A gender role is a set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived sex. These are usually centered around opposing conceptions of femininity and masculinity, although there are myriad exceptions and variations. The specifics regarding these gendered expectations may vary substantially among cultures, while other characteristics may be common throughout a range of cultures. There is ongoing debate as to what extent gender roles and their variations are biologically determined, and to what extent they are socially constructed.
Various groups have led efforts to change aspects of prevailing gender roles that they believe are oppressive or inaccurate, most notably the feminist movement.
The term ‘gender role’ was first coined by John Money in 1955 during the course of his study of intersex individuals to describe the manners in which these individuals express their status as a male or female, in a situation where no clear biological assignment exists.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender roles as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women”. However debate continues as to what extent gender and its roles are socially constructed (i.e. non-biologically influenced), and to what extent “socially constructed” may be considered synonymous with “arbitrary” or “malleable”. Therefore, a concise authoritative definition of gender roles or gender itself is elusive.
Some systems of classification, unlike the WHO, are non-binary or gender queer, listing multiple possible genders including transgender and intersex as distinct categories. Gender roles are culturally specific, and while most cultures distinguish only two (boy and girl or man and woman), others recognize more. Androgyny, for example, has been proposed as a third gender. Other societies have claimed to see more than five genders, and some non-Western societies have three genders – man, woman and third gender. Some individuals (not necessarily being from such a culture) identify with no gender at all.
Gender role – defined as referring in some sense to cultural expectations according to an understood gender classification – should not be confused with gender identity, the internal sense of one’s own gender, which may or may not align with categories offered by societal norms. The point at which these internalized gender identities become externalized into a set of expectations is the genesis of a gender role.
Gender roles are usually referenced in a pejorative sense, as an institution that restricts freedom of behavior and expression, or are used as a basis for discrimination.
Because of the prevailing gender role of general subordination, women were not granted the right to vote in many parts of the world until the 19th or 20th centuries, some well into the 21st. Women throughout the world, in myriad respects, do not enjoy full freedom and protection under the law. Contrariwise because of the prevailing perception of men as primarily breadwinners, they are seldom afforded the benefit of paternity leave.
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See also: Trumbach, Randolph (1994). London’s Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture.In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Gilbert Herdt, 111-36. New York: Zone (MIT). ISBN 978-0-942299-82-3
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- “In Saudi Arabia, a Quiet Step Forward for Women”. The Atlantic. Oct 26 2011
- James Poniewozik (10 June 2014). “it’s time for paternity leave for working fathers”. TIME.com. Retrieved 14 June 2015.