Society establishes gender roles for us

 As mentioned above, the different ways of males and females interacting fit nicely with differences in men and women's value systems (chapter 3). Women value being sensitive and maintaining good relationships, i.e. attachment over achievement; men value gaining status by following "the rules," i.e. achievement over attachment. Since our society values competition and individuals being successful on their own, women's orientation towards caring for others and/or cooperatively building the community is considered (by the male dominated society) to be of lesser importance. These value differences are reflected in the gender roles established by our culture, such as:

 Males are urged to excel, e.g. "to become the president"--they are supposed to grow up to be powerful; they don't show their weaknesses; they are valued; they are preferred; they are encouraged more and prepared better for careers than females are; they are expected to be tough, independent, demanding, aggressive, good problem-solvers, and on and on. Thus, men are expected and prepared to strive for superiority. In short, to be "a man" the rules are:

  1. Don't be a sissy (be different from women, no whining)
  2. Be important (be superior to others)
  3. Be tough (be self-sufficient, don't be a quitter)
  4. Be powerful (be strong and dominate others, even by violence)

 Furthermore, what makes a man a "real catch?" What makes men sexy (besides a great body)? Success! Being better than others and capable of achieving in ways that make money! Surely this motivates men.

 Women are encouraged to be good mothers --they need, therefore, to first attract a man to depend on; they are expected (by our culture) to be giving, emotional, unstable, weak, and talkative about their problems; they are valued for their looks or charm or smallness but not their strength or brains; they are considered unfeminine ("bad") if they are ambitious, demanding, and tough or rough; they are expected to follow "their man" and give their lives to "their children," and on and on (Pogrebin, 1980). Thus, women are expected to serve others, to sacrifice their ambitions and personal needs in order to please and care for others. See Too Good for Her Own Good by Bepko & Krestan, 1990.

 And, what makes a woman a "great catch?" What makes women sexy? A pretty face and a great body! Women compete on the basis of their looks. This may interfere with women's motivation to achieve and be successful. Oprah recently asked young people which they would rather be: attractive or intelligent? An amazing percentage said attractive. What counts in this culture is how attractive you are, especially if you are a woman.

 Without any doubt, most of the traditional gender or sex roles served a valid and useful purpose 20,000 years ago when we lived in caves and strong, capable hunters were especially valued because they brought home more meat. At the same time, however, some women were regarded as goddesses and bearers of the miracle of birth. Gradually, women became less respected. Then, about 400 years ago, in 1486, two Dominican friars wrote Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer), which became religion's guide to witch-hunting for 200 years. "Witch" and "women" were used synonymously. Jane Stanton Hichcock (1995) quotes from that book: "All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman... It is not good to marry: What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors." This book was endorsed by the Catholic Church, the mother of all Christian churches. We must recognize the roots of our culture.

 Within the two career families of today, the women-are-inferior attitude is muted and concealed, but the archaic sex role expectations are still subtly there. The old rules still serve to "put down women and keep them in their place." Sixty years ago, Margaret Mead told us, based on what is done in other cultures, that it wasn't innate for men to be decision-makers and breadwinners or for women to be subservient and raise children. Nevertheless, our culture continues to pressure us to conform to these gender roles and do what we are "supposed to do" (see chapter 8); the cultural, family, and friends' expectations become internalized as our own self-expectations; guilt may result if we don't follow the prescribed roles. Notice how people react to a man who decides to stay home and take care of the kids.

Civilization is the encouragement of differences. Civilization thus becomes a synonym of democracy. Force, violence, pressure, or compulsion with a view to conformity, is both uncivilized and undemocratic.
-Mohandas Gandhi

 Gender roles limit what both males and females can do. In effect, these sex roles enslave us--force us to be what others want us to be. We could be free to choose our own life goals and roles (from both male and female gender roles) and that is called androgyny. See Cook (1985), Bem (1976, 1993), Kaplan and Bem (1976), or Lorber (1994) for a discussion of gender roles and inequality. The most recent suggestion is to completely disassociate gender from all personality traits. That makes sense. Why should submissiveness or cooperation be considered feminine? They are human traits, not just traits of women! Just define what each personal trait, such as submissiveness, involves in terms of actions and feelings--and let each human being decide how submissive or cooperative he/she is and wants to be. Indeed, the current masculine-or-feminine classification of traits is silly, e.g. men are unemotional (that idea really ticks me off!), women are illogical (prove it!), men are independent (then let them clean, cook, and iron!), women are home-oriented (tell my female doctor, dentist and veterinarian that!), men are not concerned about their appearance (Ha!), etc.

