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Published: Tuesday 29th of October 2013
It’s not a secret that men and women are different. This difference depends, at its most basic level, on physiology and genetics, but is just the start. Each gender is also characterized by a set of distinct habits, perspectives, pursuits, peculiarities, personality features that are considered to be as feminine or masculine, depending on the cultural environment in question. These are called “gender roles.” These gender roles are not always in perfect alignment with gender identity because they come about mainly through the way in which both genders are raised. According to research, gender roles develop under the influence of both genetics and cultural expectations, and, moreover, they often evolve and change to fit into society’s evolving and changing needs. Because of this tricky situation, it’s been suggested that both individuals and societies may be better served by a different set of attitudes called androgynous gender roles, which are more gender-neutral (with males expected to display emotion and expression in some circumstances, and females expected to be more goal-oriented under other situations). This suggestion, however, should not be interpreted as a condemnation of the traditional gender roles, of reversed gender roles, or any hybrid thing in the middle. However, more research will be necessary before we can tell for sure how much of a gender role comes from genetics and how much comes from culture, and to understand how the roles of each gender help promote the well-being and growth of a given society.
Gender roles are not fixed in time now, and they’ve never been before in history either. Take the 1950s when small girls were supposed to be made out of sugar and spice and everything nice, were dressed in pastel organdy garments, wore gloves to religious services. Then came along the 1960s, the 1970s and everything changed. Bras were out, and weathered jeans became the rule. Each new generation brings along with it a different set of “rules” about the desired social behavior of both men and women (needless to say, they are still expected to act differently). But with all those changes in time, it remains true that current societies still have specific expectations about the way in which men are women are to live, work, make plans, etc. These days it could be said we are more open to changes in such expectations, but the fact remains that they are still there and men still should do this and that, as well as women.
Gender and sex are not the same things at all. This is a subtle idea that comes from bio-sociology, but it needs to be understood if gender roles are going to make any sense at all. Gender is all about behavior, culture, social characteristic, and psychological build-up. It becomes set as an individual’s gender identity becomes set and as he or she learns his proper gender role within the culture. In short: it would be misleading to say it’s artificial, but it’s not natural or biological either. Sex is the other side of this coin, it is, in contrast with gender, not about culture or learned behaviors but about biology. Genetics is, indeed, the only factor that determines sex. Women have two X chromosomes, and males don’t, they have an X and a Y. Sex can also be known from the physiological consequences of that genetic inheritance as they will cause primary and secondary sexual characteristics to develop and become noticeable, some even from birth. Primary sexual characteristics are, quite simply, the male or female genital organs or their elements. Except for very rare medical cases of conditions, these features can hardly be missed or confused, so much so that in modern pregnancies, the parents can know their baby’s sex (not gender) months before the birth because it becomes visible through ultrasound scans. Secondary sexual features become noticeable much later in life, starting with puberty, and are more superficial.
So while sex and gender are not the same, it’s kind of obvious to see why sex can influence gender a very great deal (but still not determine it). The genetic component of this equation will always affect the gender. Let’s say a man wants to be a mother. Well, he can’t. He doesn’t have a uterus, his body doesn’t come with ovaries to produce eggs, he can’t be fertilized, and he can’t carry a baby to term. He can have a baby indeed by having one with a woman who does actually have the biological features that allow that. This simple fact should not, however, mislead us into believing that biology is destiny and that, as a consequence, the roles of men and women must be fixed in time and culture. It would be rash to think that women are the home and hearth keepers because they can bear children, while men are supposed to be strong, protective and providing because they’re bigger and, supposedly, stronger. But before we assume that biology is the sole factor in fixing gender roles we should first try to understand that those gender roles are different according to culture and that, even within the same culture, they evolve in time. In early 20th-century American culture, a woman’s place was at home. That conception kept women out of high schools and high-paid jobs. A hundred years later this is not the accepted rule anymore (or, at least, there are other rules available) and the previous standard seems to be too narrow for contemporary women who do aspire to university education and a career-oriented life. If gender was all about biology alone, this changes could never have taken place.
In our current century, the gender roles of American culture remain in a state of constant change to some degree, even if the traditional roles are still practiced in some corners. For instance, boys are still urged to become dominant, aggressive, fast, strong and focus on achievement while, at the same time, girls are pushed towards interest in home and family affairs, emotion, passiveness, intuitiveness, and sensitiveness. These roles, however, are bound in culture, not biology. For the Tchambuli people of New Guinea, women are supposed to do all the needed fishing and manufacturing as well as keep running the community’s power and economic life. Women of this culture are also supposed to take the initiative to start sexual relations. In contrast, Tchambuli men are concerned with the way they look, are flirtatious, dependent, often quite interested in acquiring flowers and jewelry. In this culture, a man’s activity is mainly concerned with art, games, and theatrics. These contrasting gender roles between the American and the Tchambuli cultures can only be possible if sex is not the ultimate cause for them. That must lead us to conclude that culture and society do have a very relevant part in the way each sex in its midst becomes a gender.
We learn about what society likes and dislikes by being a part of it. That’s commonly referred to as socialization from which we achieve an understanding of those behaviors that support what society needs or expects of us. This process starts very early in life, almost with birth as baby girls are usually held and treated more gently and tenderly than baby boys, and it goes on as the baby grows up. As time keeps going on, the male children are granted more leeway to wander about bigger territories and take more risks than female children. Boys are supposed to become useful earlier than girls too. They are pressed to control their emotions, and they are told that “boy’s don’t cry,” while girls are discouraged from fighting or being aggressive. For the most part, girls are expected to cultivate emotions and expression of emotions, while boys are supposed to be contributory and goal-oriented. When parents are confronted with the issue of different treatment for different sexes, their answer tends to be that sexes are indeed different as determined by nature and not only biologically but behaviorally too.
Gender roles are perceived in many different ways that permeate every individual’s life. It’s not just about the well-known spoken mandates from parents and other figures of authority, it happens in much subtler ways, too. For instance, lots of people notice that toys for boys and toys for girls are not the same at all. Girls usually get toy kitchens or dollies, or other kinds of toys that help them conform to tradition. Boys are conditioned to their traditional roles through different toys like toy trucks, tools, sports gear. Children do not need to be told that they are getting the toys that fit their future gender roles as by the time they become aware of their own toys, they have already assumed their future gender roles, with boys wishing to be athletes, pilots and doctors, and girls leaning towards nursery or motherhood.