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Gender Roles in Society: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 What Are Gender Roles?
  • 0:53 Traditional Gender Roles
  • 2:09 How Roles Are Learned
  • 3:30 Changes to Roles Over Time
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

In this lesson, we will define gender roles and look into the traditional roles of men and women. We will also explore the shift in these roles and how they appear today.

What Are Gender Roles?

My father loves to watch old, black-and-white movies. You know the kind...the woman is at home making a pot roast, and the husband returns from work briefcase in hand. He kisses her and asks her what they are having for dinner, and she asks him how his day was. A child comes into the kitchen to ask mommy when dinner will be finished.

Old movies and television shows had a certain way of portraying the family, particularly men and women. The man was the strong, breadwinner of the family, while the wife lovingly took care of the children and household duties. And that wasn't just what happened on TV.

Even life operated that way for many families. My father, for example, worked hard at being the primary breadwinner of the family and expected my mother to take care of me at home. These behaviors of men and women that are considered socially appropriate are called gender roles.

Traditional Gender Roles

Traditional gender roles are those behaviors seen from men and women in those old movies. While there are many differences today, these patterns of behavior have left an indelible impact on society and our thoughts about men and women. Here is a general recap of the typical views and expectations of men and women in the early and mid-20th century.

As mentioned earlier, men were considered responsible for taking care of the family financially. They took their jobs as sole providers very seriously. They also had the responsibility for guiding the family. While they may listen to what their wives had to say, they made the final decisions. Men did not do household duties or childcare. They felt the need to be strong and refrained from showing too much emotion or sharing too many personal feelings, especially with those outside of the family.

Women were expected to be in charge of running the household. Mothers did the laundry, cooked the meals, and cleaned the rooms. They also took care of the children, giving them the care and attention that was required.

The wealthier families might hire a nanny, and childcare became more widely used in the later 20th century. But the women were often in charge of directing the nannies and dropping off or picking up from daycare. Women were seen as more emotional than men, more likely and more encouraged to open up about their feelings.

How Roles Are Learned

Gender roles are passed on through generations. From the age of three, children are able to start becoming aware of the differences between girls and boys based on the actions of the parents and the nature of their environment.

  • Lucy may continually be dressed in pink, purple, and flowery outfits while her brother, Jack, is given blue and gray ones.
  • When Lucy is at kindergarten and picks up a truck to play with, her teacher may say, 'That's for boys. I'll go get you a girl toy.'

As the children grow a few years, they start learning what behavior is appropriate and expected.

  • Lucy notices her mother cooks for the family, so she pretends to cook for her dolls.
  • Jack gets a toy lawn mower to use in the den, so he can be like his daddy.

The behavior is reinforced when the parents praise or reward their children for their actions. They can also be punished and challenged to change, if it's considered inappropriate.

  • When Lucy pretends to cook, her mother may tell her, 'That's great Lucy, one day you will be a great cook for your family.'
  • Conversely, when Lucy takes a toy from Jack and he starts crying, his father may tell him, 'Now, Jack, stop that. Boys don't cry.'

Children are also encouraged to serve different roles in their interactions with the outside world. Boys are often encouraged to exert themselves in physical activity, and girls are typically given more attention to how they look and present themselves

Changes to Roles Over Time

During World War II, women got their first exposure to jobs outside the home (mainly in offices and factories) when their husbands were fighting the war. After the war, they returned to their previous roles as homemakers. That is, until the 1960s and 70s.

At this point, the social atmosphere began changing, and women started exerting more independence. They began working once again outside the home, starting off in the fields of healthcare, teaching, and secretarial positions, and later entering a variety of other professions.

While the idea of women at work was no longer foreign in the late 20th century, many women still felt the need to prove themselves. Many noticed that their male co-workers were given more challenging work, or that they were being paid more. In some cases, the battle to be treated fairly in the workplace is still alive, though it has improved tremendously over the years. Many women are also now CEOs and presidents of companies, rather than assisting men in those positions.

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