 The future can be better. A recent survey found that three out of four mothers, even of young children, like or love their work outside the home. As a culture we can make work even more gratifying. With excellent child care and educational programs we can be more at ease about our children while at work. With families consisting of only one or two children and the productive years extending to 70 or 75, it seems likely that every woman will want and need an interesting career.

Recent history of changes in gender roles

 A little history (also see chapter 8): by the 1960's we had developed an affluent society--two kids (thanks to birth control), two cars, TV, dish washers, fast food, etc.--but women, especially educated women, started to realize that life was surely more than buying hamburgers and driving the kids to music lessons or ball practice. Women, clearly capable of achieving in the work place, resented being forced into unrewarding homemaker roles; they wanted to have their freedom, to be liberated (Freidan, 1963). The Women's Movement was one of several gigantic, wonderful ground swells of freedom and idealism in the 1960's. Women all over the nation between 20 and 50 joined "consciousness raising groups" and supported each other to go to college or get a job, to ask their husbands to help with child care, cooking, and cleaning. Women's liberation, coupled with a growing concern about over-population of the world, new birth control methods, equal education for women, and changing economic times, started the long, slow process of changing the traditional, male-dominated family. Women fought for equality and a second income was more and more needed.

 In the U.S., the biggest ongoing social evolution in the 1990's is still the fight for gender equality. It seeks equal rights for women: equal pay for equal work, equal educational and career opportunities, equal treatment in the law, finances, politics, sports, etc. It also seeks to eliminate sexual harassment and sex-role stereotyping in which women are seen as dependent on and inferior to men; as ignorant about cars, money-matters, and politics; as sexual objects for men to leer at (while the object remains naive and innocent); as neurotic, emotional, irrational, weak characters needing protection; as attractive creatures who wait for the right man to come along, have babies, become good mothers, and then have no idea what to do for the last 40-50 years of their lives. Legally, women and blacks became equal to white men in the 1960's but much changing still remains to be done.

 It is hard to even imagine gender equality if you are a woman and your father always dominated your mother, if your teachers paid more attention to and encouraged boys more; if you are afraid your boyfriend or husband might leave you rather than accept you as an equal; if your church worships a male god and says the man should head the family; if your culture thinks women are exciting sexual objects but emotional, naive, dependent, and weak; if women are blamed for teen pregnancy and male violence and the solution is seen as putting women back in the kitchen and men back in charge; if your social group thinks women's looks are more important than their brains or hearts; if your girlfriends are much more emotionally involved in their relationships than in their activities and achievements; if you are scared to live life without a male partner; if you doubt yourself and distrust other women; if 44% of the women you know have been degraded and raped or nearly raped, and so on.

 What can help you run the gauntlet? Liberated friends are helpful. Reading can raise your consciousness. You can assertively insist on women's rights when confronted with prejudice. You can raise your daughters as competent, self-confident, self-directed (without cultural restrictions), independent decision-makers. It is encouraging to realize other women are making progress (see chapter 8). About 20% of baby boomers have chosen to be childless, compared to 10% a generation earlier. During the last 10 to 20 years, if a couple decides to have children, most women work outside the home after the children are in school, partly because it is satisfying and partly because it has become economically necessary.

 Ironically, as the concept of gender equality grows, women see more clearly what they deserve and their oppression is felt more keenly. This hopefully means for couples that equality will gradually be achieved, i.e. first the most troubling unfairness between two people is corrected, then another inequity comes into focus to be corrected, etc., etc. For both men and women the gender conflict may seem like an unending process ("She is never satisfied" and "He gives in a little but it still isn't fair"). Equality is a fantastic revolution in the history of humans--and we are living it. It can't be done instantly. We have to be tolerant but constantly demanding that justice be done. We also have to guard against "back lash," e.g. when a women acts more like a man at work (aggressive, loud, hot-headed, arrogant, demanding, and demeaning), she is vilified while a man is more likely to be tolerated and excused. Such behavior is unacceptable; the gender of the inconsiderate person doesn't matter.

