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Biological and Sociocultural
|In our society today, men and women perform distinctly different roles which are based on nothing more than their biological gender. Although these roles do not hold true for each individual, the majority of people live out their lives in accordance with these extremely pervasive roles. |
Sex roles can be defined as a set of behaviors and characteristics that are standard for each gender in a society. Sex role stereotypes are widely-held beliefs about those behaviors and characteristics (Singleton, 1987). The stereotypes to a large extent become the roles. Society forces people into certain roles simply by expecting that those roles are proper and enforcing them.
In general, the roles prevalent in modern Western society prescribe that men should be domineering, aggressive, and superior at the maths and sciences, should become successful in their careers, and should control and suppress their feelings. Women, on the other hand, should be submissive, nurturing, gentle, better at languages and the humanities, emotional, and desirous of nothing more than a happy family and a husband to provide for her, while she remains at home and tends the house.
These sex-typed roles are perpetuated and reinforced by the mass media and society in general in many ways, some obvious and others more subtle. However, there is a previously widely-held point of view, somewhat less popular recently, that gender roles are the result of innate biological differences between the sexes; that men are naturally better-suited to hold positions of power, for example, and that women are more suited to look after the home and children.
It has been recently and frequently proposed that the currently championed roles are limiting and damaging to all involved, men and women alike, from the time that they are children. This view holds that our sex roles are solely the product of the society in which we live, and that their incompatibility with the reality of individual personalities causes pain and stress for many people, as do other forms of oppression and stereotyping. Most of the research in this area has been based on studies which point out the inequality and subordinate position of women in Western society.
This review will attempt to summarize much of the information on the biological and sociocultural theories of gender roles and gender role stereotyping, as well as pointing out the effects that this may have on individuals within the society.
The biological view of gender roles states that the differentiated gender roles which exist in our society are the products of our evolution, and are inextricably linked with abilities predominant in one gender or the other which are determined biologically. The roles prescribed for each sex are based on physical abilities and properties of that sex, such as intelligence, brain lateralization, and differing hormone levels. This view was the accepted one throughout history, and has only recently been challenged. Implicit within this view is the belief that these roles are both desirous and immutable. Ways in which this view could be substantiated include looking at gender role similarities between animals and humans, and examining sex differences among infants (Singleton, 1987). If substantial sex role similarities are found between animals and humans, or if infants are in fact found to exhibit traits traditionally assigned to their gender, this could point toward the fact that such abilities and roles are biologically determined.
The problems with this view are, first, that it assumes that current Western sex roles are the "correct" ones, second, that it denies that we can or should change our current roles, and third, that it implies that traditional sex roles are adaptive and conducive to physical and mental health. Recent evidence and research supports the conclusion that none of these three points is actually true. If current Western sex roles are in fact biologically programmed into all human beings, we would expect such roles to be universal, and this is clearly not the case. If nothing else, this view ignores, or diagnoses as pathologic, individual differences (Renzetti & Curran, 1989).
Although some consistency across many cultures is in fact found, even those who see these traits as evolutionarily based have developed other, better explanations for them than that they are biological and unalterable.
One such view states that societal differences in child-rearing practices are responsible for differing abilities in each gender, but that these differences are due to the evolutionary sexual behavior of a polygynous species (Low, 1989), as they believe humans to be (Leger, 1992). This view, while still assuming that Western sex roles are the original ones, does at least have the advantage of allowing for change over time as the species changes.
The assumption that sex roles are biological, and therefore unchanging, can be refuted by the simple observable fact that sex roles, even within our society, have changed and are in the process of changing. Women, long considered to be unable to hold positions of power or careers involving intelligence, are at last beginning to be allowed to serve in such capacities (though the struggle for complete recognition is still far from over). In addition, women are in the process of refuting the belief that they must have a family and children to be complete, when in fact many are happier without them.
As regards mental health and the adaptivity of sex roles, the simple fact is that, when a correlation between sex roles and physical and psychological health is found, it usually points to the conclusion that the female sex role in particular is highly related to lower self-esteem, higher levels of neuroticism (visible in such traits as over-sensitivity to criticism and refusal to engage in assertive behavior), and decreased ability to cope in those individuals who adhere strictly to their socially prescribed gender role. Studies have shown that women, as well as men who are considered to be highly "feminine" on the Bem Sex Role Inventory, are much more likely in situations of job stress to use avoidance coping at the expense of other, more productive, methods (Long, 1990).
In addition, women have been shown to be significantly less satisfied with their bodies, due to a gender role which states that they must be beautiful in order to attract a man, which should be of paramount importance in their lives. Even women of low body weight commonly diet, believing themselves fat. This becomes a problem when it is shown that these feelings of inadequacy about one's own body are linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and lowered or insufficient use of contraceptives (Mintz & Betz, 1986).
