Socio-Cultural Contributions to Gender Roles

Introduction

From early in life, we are taught to act and behave according to established socio-cultural norms. Through socialized values, children learn the behaviors and roles ascribed to either gender. At different stages of growth, the immediate family and parental attitudes engender particular internalized gender roles for either a male or a female. A gender role could be considered a product of the interplay of culture and heredity. The socialization process in a given culture creates contrasting value systems for males and females. Therefore, the divergences in the values, as dictated by culture, manifest as stereotyped gender roles for either a man or a woman. This paper aims to evaluate research evidence for the socio-cultural contribution to gender roles for males and females.

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Culture and Gender Roles

Gender Typing

Gender differs from sex because it is a socio-cultural construct, not a biological characteristic. According to Morris (2006), gender splits humanity into masculine and feminine classifications based on social interactions. A culture requires males or females to adhere to the behavior and roles expected of their gender. Evidence shows that gender identity or role becomes internalized through the gender-typing process (Sigelman & Ryder, 2006). The researchers further note that gender identity starts to develop at two years with the parents, friends, and the media being the key socialization agents. Therefore, the value systems acquired in childhood reflect a person’s gender as determined by the surrounding socio-cultural environment.

The socialization process shapes early gender role development through clothing, children’s programs, and play toys bought for children. As Sigelman and Ryder (2006) observe, the children’s early sense of femininity or masculinity develops from the toys or activities they engage in. Young boys may display an unwillingness to engage in an activity considered feminine and vice versa for girls. Further, through persistent harassment and criticism adolescents are forced to pursue gender-conforming activities and interests (Morris, 2006).

In this view, society, not personal characteristics, dictates how an individual behaves or interacts with others. Therefore, individual behavior is a product of socialization. Aubrey and Harrison (2004) hold that people develop a group identity and learn the feminine or masculine roles through socialized values and expectations. Therefore, the societal expectations for a particular cohort determine how an individual of this age group would behave or relate with others.

Gender typing also stems from media stereotypes. Gender stereotypes represent a culture’s collective knowledge of “customs, myths, ideas, and religions” (Elasmar, Hasegawa & Brain, 2014, p. 34). Research on gender roles, as portrayed in TV ads, teen films, and kids’ programs, shows that the media stereotypes influence behavior and values (Eisend, 2010). In these media outlets, female characters come across as caring, emphatic, and obsessed with looks, while male characters often embody assertiveness, independence, provider role, and domineering (Eisend, 2010). These portrayals contribute to gender role development, as the media is a socio-cultural agent.

The media ads often contain negative portrayals of women compared to men. According to Aubrey and Harrison (2004), while males are depicted as hardworking, competitive, and fun, females are portrayed as submissive, appealing, and weak. Female characters further show empathic behaviors, including “affection, sharing, and concern for others” (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004, p. 134). Sexual objectification of women in the media also contributes to gender role development. In contrast, Behm-Morawitz and Mastro (2011) found that sexualized images of the female body influence adolescent behavior and choices. In particular, the depiction of the ideal female body in video games as slender places pressure on young girls to acquire an ‘ideal’ body shape, leading to maladaptive behaviors.

Besides emphasis on physical looks, the media also portrays women as people obsessed with shopping and romance as opposed to careers and studies (Morris, 2006). The depiction influences behavior, roles, and hobbies of teenage girls. This age group is inclined to copy what they see or hear in the media. Another dimension of media portrayal with implications for gender role development is the unequal occupational status of the male and female characters. According to Willemsen (2001), in magazines and movies, men occupy illustrious positions that are linked to a superior social status. In contrast, women feature in scenes related to domestic roles, ornamentation, or marital/parental responsibilities.

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However, the media depiction of single women does not always conform to this view. Single women are portrayed as people with a higher occupational status than married ones (Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2011). The representation of unmarried women is that of an independent professional who has no marital/parental roles. Thus, media portrayals of the ideal masculine or feminine behavior create gender stereotypes related to roles and identities, which young girls pursue in their career or social spheres.

Gender Role Socialization

Eisend (2010) writes that, in most cultures, masculine behavior is normative against which gender differences are explained. For instance, high self-confidence, which is associated with masculinity, is considered superior to the feminine quality of humility. It is through socialization that gender-specific roles become internalized and maintained in society. For example, while society expects men to be strong and family providers, it expects women to be nurturing and homemakers. Socialization is loosely defined as the process by which a child acquires behaviors that conform to cultural “customs, laws, and norms” (Willemsen, 2001, p. 855). In contrast, gender socialization describes the process through which a boy or girl is socialized into gendered roles considered either masculine or feminine.

Elasmar, Hasegawa, and Brain (2014) established that the participants gave a rattle toy and a “red doll” to a baby boy and girl, respectively (p. 33). Moreover, the participants were gentler when bouncing the girl child and vigorous when bouncing the male child. These results indicate that society contributes greatly to the gender socialization process. The participants expected hammers and dolls to be the favorite toys for boys and girls, respectively, because of socialized values. Also, the girl child is socialized to be affectionate and charming, while the boy child is expected to be physically strong. These stereotypes reinforce gendered roles and identities exhibited by adolescents.

Masculine or feminine roles are defined by traditional gender roles. Traditionally, traits such as adventurous, assertiveness, and independence are considered masculine. In contrast, being gentle, emphatic, or emotional is considered feminine. In school, girls are expected to pursue a career in the arts while boys are encouraged to study the sciences (Elasmar, Hasegawa & Brain, 2014). The traditional stereotypes persist in the workforce whereby a disproportionate number of males are physicians, pilots, and construction engineers compared to women. On the other hand, more females are secretaries and air hostesses than males. Thus, gendered roles create gender-oriented occupations or jobs.