 In case you are thinking that things have already become pretty equal and fair between men and women in business, consider this: in a recent list of the top 800 CEO's in this country, only one was a woman! And she had started her own business, i.e. she had not been selected by men to head a corporation! Now, do you suppose that all of those 799 CEO's are really better managers than any female in the world? Or, are we still prejudice? There is also evidence that bright, ambitious, able, progressive women are paying a price for leading the way in a not-yet-egalitarian society, namely, self-doubts, depression, eating disorders, headaches, and other illnesses.

Gender roles for men

 The old male sex roles gave power and advantages to males but also created problems for men. As noted in chapter 7, boys and men are much more free to express anger than any other emotion. This is related to their high rate (compared to females) of criticizing, scapegoating, and attacking other people. Unfortunately, they are also three times more likely to be hyperactive than girls and they are more likely to believe their problems are caused by outside factors; whereas, females are more self-blaming. Males try to avoid problems; they distract themselves. In contrast, females talk out their problems with friends. It looks like boys are headed for trouble from an early age.

 Besides the aggression-related problems of males, one can imagine many other problems: if you are expected to be superior, always perfectly in control of things and "cool" in appearance, it is a constant strain to meet those standards. Also, if you are expected to be a strong, unemotional, independent, competitive, and aggressive "tiger" at work, it is hard to come home and be a "pussy cat," being an interdependent equal, washing the dishes, bathing the kids, sharing your self-doubts and remorse about conflicts at work, and being soft and caringly intimate with others (Fasteau, 1974). Women seem to want both--an ambitious, successful Rockefeller at work and a relaxed, empathic Dr. Spock at home. Men are saying to women, "if you like the drive, intellect, and toughness that gets me promoted and a Mercedes, why do your expect me to be completely different as a dinner partner? You can't have both!" The truth is maybe you can have both, but the point is: some (not many) men feel as dehumanized when they are judged by their job or income or car as women feel when they are judged by their weight or breasts or clothes.

 If a male alone is expected to provide well for a family, he will ordinarily have little time to relax and enjoy home life, little time to get to know his own children. Men need freedom too--freedom from all the financial responsibility for the family, freedom from the demand that they be a "real men and not cry or be sissies," freedom from the urge to compete and prove their superiority in every interaction, freedom to be equally involved with child care, freedom to have intimate friendships, freedom from being held responsible for the female's sexual satisfaction, freedom from having their personal worth being based almost entirely on their success at work, etc. (Farrell, 1975, 1993).

 Males who adopt extremely macho traits and superior attitudes run the risk of several other major problems (Stillson, O'Neil & Owen, 1991). Examples: the highly masculine stereotype has been shown to be associated with family violence, delinquency, fights while drinking, child sexual abuse, and rape. The macho male suppresses feelings and, thus, has more health and psychological problems as well as more superficial and fragile relationships. These facts should help the tough, loud, dominating, belligerent male re-consider his life style. Almost no one, except a few insecure, hostile buddies, respects the inconsiderate, aggressive male. It is certainly to the credit of enlightened males that they have moved away from the destructive aspects of the highly masculine sex role stereotypes, but Robert Bly (1990) believes many men have become "soft" (insecure and indecisive?) in the process and lost their resolve to do what they think is right. Guard against confusing being good (sensitive to others' needs, assertive, strong, and cooperative) with being weak (self-depreciating, scared, and self-absorbed). Besides Bly, there are other books for adult males having problems with their emotions: Pittman (1992) and Allen (1993).

 Naturally, men have felt attacked by feminists and some, like Bly, have recently insisted that the male role should be as a strong leader. However, mental health professionals do not recommend Bly's book (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994). Perhaps the major spokesperson during the 1980's on male issues has been Herb Goldberg (1976, 1980), a psychologist who denounces the traditional tough, silent, unfeeling, unempathic man. He thinks men are killing themselves by trying to be "true" men. Instead, men should get in touch with their feelings, their bodies, their close relationships (or lack of them), and their basic purposes in life. Goldberg thinks men should stay assertive and independent, but increase their sensitivity to others, their inner awareness of emotions and values, and their commitment to others. In short, they wouldn't become less of a "man" but rather a more complete, wiser, caring man (Fanning & McKay, 1994).

