on gender as well as how inevitable gender traits really are.

The number of different disciplines involved in studying gender roles has produced a complex and sometimes confusing set of terms for the number of slightly different phenomena that constitute gender and gender roles. A sex role is sometimes a synonym for a gender role or it may refer specifically to a reproductive role such as maternity. It may also refer to which biological sex someone has chosen to be. That choice usually, but not always, correlates with genital morphology. The term sexual identity refers to how individuals understand themselves as biological males or females, but it is also sometimes used to describe how individuals understand their sexual desires as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, autosexual, or celibate. Sexual preference and sexual orientation are other terms for the direction of sexual desires. Gender presentation refers to how people choose to present themselves despite what category of sex they have determined they belong to. Gender or sex role stereotypes refer to the models of behavior considered to be right and normative in the context of a given society. Gender identity, finally, refers to an individual's sense of themselves as masculine or feminine, or perhaps as neither or both.

see also Gender Identity; Gender Stereotype; Gender, Theories of; Sex.


Beauvoir, Simone. 1952. The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Brettell, Carolyn, and Carolyn Sargeant. 2004. Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective. 4th edition. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Butler, Judith. 1991. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Lindsey, Linda. 2004. Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective. 4th edition. New York: Prentice-Hall.

                                                  Judith Roof


From the 1960s onward, the rise of feminism and feminist scholarship initiated investigations into the histories of women whose living conditions and experiences were overwhelmingly disregarded in mainstream histories that emphasized prominent male figures and government politics. Charting the changes in women's domestic roles and working conditions, these primarily women-focused studies attempted to understand how social institutions of the past led to contemporary social, political, and economic inequalities between the sexes. Increasingly, historians have engaged the social histories of both women and men, shifting the focus to gendered interactions and calling attention to the instability and flexibility of gender as a concept. Even the discipline of history itself has become a subject of study as a "cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of gender" (Scott 1998, p. 9).

In the late 1950s, sexologist John Money (1921–2006) coined the term gender roles to mark a distinction between behaviors related to one's biological sex and those related to social practices and individual gender identity. The notion that masculine roles and feminine roles, while related to biological sex, are not determined by the differences in male and female genitalia had a significant impact both on the historical interpretation of social orderings and on understandings of traditional gender roles. In the 1970s feminist scholars such as Gayle Rubin (b. 1949) drew connections between economic, familial, and psychic forces that culturally construct gender based on notions of sexual difference. Calling attention to the ways gender has acquired a false appearance of fixity through social institutions, historian Joan Wallach Scott argued in the 1980s that discourses of power such as those of fundamentalist religious groups have "forcibly linked their practice to a restoration of women's supposedly more authentic 'traditional' role, when in fact there is little historical precedent for the unquestioned performance of such a role" (1998, p. 43). Late twentieth-century historical studies of gender have demonstrated that over time the social institutions and discourses, which define gender roles, change and gender roles may vary greatly across cultures and even within a society's socioeconomic and multiethnic strata.

The malleability of gender and gender roles can be found in historical studies of societies that recognized more than two genders, such as the Mohave Native American Indians. The Mohave of the American Southwest, from the precolonial era up to the late nineteenth century, recognized four gender norms: male; female; male-cross-gender (berdache), who was socially feminine; and female-cross-gender, who was socially masculine. Significantly in this structure, the female-cross-gender category is not synonymous with the contemporary classification of lesbian, and for a Mohave female to sexually desire another female was considered nonnormative.

According to Evelyn Blackwood, "the cross-gender role arose from the particular conditions of kinship and gender in these tribes. The egalitarian relations of the sexes were predicated on the cooperation of autonomous individuals who had control of their productive activities" (1984, p. 32). A female-cross-gender often came into her role in childhood by avoiding the female duties of food preparation, basket weaving, and the making of clothes. She would instead display an interest in male duties such as hunting and weapon-making. Within the Mohave's egalitarian kinship system, living with kin established lineage or familial reproduction. For instance, since a female-cross-gender could only marry a female, their children must come either via adoption or via the wife coming to marriage with children already. The children, regardless of how they came to the couple, would be recognized as belonging within their household's lineage. The Mohave was not the only Native American society to recognize more than two genders, for evidence of cross-gender roles has been found in over thirty Native American tribes.