Another dimension of traditional gender roles relates to the provider role. Men are expected to be the family breadwinner in most cultures. As a result, attributes such as aggressiveness and competitiveness are the ideal male qualities. On the other hand, society expects wives to care for the home and children. Thus, the ideal feminine qualities include submissiveness and nurturing. These pervasive gender stereotypes shape the roles assumed by husbands and wives in a family setup.

Social roles define the cultural beliefs and attitudes held by a particular culture. As Willemsen (2001) puts it, the cultural norms contribute to the gender stereotypes ascribed to a particular social group. Therefore, social behavior must conform to established norms and roles. In other words, a particular group or person is likely to conform to the stereotyped beliefs about normative behavior. Also, shared beliefs and attitudes towards a particular group create stereotypes that shape behavior. Socio-environmental factors such as language provide a medium for communicating the gender stereotypes within a culture (Willemsen, 2001). Language is used to assign negative or positive labels to certain gender stereotypes in a bid to elicit conformity.

Gender socialization starts at childhood. Gender roles are learned through the agents of socialization or the “teachers of the society” (Eisend, 2010, p. 428). In most cultures, parents, siblings, educational institutions, the media, and peers are the agents of socialization. Psychoanalysts argue that as early as three years, boys tend to engage in little contests to dominate others in the same cohort (Eisend, 2010). The aim is to improve their social status among peers as learned from the agents of socialization. On the other hand, three-year-old girls would focus on creating relationships. These socialized views become more pronounced at age six, whereby girls display an aversion to the “competitive and domineering nature” of boys (Eisend, 2010, p. 433). Further, boys become disdainful towards ‘girlish’ characteristics preferring assertiveness to humility. Therefore, the socialization agents promote gender stereotypes pervasive in our society, creating gender differences about roles and behavior.

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Cultural Contribution to Theory Development

Gender role socialization plays a crucial role in theory development. The agents of socialization promote the values and attributes considered to be in conformation with the social norms. To achieve this, they encourage and reward gender-conforming behavior, while reprimanding or punishing untoward behavior, creating a ‘conditioning’ socio-cultural environment for minors. This relates to the reinforcement theory, which holds that “desired actions should be rewarded and the undesired ones punished” (Lightbody, 2012, p. 42). The socialization agents dictate the normative behavior and roles for either gender.

Human behavior is a product of the socio-cultural environment in which one grows. Thus, personality development can be considered as the socialized values and characteristics that a child acquires as he or she grows up. This view resonates with the cultural determinism theory, which considers culture the main contributor to behavior development (Lightbody, 2012). It considers the individual personalities of the people to be “tiny replicas of the overall culture” (Lightbody, 2012, p. 45). Gender roles represent socialized values prevalent in the culture.

Children acquire socialized values through observational learning. They observe adults and learn gender roles and identities. The social learning theory holds that the learning of societal norms and expectations occurs in the context of socio-cultural interactions (Willemsen, 2001). In this view, gender roles constitute a value system that defines how members of a culture conceive issues such as gender roles and gender identity. Therefore, gender typing develops from the interactions between an individual and his or her social environment. Social learning enables children to acquire attributes and sex roles that conform to their gender.

Young children imitate the observed behaviors and roles of adults. Also, children learn that gender-conforming behavior is rewarded while non-conforming behavior is ridiculed or punished. For example, playing with a teddy bear by girls is considered a behavior, which conforms to female stereotypes. Therefore, a baby quickly learns that playing with a doll is a positive feminine behavior. The theory of social learning ascribes behavior in childhood to observed values and practices that reinforce or punish particular conduct.

Culture shapes self-identity and status as communicated through language. The symbolic interactionism theory considers personality a product of the interpersonal interactions “mediated by symbols or language” (Lauzen, Dozier & Horan, 2008, p. 211). According to this perspective, the self is a two-pronged construct made up of ‘I and Me’. The ‘I’ denotes the idiosyncratic aspect of one’s personality while the ‘Me’ is the result of the socialization process (Lauzen, Dozier & Horan, 2008).

This shows that social interaction influences the social self. Therefore, according to the symbolic interactionism theory, culture plays a role in shaping self-identity, which enhances the realization of gender roles.

Conclusion

Research shows that the socio-cultural environment influences the socialization process that shapes behavior. In particular, socialized values and beliefs shape the gender roles for males and females. Gender roles must conform to the societal expectations of what is feminine or masculine as learned from the media and another socialization agent. Therefore, culture contributes to gender role development in children and adolescents. Furthermore, theories on gender role socialization, such as the social learning theory, have socio-cultural foundations.

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References

Aubrey, J., & Harrison, K. (2004). The gender-role content of children’s favorite television programs and it’s links to their gender-related perceptions. Media Psychology, 6(1), 111-146.

Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2011). Mean girls? The influence of gender portrayals in teen movies on emerging adults’ gender-based attitudes and beliefs. Journalism and mass communication quarterly, 85(4), 131-146.

Eisend, M. (2010). A meta-analysis of gender roles in advertising. Journal of the academy of marketing science, 38, 418-440.

Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (2014). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime time television. Journal of broadcasting & electronic media, 43(2), 20-35.

Lauzen, M., Dozier, D.M., & Horan, N. (2008). Constructing gender stereotypes through social roles in prime-time television. Journal of broadcasting and electronic media, 52, 200-214.

Lightbody, M. (2012). Countering gender bias in the media. Science scope, 25(1), 40-47.

Morris, P. (2006). Gender in print advertisements: A snapshot of representations from around the world. Media report to women, 34, 13-20.

Sigelman, C., & Ryder, E. (2006). Life-span human development. Belmont: Wadsworth, Inc.

Willemsen, T. (2001). Widening the gender gap: Teenage magazines for girls and boys. Sex Roles, 38, 851-861.

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