What is Gender? - Roles & Differences

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson explores the meaning of gender and how we come to believe what men and women are really like. Learn to understand your own experience of being male or female in order to better understand others.

What Is Gender?

When you see an infant, how do you determine visually if the baby is a boy or a girl? You might look for a bow or dress for a girl or note the pink clothing. For elementary school children, you would notice the style of a child's hair and way of dressing to help you determine his or her sex. By middle and high school, you would start to see physical characteristics and differences including facial hair and voice changes for young men, breast development in young women and differences in the two genders' average heights.

The physical characteristics you start to see more prominently in teenagers are determined primarily by our genes and the resulting reproductive systems and hormones produced. These genes determine our biological sex. Biological sex is whether we are born male, female or in rarer cases, with biological characteristics of both sexes.

If physical characteristics emerge from our biology, what about other characteristics that are not biological, such as the way we dress ourselves? The baby in the photo might look like a girl to you based on today's norms, but during the time period the photo was taken, babies of either sex were often dressed in this way. To our modern eyes, we usually look at the picture and see a baby girl. This is because we associate wearing a dress with girl children only. In reality, we really don't know if the baby in the photo is a boy or girl.

Antique photo of a baby boy or girl
Antique Photo of Baby

Our belief that 'girls wear dresses but boys do not' is an idea that has not always been true in every culture and timeframe. The same can be said for other beliefs we hold about the two sexes. These ideas and beliefs make up a concept called gender. Gender goes beyond biological sex and focuses on characteristics such as our social identity, behaviors, and preferences, including what we wear and how we act.

Gender Roles

Since these beliefs about gender change over time, we may look back to other eras and find views that may surprise us today. For instance, if you lived in the mid-20th century and opened the newspaper to the classified section, you would find listings for jobs appropriate for men separated from the jobs appropriate for women, rather than one listing. This separation of jobs by gender is an example of gender roles. Gender roles include the different behaviors expected of males or females by a particular culture. They are based on cultural norms, or expectations for how we should behave.

Poster showing expectations of British women during World War II
Poster showing expectations of women during World War II

Consider what stereotypes exist for your own gender. Some of these ideas about your gender may hold true for you, while others may not. For instance, imagine a man that loves hunting, an activity often associated with being 'masculine.' However, when it comes to caring for his elderly father, he finds himself much more nurturing than his sister. Although his sister is expected by society to be the more sensitive and caring (or more 'feminine') one, he takes on a role of caregiver more willingly and naturally. If someone says to him, 'Women are not interested in hunting,' he might agree with that gender role, but if someone says, 'Women are much better caregivers than men,' he might beg to differ based on his own experience.

Even within a person's own family, individual members can hold differing beliefs about gender roles. Our unique ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds may also affect our beliefs.

Gender Differences

Are there specific differences between men and women besides their biological makeup? This is a topic of much debate! One viewpoint is that gender is primarily a social construct, or a set of beliefs that has evolved from circumstances, cultural traditions and power structures, rather than being a result of biology. Another viewpoint is biological essentialism, the belief that we are born with a destiny to behave and act in specific, distinct ways based on our sex.

If we take the example of caregivers, it might be the case that women are more likely to become caregivers on average, but this is not always true. Why do some women tend to fit the stereotype, and some do not? Historically, many women in our culture have been socialized to behave in more caring and compassionate ways. Being socialized means they may be taught from a young age to behave in a particular way by authority figures, media, and peers. Are women also more biologically inclined to provide care because they have the ability to give birth to babies? Questions like these can be very controversial and can produce powerful emotions in those debating the topic either way.

Another way to look at this question is to consider that the sexes might be more alike than they are different, even biologically speaking. In the graph below, Center for Disease Control data from 2007 reveals that there is a good deal of overlap in the height of men and women. While we may think of men as being generally taller than women, in reality, the middle portion of the graph shows how often women and men fall in the same middle range. On average, men may be taller as a group, but plenty of men and women are near the same heights, and some women are taller than the average man. Similarly, even if socialized to behave in a particular way, all human beings share more commonalities than differences.

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