In contrast to egalitarian kinship systems, patriarchal social systems have predominated through much of world history. Patriarchal systems attempt to restrict gender roles to a binary order based on sexual reproduction. Maintaining a hierarchy wherein men dominate women, patriarchy regulates sexual reproduction by patronymic codes and laws, establishing and ensuring paternity, so that property or political power might be passed on through male offspring. Most scholars agree that inequalities between men and women increase when societies shift modes of production from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, to machine industry. As agricultural societies produced surpluses and their populations grew, their governments expanded and gender inequalities increased. In patriarchal social orders, men assumed a dominant position in the society and pressed "women to become more purely domestic in function, more dependent on the family and more decorative" (Stearns 2000, p. 2). Women could then be defined primarily according to their relation to men; moreover, depending on the society and era, women were, or still are, kept from property ownership and active political participation.

Religious and philosophical institutions have played a significant part in delineating gender roles and establishing patriarchal social orders. Western cultural traditions based on biblical and Greek, particularly Aristotelian, thought pronounced women to be categorically inferior to men (Wiesner-Hanks 2001). Likewise, in South and East Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam (to varying degrees) maintained the subordination of women to men for ordering familial and social structures. It is important to note, however, that most scholars view the "development of patriarchy as a complicated process, involving everything that is normally considered part of 'civilization': property ownership, plow agriculture, the bureaucratic state, writing, hereditary aristocracies" alongside the development of organized religions and philosophies (Wiesner-Hanks 2001, p. 17).

The complexities of patriarchy can be viewed in histories accounting contact between cultures wherein role changes, however minor, become more pronounced. Peter Stearns (2000) demonstrates in his cross-cultural history of gender roles that—over the past few thousand years—trade, colonial conquest, and, currently, international organizations invariably altered established ideas about the roles of men and women. For instance, the spread of Buddhism from India to China from the fourth century to the ninth century ce gradually expanded the image of woman and her duties in China's Confucian-style family. Whereas both Buddhism and Confucianism asserted female inferiority, Buddhism's claims that enlightenment was neither male nor female and that a woman had the spiritual potential to be holy offered greater social status to women and a spiritual egalitarian-ism previously absent from Confucian doctrines. Additionally, Buddhist monasteries offered alternatives to marriage for young Chinese women and men seeking a spiritual path. For married women, Buddhism provided opportunities for activities outside home or family. Women formed clubs to study sutras, supplying them with a means to become holy leaders. If Buddhism appeared to have affected gender roles by offering women, as well as men, access to political power and life outside of marriage, Buddhism could not, overall, "slow the standard tendency in agricultural civilization to a further deterioration" or subordination of women to men (Stearns 2000, p. 36).

Gender roles are always in flux—being inscribed, reinscribed, or resisted. Historians of American culture have suggested the following four major classifications to discuss dominant trends and shifting gender roles in the United States: paternalism in the colonial era; separate spheres in the Victorian era; companionate marriage from the 1920s to the 1950s; and quasi-egalitarianism beginning in the 1960s (Pleck 1991). It should be noted, however, that these categories mark only the dominant and predominantly white, middle-class, Anglo-American ideals of gender roles. Social groups such as immigrants, Native Americans, slaves, homosexuals, the working-class, and a myriad of other individuals who sought to express themselves alternatively to the norm often did not live according to these dominant gender ideals, negotiating, instead, gender roles suited to their particular socioeconomic circumstances or desires.


Adler, Leonore Loeb, ed. 1993. International Handbook on Gender Roles. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Blackwood, Evelyn. 1984. "Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-Gender Females." Signs. (10)1: 27-42.

Glover, David, and Cora Kaplan. 2000. Genders. New York: Routledge.

Pleck, Elizabeth H. 1991. An Historical Overview of American Gender Roles and Relations from Precolonial Times to the Present. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women.

Scott, Joan Wallach. 1998. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stearns, Peter N. 2000. Gender in World History. New York: Routledge.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. 2001. Gender in History. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

                                  Kristina Banister Quynn


Gender roles, as well as people's expectations of and attitudes toward them, are different among different cultures and societies and also change over time within cultures. This idea supports the view that gender roles are not "natural" or fixed and stable as a binary opposition, as biological sex is. To what extent separate gender roles function strongly in a culture differs among various societies but, on the whole, the more prescriptive a culture is in relation to gender roles, the more masculine and feminine gender roles are defined in opposition to one another.