Perhaps one of the reasons for the increased stress apparent among those attempting to adhere to the sex role prescribed for them (Alpert-Gillis & Connell, 1989), as well as the most compelling evidence against the biological approach, is the fact that many of the commonly-held Western gender ability stereotypes on which sex roles are based are simply inaccurate.
Researchers Maccoby and Jacklin published a review of studies of children under age two years. Children this young are frequently used because it is assumed that the societal influences on them will be negligible, and thus any differences will be due to biology (Renzetti & Curran, 1989). In their review, Maccoby and Jacklin examined three specific traits: dependency, visual-spatial ability, and activity level. If traditional Western stereotypes are in fact biological, it would be expected that the female infants would exhibit more dependency, and the male infants would exhibit greater visual-spatial ability and a higher activity level.
Instead, they found that, in regard to dependency, twelve of twenty studies showed no sex differences, and the results of the other eight were inconsistent. They also examined nine studies of newborns which showed no sex differences with regard to visual-spatial ability, and thirty-three studies of infants, in most of which visual-spatial ability was not statistically different between genders; when it was, the advantage could fall to either sex almost equally. As to activity level and aggression, no sex differences were found for infants (cited in Renzetti & Curran, 1989). Tests of spatial ability using older children show no sex differences until adolescence, when males begin to pull ahead (Renzetti & Curran, 1989).
As far as the theory that hormones or genes may control the personality traits or behaviors of each gender, so far, there has been absolutely no direct evidence that this is the case (Renzetti & Curran, 1989). Although testosterone in some animals has been shown to increase aggression, its behavior in humans is far more complicated, and shows no specific pattern of influence (Leger, 1992).
It is important to realize the inaccuracy of these gender ability stereotypes, as they often dictate such things as what careers are thought proper and what courses of action are expected for each individual. An adult who feels an affinity for something that their gender role states they should not be good at, such as a woman who wishes to take on the highly visual-spatial career of a pilot, may find herself up against both societal norms and, in the case of a military pilot, rules dictated by gender stereotypes, which prevent her from pursuing that career.
Contrary to the biological determinism perspective, the sociocultural view of gender roles states that gender roles and stereotypes develop within a culture and are then perpetuated by that culture. Individuals within the culture are expected to conform to these norms, and are socialized in manners which constantly reinforce the beliefs and behavior which are prescribed and presupposed for them.
Social learning theory applied to this area predicts that individuals need not directly be told what their expected roles are; continued exposure to others in those roles, for example in the media, is sufficient reinforcement (Long, 1990). The theory that society and not biology determines gender roles rectifies the problems inherent in the biological view. If sex roles are culturally transmitted, then Western sex roles need not, and likely are not, universal, and any roles which are adaptive within a culture are correct. This explains the findings of the Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) study (presented above) in which spatial abilities of males surpass those of females only in adolescence, by noting that during this time, socialization is more differentiated and strict, and gender socialization for women begins in earnest (Renzetti & Curran, 1989). Further supporting this view is the fact that not all societies show any sex differences on these tests. Canadian Eskimos, for example, are one such group (Renzetti & Curran, 1989).
This view is also supported by the fact that many other cultures present different gender roles from those espoused by our society. Samoans, for instance, do not differentiate social status based on gender (Mead, 1969). Native Americans, while attributing certain preferences to one sex or the other, frequently allowed for the "crossing-over" of a person to the other sex, whereby individuals of either sex (though usually males) who have the desire to do so would take on the cultural role of the other gender, marrying and laboring as their chosen gender does (Curran, 1992). These individuals (such as the berdaches of the plains Indians and the nadles of the Navajo) were generally accorded special status in certain ceremonies and social situations, but were not viewed as pathologically abnormal.
Perhaps one of the most telling studies of the phenomenon of gender roles is that done by Margaret Mead, who studied three tribes of people, all living within a twenty-mile radius of each other. One tribe, the Arapesh, socialized both their males and their females to exhibit qualities considered in our society to be "feminine": they were warm, cooperative, and nurturing, and according to their histories had always been so. The Mundugamor tribe, on the other hand, raised their children to be what we consider "masculine": competitive, aggressive, and oppositional. Once more, according to their stories, they had always been this way. The third tribe, the Tchambuli, displayed gender roles the reverse of those prevalent in our society. The women were dominant and controlling, the sexual aggressors, the principle workers, and in control. The men were emotionally dependent on the women, vain about their appearance, and reported by both themselves and the women to be irresponsible (A. S. Walters, personal communication, February 9, 1993).