More male-female differences

 Are there additional differences between men and women? Yes, there are probably many differences besides physical size and strength, breasts, and genitalia (McLoughlin, 1988). We don't understand why but many more males are conceived and then spontaneously aborted. Color-blindness, hemophilia, leukemia, dyslexia, left-handedness are more common in males. Certain diseases plague women (thyroid & bladder disorders, anemias, spastic colon, varicose veins, migraines, gallstones, arthritis, asthma) but men have deadlier problems (heart disease, strokes, emphysema) and more visual-hearing defects. In summary, women live 7 years longer, although sick more often.

 Certain fascinating sex differences start early, e.g. infant girls seem to see faces better and are more responsive to people than boys are. Even as adults, research has shown that women can "read" non-verbal cues and most emotions better than men (not anger). By preschool, boys are more distractible (shorter attention span), aggressive (chapter 7), and more visually oriented. There have also been slight but consistent intellectual (may be nurture, not nature) differences: girls get better grades; high school males do a little better in math and visual-spacial abilities; females used to do better in verbal abilities (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), although these test score differences are declining and may have disappeared. When older men and women have strokes on the left side, where language functions are thought to be, men are three times more likely to become aphasic (speech problems). This suggests speech is more concentrated on the left side in males than in females. Male and female brains may differ but the innate intellectual differences seem to be very slight.

 Even where male and female average physical traits are clearly different--males are bigger, stronger, and faster--there is great overlap, i.e. the fastest female is much faster than most males. All of these group differences can be overcome by individual efforts, i.e. a woman can become very strong through exercise, very proficient in advanced math through classes, a superb combat soldier though training, etc. Just like a man can learn to be a great "mom," a wonderful conversationalist, an empathic listener, and a caring cooperator rather than a dogged competitor.

 What and/or who is responsible for generating these gender roles? The genes must influence our physical structure and our health. Hormones surely also play a role: estrogen in females seems to produce better health (for reproducing the species?), especially less heart disease; testosterone in males increases their aggressive response to danger, and may be related to dominance and competitiveness. And, thirdly, we are taught by family and culture that boys (men) should behave certain ways and girls should be different, as discussed above. This may explain why female high school valedictorians outperform men in college but 2/3's start to lower their aspirations early in college and few go on to graduate school (exceptions are those women who develop a supportive relationship with a faculty member or who go to a women's college, where they become active "players" and leaders, not just "observers"). See earlier discussion of developmental differences.

Learning our gender roles --what do we want and expect of each sex?

 Our parents start teaching us our roles shortly after birth, e.g. boys are cuddled, kissed, and stroked less than girls while girls are less often tossed and handled roughly. In playing with their infants, mothers mirror the young child's expressed emotions. But mothers play down the boy's emotions (in order to keep the boys less excited) while they reflect the baby girl's expressions accurately. Could this possibly be an early cause of adolescent boys denying emotional experiences and not telling others how they feel? We don't know. In addition, remember that boys between 4 and 7 must shift their identities from Mom to Dad. In that process, boys are chided for being a sissy ("like a girl") and we start shoving them on to bicycles and into Little League; they are praised for being tough; boys start to think they are superior or should be. From then on, schools, churches, governments, entertainment, and employers reinforce the idea that males are superior.

 Another fascinating facet of gender sex roles is the fantastic emphasis in our culture on women's attractiveness (discussed in chapter 8). Clothing, hair styling, beauty aids, perfumes, special diets, exercise, and fitness aids cost uncountable hours and billions of dollars. The women's role forms only half of the commercially choreographed intercourse between the sexes: women agonizing over every detail of their appearance and men yearning and vying for the most beautiful play mate they can get. These "traps" consume enormous human energy. Rodin (1992) suggests ways women can avoid finding so much of her meaning in her body, but the other half of the solution involves teaching men to find other parts of females more attractive than her body, such as her brain and interesting ideas, her healthy personality, her interesting conversation, her good values and acts, her purposeful life, etc. If that could be done, it would provide a major revolution.

back forward

[ << ][ << ]