People are taught gender roles through socialization from infancy. In early years children learn through the gender role divisions they see in their own family circle. Later other institutions, such as school, the judicial system, and the media, influence individuals' perceptions of gender roles and work to encourage the internalization of what are considered appropriate roles. Some examples of the means by which individuals are socialized toward traditional roles are the toys they are encouraged to play with (dolls or trucks), the clothes that they are dressed in (pink or blue; dresses or shorts), the kinds of behavior for which they are praised or reprimanded (sharing or taking initiative; playing rough or being timid), and the kind of careers they are counseled to consider. Influences such as textbooks and advertising introduce people to gender role models that are often engaged in particular gendered activities. For example, in commercials toys are often targeted at either girls or boys, and in an ad for laundry detergent, boys may be shown having fun and getting dirty whereas girls are shown helping their mother with the housework.

Examples of traditional feminine and masculine roles also exist in relation to work and social behavior. Many cultures are similar in terms of what roles are expected. The most prevalent assumption about gender roles is that femininity is linked with motherhood and nurturing, highlighting the link to biology. It is widely assumed that women have a "maternal instinct," which makes it natural for them to want children and want to be primary in caring for them. This becomes expanded to caring in general, so that many jobs traditionally associated with the feminine role are in areas such as education, health care, and social work, as well as homemaking. Men's roles traditionally take them outside the home. Masculine work, in accordance with masculine roles, is expected to support the family and carry responsibility and is more likely to involve physically demanding labor. Examples in the past have been technical work, management, and the military. Such divisions are often damaging to individuals, as they restrict the choices of women and men both by prescribing attitudes regarding social relations toward being a parent and choices in one's professional life.

Different kinds of societies have traditionally held, and still hold, different gender patterns. As Julia Wood (2005), working in communication studies, states, "in foraging or hunter-gatherer societies, there is the least gender division, and therefore, the greatest equality between men and women" (p. 49). Through horticultural, pastoral, and agrarian societies, gender relations are increasingly less equal, and "finally, industrial-capitalist societies distinguish clearly between the genders and confer different values on men and women" (p. 49). Religious beliefs also strongly influence attitudes toward the function of gender roles. Most fundamentalist religions prescribe greater separation between feminine and masculine roles, usually relegating women to a subordinate position.

The International Handbook on Gender Roles lists ways in which women are being denied equality, autonomy, or mental and physical integrity. "Female infanticide, suttee, genital mutilation, prostitution, child marriage, polygamy, arranged marriages, wife-selling, and prohibitions against birth control and abortion" are mentioned as practices following from the relegation of women to inferior roles (Adler 1993, p. x). Nancy Felipe Russo, a professor of psychology and women's studies, states in the foreword: "Underlying these laws and practices are gender roles and stereotypes that reinforce traditional norms, values, and socialization patterns that rely on a view of women as different from and inferior to men. Women continue to be expected to find their central fulfillment as mothers and wives and are subordinated to men by social, economic, legal, and religious institutions" (p. x).

As Xiaoling Shu (2004) argues, legislation, education, and control for women over their own fertility are all instrumental to positive change with regard to gender roles for women. However, advances in these areas are no guarantee of equality: in numerous nations where laws exist to protect women against various forms of discrimination in the workplace or politics, practice shows a continuation of adherence to traditional gender roles. Also, whereas in many cultures girls now have almost equal access to education as compared to boys, education for girls is often only seen as a means of ensuring them a better marriage, as Barbara Mensch and colleagues observe (2003). The International Handbook of Gender Roles shows that, although on the whole attitudes have become more relaxed in most Western as well as many non-Western countries, gender roles are still quite rigidly prescribed worldwide, and though the adherence to suitable roles is generally required of both men and women, gender roles are much more restrictive to women because of the traditional devaluation or trivialization of gender roles associated with femininity.


Adler, Leonore Loeb, ed. 1993. International Handbook on Gender Roles. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Hatem, Mervat. 2002. "Gender and Islamism in the 1990s." Middle East Report 222: 44-47.

Mensch, Barbara et al. 2003. "Gender-Role Attitudes among Egyptian Adolescents." Studies in Family Planning 34(1):8-18.

Moore, Laura, and Reeve Vanneman. 2003. "Context Matters: Effects of the Proportion of Fundamentalists on Gender Attitudes." Social Forces 82(1): 115-139.

Shu, Xiaoling. 2004. "Education and Gender Egalitarianism: The Case of China." Sociology of Education 77: 311-336.

