Gender roles are the set of expectations a society has about males and females. These expectations are multifaceted and include specifications about appearance, personality traits, emotions, interests, abilities, and occupations. For example, in Western societies men are generally expected to be more agentic and less emotional than women, and women are expected to be more communal and less aggressive than men. Furthermore, men are often assumed to have paid occupations and to be financially responsible for their families, whereas women are assumed to be homemakers with primary responsibility for the children. Such beliefs serve to define what behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate for each gender. Thus, gender roles do more than merely describe the way things are; they describe how things should be.
Gender roles serve both social and intrapsychic functions. With respect to the former function, gender role expectations guide people’s judgments and evaluations of others. When one assumes that another person possesses certain characteristics on the basis of his or her gender, one is engaging in gender stereotyping. Gender stereotyping is pervasive and can influence judgments in a subtle, nonconscious, and unintended manner. Gender roles also influence interpersonal evaluation directly: Aperson who conforms to the appropriate gender role is likely to be evaluated positively, whereas deviation from that role may result in avoidance, disapproval, or even outright hostility. Gender roles serve an intrapsychic function by helping people to define themselves as individuals and to guide their behavior. Importantly, however, people do vary in the extent to which they identify with a given gender role. That is, not all men view themselves in traditionally masculine terms, nor do all women identify with a traditionally feminine image. The extent to which one shares the constellation of characteristics associated with a particular gender role is known as gender role identity.
The measurement of gender role identity typically focuses upon personality traits (e.g., agentic versus communal), with individuals indicating on a paper-and-pencil survey the degree to which each trait provides a true description of themselves. Note, however, that measurement of gender role identity is not without some debate. Traditionally, masculinity and femininity are considered to be opposite ends of a single continuum (i.e., if you are high in femininity, you must be low in masculinity). More modern theorists, however, view masculinity and femininity as independent characteristics (i.e., you can be high or low on both dimensions, as well as high on one and low on the other). Persons describing themselves as being both strongly masculine and strongly feminine are labeled androgynous. Alternately, gender role identification may be conceptualized as a stage-like process wherein androgynous individuals are those who have transcended or rejected traditional gender roles. In this case, androgyny is viewed as the last stage of gender role identification.
There are a number of theories regarding how individuals become gender identified (also known as gender typed). One of the earliest formal theories, proposed by Freud, suggested that individuals must pass through a series of stages (oral, anal, phallic, genital, and latency) in order to become appropriately gender typed. According to this view, successful gender typing was argued to occur when children learn to identify with their same-sex parent and, in doing so, adopt the qualities and characteristics of that parent. Despite the popular attention paid to this theory, there is little empirical evidence to support it. More modern theories generally fall within the nature or nurture traditions. The theory that best represents the biological or nature tradition focuses upon the role of evolution in shaping each gender’s interests, traits, and behaviors. In particular, this theory suggests that contemporary differences in male and female gender roles are, in effect, carryovers from those interests, traits, and behaviors that were adaptive for our ancestors. For example, the observed gender difference in the number of sexual partners desired is thought to have originated from gender differences in the sexual strategies found to be successful in the ancestral environment.
On the other hand, the socialization or nurture account argues that parents and other adults influence behavior by rewarding appropriate gender role behavior and punishing inappropriate role behavior. For example, parents may praise obedience and punish aggressiveness in their daughters and praise risk taking and punish crying in their sons. This theoretical account has more recently included cognition as an important intervening variable. Rather than suggesting that children are merely shaped by external forces, social cognitive learning theory argues that the process of receiving reinforcements and punishments for gender-appropriate and gender-inappropriate behavior results in the creation of cognitive expectancies that come to guide future behavior. Furthermore, this account suggests that receiving rewards and punishments is not the only means by which children learn gender-appropriate behavior. Significant adults may also impact gender typing by modeling behavior. Children learn to imitate those behaviors they see adults of their same sex performing. Although theories tend to follow one or the other tradition (nature versus nurture), these two general accounts need not be antagonistic or independent. Today, most psychologists who study gender typing recognize that biology and socialization likely work together to shape gendered behavior; it is no longer necessary to decide between nature or nurture, but to acknowledge the influence of nature and nurture.
Regardless of origin, it is important to convey that gender roles are neither static nor invariant. For example, male and female gender roles are far more discrepant from one another in some cultures than in others, with men and women sharing little in the way of daily activities. Furthermore, what may be considered masculine in one culture may be perceived as feminine in another. For example, while Western cultures expect women to be more emotionally expressive than men, Middle Eastern cultures expect the reverse. Gender roles also vary over time. Within the United States alone, gender roles have changed tremendously in the last 50 years, with far fewer people expecting, for example, married women to confine their activities to the home. Gender roles also change as we age. Research indicates that both women and men adhere less to gender roles as they mature beyond middle age, an occurrence that could be explained by either nature (hormones) or nurture (differential role demands).
Scientists have long debated the degree to which males and females differ in their traits, interests, and behavior. Consensus is emerging, however, that observed gender differences must be considered in the context of situational norms, gender stereotypes, and gender identity. Although each individual is unique, gender roles exert a powerful influence that should not be ignored in any attempt to understand human behavior.