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Gender roles

In this article, Dr. Jennifer Harman discusses gender roles and how they help to shape family roles and relationships.
© Colorado State University
Gender stereotypes are beliefs that we have about how men and women behave similarly to each other. Stereotypes are essentially oversimplifications of a group of people, and contain many biases and prejudices. For example, there is a stereotype in the U.S. that women talk more than men, but research shows that men actually talk, or “chatter” more than women. Research has repeatedly supported the fact that men and women are more similar than different, and that there is more variability within gender then across. This means that two women are more likely to be different on a specific trait, like generosity, than comparing a specific man to a specific woman. Gender stereotypes play a role in almost every realm of family life.
Gender role expectations can be beneficial in many ways because they can help young children understand what is expected of them within the larger world, and they help to shape family roles and relationships. Children learn that women are better at expressing emotions, are more “tender-hearted” and agreeable than men. They learn that men are supposed to be more assertive, extraverted, and impulsive than women. When people act in ways that are consistent with these stereotypes about gender, they are rewarded, or reinforced by others, and this increases the chance that they will act the same way in the future. When they act inconsistently, such as a girl acting like a tom-boy, or when a boy cries, they may be punished or teased by others.
Men, or fathers, are expected to be stoic and not as emotional as women and mothers. Men and fathers are expected to be the providers of the family, while the mothers are expected to be more of the caretakers of the home and family. These roles lead to beliefs that women are better mothers than men are fathers, despite the fact that men and women can be equally good parents. Little boys are not often taught to be gentle or intimate the way that girls are, which conveys the message over time that they just are not as “good” at it as girls. These roles also feed into beliefs that fathers and men are inherently more aggressive than mothers and women, even though research indicates women are just as aggressive in different ways.
Despite the fact that these stereotypes are created and reinforced by our interactions with others, many people believe that gender stereotypes are inherent traits…they believe that men and women are essentially different and that their roles are not changeable. Mom’s are assumed to inherently be “better” parents. They “know best.” Dad’s are inherently “better” providers. They are “better” disciplinarians.
What most people don’t know is that we learn these gender role expectations by the age of two. That’s right, two years of age. Children observe their parents, grandparents, and other family members playing gendered roles in their family. This observation leads to the development of what we call gender schemas, or mental templates about what is appropriate for men and women. Gender schema theory states that these schemas affect what we pay attention to, our memories, and our abilities to process information that is consistent or inconsistent with what we expect from men and women. For example, a child may believe that all doctors are men, and may not notice a female doctor standing next to them…they may only remember that the doctor was a nurse because it did not confirm their expectations. When children reach puberty, they soon learn what society expects of them as adult men and women.
Children socialize their parents too—a stoic father may become a “softee” with his daughter, for example. And when a family member tries to change or challenge the roles or expectations that are there for them, their change may not be supported or well received by other family members. For example, if a mother wants to return to work full time after staying at home to raise the children, there may be pressure from her spouse and children to remain in her current role. When family systems are balanced, they tend to be more open to change and supportive of the independence of family members, but unbalanced family systems are resistant.
What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments and take a moment to see what other learners are saying and respond to any other comments that resonate with you.
© Colorado State University
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