How Gender Roles Can Limit Your Success

Making Decisions from the Heart
Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this series, we became familiar with popular ideas about femininity and masculinity. In Part 2, we’ll consider where these ideas come from as well as how they influence the way we see ourselves – our self-concept – and how gender ideas, embedded in our minds, can interfere with our ability to make choices from our hearts. 


“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart.”
Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s insight, that the feelings of the heart are the most important when it comes to experiencing “the best and most beautiful” in life, is the same point that we are trying to make with the thoughts and information outlined below.  Too often, many potential choices of the heart are overridden, both individually and by society as a whole, by preconceptions about the roles, careers and other activities that are best-suited for one gender or the other.  Fortunately, some of this thinking is changing. As our contribution to this better way of thinking, we make the case that the heart should rule when young men and young women are forging their own, unique paths in life.

Where Gender Perceptions Come From: Nature vs. Nurture

“Nature versus nurture” is a popular topic of debate. While some say that who we are and how we develop is already determined at birth due to our biology, or nature, others say that who we become has more to do with how we are brought up, as well as other situations in life that influence and affect us – by how we’re nurtured.  Below, we’ll look at the nature versus nurture debate in terms of gender categories.

The Nature Theory

Some people say that our ideas about femininity and masculinity come from nature. People who believe this say that men are naturally masculine and women are naturally feminine. The character traits, strengths and weaknesses discussed in Part 1 are, according to this theory, inherent – things we’re born with. This is likely the most popular opinion about where gender categories come from; certain behaviors, skills and interests are constantly expected of men and women based on the idea that such things should be natural to them.

Those who believe that nature is responsible for gender traits may argue their case by pointing out that, in general, women do behave according to feminine stereotypes and men do behave according to masculine stereotypes. Most people employed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, for example, are men; most people in caretaker positions, such as nurses and early childhood teachers, are women. Men do tend to be better at hands-on activities like vehicle repair and construction work, whereas women are generally better at talking about their feelings than men.

People who say that gender categories are natural usually base their theory on evolutionary psychology, an area of study that claims gender roles resulted from the evolutionary development of human beings. The idea is that men and women really are different in the ways discussed in Part 1 because these differences were most advantageous to the survival of the species. For example, at one point in history, it was important for men (who are physically stronger in general) to go out and hunt, while women needed to care for offspring. Women are, therefore (according to the nature theory), now “hard-wired” to be more domestic and nurturing, while men are “hard-wired” to go out into the world, provide financially and take on a protective role toward women. 

The Nurture Theory

The nurture theory suggests that, rather than getting our gender ideas from nature, we get them from people around us – parents, friends, relatives. We get them from the way we are dressed as young children, from the way adults speak to us and teachers teach us. We get gender ideas from media as well – how men and women behave in movies and TV shows; what products are advertised to men and women in commercials. These influencers work together to shape our ideas of what it means to be “girly,” “feminine,” “a real woman,” on the one hand, and “boyish,” “manly,” “a real man” on the other. We’re surrounded from birth by these ideas.

Based on the nurture theory of gender differences, the reason why stereotypes are reflected more or less accurately in the world is that we learn to live by them. The reason, for example, that more men work in STEM fields than women is that men believe themselves capable of the type of thinking required by these fields, whereas women tend not to. In the same vein, the reason why there are so few women in the field of philosophy is not that women are incapable of rigorous or logical thinking, but because they are taught (either explicitly or implicitly) that these aren’t their strengths.

The nurture theory of gender categories doesn’t necessarily suggest that there are no natural differences between men and women. The key point is rather that human beings are more than what biology and evolution dictate. As Simone de Beauvoir (one of the only female philosophers of her day) put it, “humanity is something more than a mere species…it is to be defined by the manner in which it deals with its natural, fixed characteristics.” Part of what makes human beings distinct from other animals, according to this philosophy, is that we are not purely determined by instinct and evolution – and, what is more, we aren’t purely determined by situations around us (our nurture), either. Human beings have freedom – the freedom to decide, to a considerable extent, who and how we are. We go beyond our given characteristics because we are capable of reflection, critical thinking and creativity. In general, women are feminine and men are masculine partly through social coercion and partly through choice – the choice, however unconscious, not to be something different. 