Wood, Julie T. 2005. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

                                         Barbara Postema


Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals historically have challenged hegemonic gender roles. Gender and sexuality are linked inextricably, and a person's gender presentation has been assumed to indicate that person's sexual identity. In their complex relationship to ideas about gender and sexuality, gays and lesbians in the United States have defied conventions regarding both issues. Misconceptions about gender presentation and sexual identity dictate the ways in which the heteronormative culture reacts to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals. For example, if a person who presents with traditional feminine traits is biologically male, the assumption is that that person is homosexual. Similarly, women who display traditional masculine characteristics are assumed to be lesbians. Queer culture has played with gender roles for a variety of reasons, particularly to challenge conventions and find a safe place for the expression of one's gender and sexual identities.

During the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, gay men "created subcultures in major cities that facilitated greater personal experimentation," particularly with gender, by using terms such as top, bottom, pansy, and fairy (Shneer and Aviv 2006, p. 30). Those different gender presentations challenged traditional male gender roles and masculinity. Drag queens also challenge gender roles and gender presentation by wearing women's clothing, displaying traditional feminine characteristics, and/or impersonating gay icons such as Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. A drag queen can be defined as a male-to-female "transvestite who employs dramatic clothes, make-up, and mannerisms, often for other people's appreciation" (Feminism and Women's Studies 2006).

Similarly, lesbians historically have challenged traditional ideas about femininity through butch and femme gender presentations. In the early twentieth century, for example, women who wore pants, smoked in public, or learned to drive were known as "mannish women," and later, butch dykes "reject[ed] the constraints and limitations of femininity" (Shneer and Aviv 2006, p. 29). In contrast, femme women presented a hyperbolic form of femininity. The butch and femme gender presentations came under assault during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s when "lesbian feminists combined their critique of gender and sexuality by rejecting participation in the patriarchy"; that stance resulted in the rejection of the "butch/femme gender expressions in lesbian relationships in favor of more androgyny" (Shneer and Aviv 2006, p. 30).

The reconsideration of gender identities became a focal point for feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, and that debate remained critical in the context of later feminist concerns. The delineation of gender identities within the lesbian community continues to evolve. This is evident in the number of gender presentations, including stone butch, stone femme, boi, high femme, daddy/grrl, and mommy/boy ("Gender Terms and Linguistics" 2005). Butch and femme gender presentations are still present, and lesbians have entered the performative realm of gender with the increasing presence of drag kings. Like drag queens, drag kings embody camp; they present traditional masculine characteristics in an effort to challenge conventional notions of femininity.

Transgenderism, "the decision and ability to change from the gender to which one has been assigned at birth to another chosen gender, complicates gay-straight and masculine-feminine binaries" (Shneer and Aviv 2006, p. 31). Transgender is also an inclusive term for transsexual ("One who switches physical sexes. Primary sex change is accomplished by surgery") and transvestite ("One who mainly cross dresses for pleasure in the appearance and sensation") (Feminism and Women's Studies 2006). Being transgender often means struggling against cultural assumptions that suggest that transgender individuals are sexually perverse or psychological unstable.

This is evident in the response of the medical field to transsexualism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As recently as 1980 transsexualism was considered a "heterogeneous disorder" that was described as a "persistent sense of discomfort and inappropriateness about one's anatomic sex and a persistent wish to be rid of one's genitals and to live as a member of the other sex" (Shneer and Aviv 2006, p. 39). Transsexualism is linked to and categorized as a gender identity disorder (GID), which the most recent version of the DSM, the DSM-IV-TR, considers a psychological illness. There have been numerous petitions by medical and nonmedical professionals to remove transsexualism from the DSM.

Transgender individuals typically fall into two categories—male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM)—that define their transition. Some MTF and FTM individuals undergo sexual, or gender, reassignment surgery, which includes hormone replacement therapy, and others remain as they are. Transgender individuals more recently have begun to utilize a variety of labels to self-identify, including "third-gender, two-spirit, both genders, neither gender, or intersexed" and argue for "their right to live without or outside gender categories that our society has attempted to make compulsory and universal" (Califia-Rice 2003. p. 245). Sexual identity varies as widely among transgender individuals as it does among nontransgender people; sexual identity thus is explicitly different from transgenderism. Transgender individuals represent a dynamic challenge to conventional gender roles and presentations.


American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: Author.

Califia-Rice, Patrick. 2003. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

"Gender Terms and Linguistics." 2005. Available from

Isay, Richard A. 1997. "Remove Gender Identity Disorder from DSM." Psychiatric News Main Frame. Available from

"Sexual Identity and Gender Identity Glossary." 2006. Feminism and Women's Studies. Available from

Shneer, David, and Caryn Aviv. 2006. American Queer: Now and Then. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

                                                Michelle Parke