A man and a woman hold speech bubble. In their bubbles are icons which represent stereotypes about their gender. For example, in the female speech bubble there are flowers and dresses. In the male speech bubble there are cars and football.

How does gender affect our behaviour?

‘Gender’ and ‘sex’ are terms which are often used interchangeably. However, it is increasingly acknowledged that these terms are very different. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of gender, how it is different from sex and how it influences our behaviour.

The term ‘sex’ refers to the biological characteristics that make someone male, female or intersex. This includes things like genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormones. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construction related to what we think defines someone as masculine or feminine.

For many people, their sex and gender are the same. However, sometimes, a person’s genetically assigned sex does not line up with their gender identity. These individuals might refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.

We as individuals, communities and societies have set ideas about gender and we expect men and women to conduct themselves in a certain way. As a member of society, we also dictate what men and women should and shouldn’t do, how they should dress, how they should behave and how they should present themselves in public or in private.

This phenomenon is known as gender role expectation and it can be descriptive as well prescriptive.

The descriptive aspect shapes the behaviour of men and women and tells them how to behave in various contexts or situations. The prescriptive aspect, on the other hand, shapes expectations and appropriateness of behaviours for self and others.

Gender identity and gender role expectations are shaped and developed very early on in childhood because we tell our children how to behave based on their biological sex. They see parents, siblings and teachers as their role models. The toys they play with, the cartoons they watch and the stories they hear, shape their gender identity and this process remains continuous throughout their lives.

In the video below, for example, children are asked to draw a firefighter, a surgeon, and a fighter pilot​, and​ are quite surprised when the women who do these real-life​ ​occupations join them in class.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Traditionally, gender-role stereotypes ascribe authority and dominance as male characteristics and submission and powerlessness as female characteristics. This contributes to a difference in power between men and women.

In the context of intimate relationships and marriage, this shapes expectations that a man is required to earn money to support the family and a woman is expected to bear and raise children, cook, clean and keep the family together.

Nontraditional gender role expectations, on the other hand, support a different relationship between men and women where household, economic and social responsibilities are shared between both partners.

Our society and culture have a big impact on readdressing these stereotypes about what men or women can or cannot do or should or should not do.

From available research, we know that when individuals have fixed gender role expectations and they are exposed to contradictory situations, they feel stressed, angry and exhibit aggressive behaviour.

We also know that gender role expectations, attitudes towards women, and attitudes towards domestic abuse remain important predictors of marital satisfaction.

Men who hold traditional views about gender roles are more likely to justify and use domestic abuse when feeling neglected, not listened to or challenged.

At the same time, women with gender-equitable attitudes are more likely to be abused by their intimate partners, as they may be seen as challenging and unwilling to submit to their male partners.

It is also possible that an individual’s gender role expectation is different from their actual role performance. The world is changing and so are gender role expectations, however, it will take a long time to get to a point where equilibrium is achieved and gender role expectation does not contribute to abuse.

What do you think?

Do you think there are certain things that men or women should and should not do based on their gender?

As with many things we will discuss in the course, this can be quite an emotive topic, so please remember to keep your comments respectful and constructive.

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This article is from the free online course:

Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence

The University of Sheffield