Current and past changes in sex roles can moreover be explained by the fact that, since cultures change, what roles are adaptive to each culture will also change over time, and should do so. The sociocultural view, influenced to a great extent by feminism, further states that the current female sex roles in our society are psychologically damaging to women, in that they promote as desirable behaviors and beliefs which are incompatible with reality and are maladaptive to psychological adjustment. The male gender roles are also damaging to men for the same reasons.
Much of the research done on the damaging effects of gender stereotyping has focused on the way in which these stereotypes serve to further subjugate women. However, men are hurt as well. Men are told that they should never show their emotions, they are socialized to be aggressive, and they are taught to derogate anything female. This manifests itself as a high level of competitiveness, a disability to be open and vulnerable, and a lack of competence in interpersonal relationships (Kimmel, 1990).
Additionally, this directive to distrust and discount anything feminine results in men distrusting and discounting all that is feminine in themselves, denying their feminine side, and so exhibiting homophobia and misogyny, as well as a continued fear of losing their masculinity -- one more stress laid onto their high-stress lifestyle, made even worse because they will never be completely free of their feminine side, and so will always feel inadequate (Starhawk, 1988).
Inherent in this denial of all things feminine is also an innate belief that masculinity and femininity are opposites. This dichotomy is detrimental to men in particular, because it teaches them that if they attempt to gain some desirable feminine qualities, they will in turn lose some of their masculinity (Starhawk, 1988), which is perhaps the ultimate terror of the gender-stereotyped male. Furthermore, both these dichotomized sex roles are damaging to society as a whole because they promote violent behavior in men, against both each other and women, discourage individuals from pursuing certain activities in which they might excel given the chance, and foster the communication gap between the sexes. For example, several studies have found that acceptance of rape myths such as "most victims are at least partly to blame," are correlated to sex role stereotyping and distrust of the opposite sex on the part of both men and women (Giacopassi & Dull, 1986).
It would seem apparent, given all the research extant, that even if it is the case that sex roles are the result of our species' evolution and the physiological predispositions of each gender, and were adaptive in the past, these roles have not altered to reflect the changing realities of our society. Therefore, any adaptive advantages they may have presented in the past are no longer present, and the roles must change in order to be adaptive for individuals today.
This prospect is certainly daunting; if gender roles are to change, then so must many other institutions of our society. The fact that most if not all adults today adhere to these roles to some extent does not make this any easier. To change the outlook on women would require changes in how we perceive family relationships, how we educate our children, our criminal and civil laws, and religion, among other things (Hearn & Parkin, 1983).
Perhaps the first step to making these changes is to change the ways in which men and women are presented in the mass media. Currently, such materials as television perpetuate the traditional sex roles by presenting and emphasizing them, while discrediting those who go against the current roles by either presenting them in an unfavourable light, or, more frequently, by failing to present them at all (Durkin, 1987). The belief that all women should be young and beautiful, and that their looks should be their major concern, is perpetuated by the facts that most women on television are under thirty years old, and these women are shown constantly paying attention to their looks, and by the fact that when women do make news, such things as their marital status, height, and hair colour are frequently mentioned, even when these are irrelevant to the issue at hand (Durkin, 1987).
Such change as is necessary can be attained. In many small ways, it is already being attempted. In the DSM-III, sex bias in diagnosis of mental disorders was present in many ways. For example, in the description of histrionic behaviors, it stated that the behavior involved was "often a caricature femininity", and that histrionic individuals often act out roles such as the "princess." Also, male histrionics were thought to exhibit "homosexual arousal patterns" (DSM-III, cited in Hamilton, Rothbart, & Dawes, 1986). In the DSM-III-R, the characterization of the behaviors as feminine is no longer present, nor is the homosexual diagnosis. The battle is not completely won yet — the "princess" role reference is still present (American Psychiatric Association, 1980) — but if such changes as these can be made, a little at a time, we will be well on the way to a more enlightened view of the potential that each individual, regardless of gender, possesses.
This is an extremely important, if not necessary, realization for society to come to. Given that the current sex role stereotyping has so many negative consequences for all people in our society, and has yet to exhibit any positive effects, it stands to reason that when such an incredible force for oppression is removed from our lives, it can only benefit all involved in the long run. Such research as has been done in the past is needed also in the future, but it must be accompanied by an active attempt to change the things that are found, rather than simply acknowledging their deleterious effects in statistical breakdowns. It must also be made clear that these roles are not universal and immutable, and that there is hope for change. Only when these facts are understood can our society begin to move toward a view of gender relations that is adaptive for our time and for the future.
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