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Gendered roles

Watch and listen to Jemma Rimmer talking about gender roles
In this section we will explore what are known as gender or gendered roles. Gendered roles, also known as sex roles, are roles associated with our perceived or actual sex. As we have already learned, the link between sex and gender is a close one even though they are distinct constructs. Gendered roles indicate the expected behaviours associated with a sex. These roles assume that men will be masculine and women will be feminine in their behaviour and outlook. As we saw last week, this can mean for example how women are expected to be kind and caring, affecting the roles they are likely to play in society.
There remains some debate about the extent to which these behaviours and thus ascribed roles are entirely socially determined, or whether there is some biological determination. For example, many argue that women are biologically more likely to be caring and less aggressive than men based on their reproductive capacity and hormones. Gender roles lead to the allocation of different activities, or social roles. These in turn create differences in opportunities and likely life trajectories for women and men. For example, women – because of assumptions around their caring nature – are more likely to be expected to stay at home and take on childcare roles. This can have knock-on effects for their ability to take on paid roles in society.
This reduces their economic power as they have less direct access to an income, or it is reduced through part-time work. It is not just women who are detrimentally affected by gendered roles. With social expectations placing women in the home caring for children, it can make it more difficult for men to take on caring roles, as their role is perceived to be the breadwinner. Staying at home to care for their children, rather than working, is unusual and not conforming to social conventions. As you can probably infer, social roles – even if you decide they are partly biologically determined – also have a socially constructed aspect. We can see this through the way these social roles can vary between different cultural contexts.
For example, in Scandinavian countries, men taking on full-time parenting roles is more culturally accepted. Gender roles are also influenced by government policy. In this example, countries that share parental leave allowances equally between the mother and the father are more likely to challenge traditional expectations about parenting roles than those which offer more or exclusive parental leave (maternity leave) to the mothers. As we have seen from our brief history of gender equality, many of the gendered roles need to be placed in their cultural context and can change over time. In the context of the workplace, gendered roles lead to certain roles being seen as more appropriate for men or women, resulting in unequal outcomes.
The table shows the differences of gender roles between men and women. Whilst men are expected to be good at roles that require physical activity and roles that require decisiveness, entering into more manual labor jobs and being disproportionately represented in senior management positions, women are more likely to take up caring roles. Because of the attribution of care giving to women, men are more likely to be seen as the primary breadwinners, even in today’s society where physical work is now a small proportion of the work undertaken in most economies. Care-giving also makes it more likely that women will combine care-giving at home with part-time work. We have already mentioned that gendered roles can lead to inequality in the economic power
of men and women.
In the context of the workplace, gender roles also result in: Occupational segregation – where men and women tend to be associated with certain roles Hierarchical or vertical segregation – where men’s roles are more likely to lead to progression The reinforcement of stereotypes. An impact on perceived value. We’ll tackle each of these in turn. Occupational segregation occurs when those employed in an occupation are largely drawn from a particular demographic characteristic such as gender. One of the challenges is identifying the extent to which gendered occupational segregation is based on choice or discrimination.
If women choose not to enter an occupation, this could be based on some biological characteristic (for those who believe biology plays a role in the gendered choices made), or because of how women have been socialized from a young age to identify with certain roles. It could also be because there are barriers to entering the occupation. For example, the lack of women entering the sciences is partly due to girls not being encouraged to study science at school. As highlighted by a recently published OECD report–The Pursuit of Gender Equality. By the time women reach higher education, women are underrepresented in STEM subject areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in which they currently account for just 19% of students in OECD countries.
Furthermore, women who do go into tech jobs are twice as likely as men to leave them. This shows the gender divide between sectors in the workforce, and uncovers the gendering of different subjects, with STEM subjects being deemed more spatial and logical, and therefore more appropriate for men. The lack of female role models in this field, coupled with a lack of confidence, means that women are reluctant to enter a field that is male dominated. This presents a further problem for the future in a world of digital transformation, as future jobs will be in technology, leading to the possibility of worsening gender equality if this trend is not changed.
Hierarchical or vertical segregation occurs when a certain group – in this case men – tend to be clustered at the top of an organization’s hierarchy, and others lower down. This has recently been highlighted through the gender pay gap. Given that roles higher in the organization tend to attract more income, a gender pay gap in favour of men suggests that men occupy more of the senior roles. This is also demonstrated by the comparatively lower rates of women occupying board level positions. We can see how the gendering of roles and behaviours lead to unequal outcomes.
If men are typically seen as more decisive and confident, they will be seen as natural leaders and thus more likely to be promoted to more senior, highly paid roles than their female counterparts. Why are gender roles so persistent? We already have some understanding of this from the work of Judith Butler who argues that as gender roles are enacted, the roles are reinforced and perpetuated in society, making them appear natural or normal. If one sees only men in certain positions or professions this may discourage females from entering the profession, or they may feel isolated in these roles by feeling like an outsider. This can then create a vicious circle, reinforcing gender stereotypes in the workplace.
This is partly why role models are seen as important. Women entering roles typically associated with men, and particularly if they are successful, can change these perceptions and influence behaviours. Unfortunately, the gendering of roles is also linked with a perceived value, that is in turn gendered. For example, occupational segregation doesn’t just result in differences in job choices, but also the status of those roles. Caring roles are typically rated and paid lower than physical labour.
This has been brought to light, for example, through equal pay claims brought against UK councils who have paid those roles dominated by men more highly than those dominated by women, even though the nature of the work required, in terms of skills, competencies, time and labour, was comparable. Furthermore, the burden of unpaid work falls on women, who do as much as three times as much care work as men, further restricting them from progressing in their own careers, according to a recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Report. In summary, gender roles often have negative impacts for both men and women, socialising them to undertake roles that they may not necessarily choose.
They particularly limit the career prospects of women who are expected to do the majority of the lower perceived value and often unpaid, care work, and are therefore less likely to go into top-level, high-earning leadership positions.

In this video Jemma Rimmer from the University of Exeter explores gender roles.

Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter with contributions from Jemma Rimmer.

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