Self-Concept and Decision-Making

Self-concepts – what we think and feel about ourselves – significantly impact the roles, relationships and careers in which we choose to participate.  Below, we’ll explore some of the limitations that “gender thinking” can place upon us.

The Limitations of Feminine Self-Concept

Women whose self-concept is shaped by the ideas of femininity discussed in Part 1 have a limited understanding of their possibilities and capacities – particularly their physical and intellectual abilities. This limiting self-concept can interfere with a woman’s ability to make choices that lead to independence and personal fulfillment.

Perhaps the best way for me to convey how self-concept impacts decision-making in terms of femininity is to tell my own story. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in philosophy. This field of study has been immensely important to me since I was a teenager, and it has helped me cultivate a sense of meaning in life. I was often the only female in my philosophy classes. My professors were male, and, throughout the country, the vast majority of philosophy students and professors are men. The texts I read, spanning over two millennia, were almost exclusively written by men. The philosophers who wrote those texts, from the time of ancient Greece up through the 20th century, wrote about women as beings that naturally can’t think or reason well. If I had believed the messages all around me about my own intellectual limitations as a female, and if I had believed all those philosophers, I would not have pursued the discipline that has since informed many of my choices.

Taking the view that gender categories are based on nurture rather than nature allowed me to make decisions based on the needs and desires of my heart rather than character traits on some list. If I had formed my self-concept based on ideas of femininity, I would not have the values, drives and skills I have today. I don’t believe that nature is to blame for the fact that the seats of STEM and philosophy classrooms are filled primarily by men. I blame the impacts of feminine self-concept on the possibilities women see before them and the choices they make.

Along with intellectual factors, feminine self-concept also negatively impacts a woman’s ideas about what she can do with her body – particularly her hands. It’s far more common for men to learn how to use tools, make minor repairs to their vehicles and be “handy” at fixing things around the house. A woman may think she’s too weak to wield a tool, though tools are designed to make work easier; she may also think that she can’t comprehend mechanical or technical matters, which ties into the above intellectual limitations associated with femininity. These perceived limitations interfere with a woman’s ability to be independent.

There are many women who choose not to live their lives according to standards of femininity. If this were not so, the field of science and medicine would not have benefited from the works of Marie Curie, whose experiments with radioactivity, among other things, paved the way for the development of modern cancer treatment. The field of philosophy would not have been enriched by the works of Simone de Beauvoir, who helped women question their dependent status at a time when this was more commonplace than it is today. We would not have female athletes performing amazing physical feats, such as Mo’ne Davis, one of only two girls playing U.S. Little League baseball, who pitched a shutout game on August 15th, 2014. These females followed their hearts instead of feminine standards, making the world a better place and their lives, more fulfilling.  

The Limitations of Masculine Self-Concept

Just as ideas about femininity can limit a woman’s self-concept, ideas of masculinity can limit a man’s self-concept in a way that prevents him from fulfilling his true potential and pursuing his passions.  The American Psychological Association states that about 80% of American men suffer from some form of inability to put emotions into words.  Expanding on this point in his talk, Be a Man,” former professional football player Joe Ehrmann ties many social problems, from violence against women to widespread depression and isolation among men, to the messages about masculinity boys receive in childhood. Significant pressure is placed on men to succeed economically, physically and sexually, while they are discouraged from developing healthy emotional lives. This, as Erhmann indicates below, is at the root of many psychological and societal ills:

“This is where most of the social problems begin, because if you don’t understand your own emotions, you’ll never understand the feelings or emotions of another human being. Self-understanding is critical to understanding.”

Along with social and psychological problems, Ehrmann stresses the concern that ideas around masculinity prevent men from leading meaningful lives. Raised to repress human emotions – not “feminine” emotions, but human ones – men are set up to fail in relationships, he says. In his work as a minister, Erhmann has talked with many men on their death beds, and he reports the two things that dying men say would have made their lives more meaningful: quality relationships and leaving a mark on the world. Both of these require engagement with one’s heart, something that men are discouraged from.

Men are pressured to be hyper-focused on success – particularly on career success and financial gain. The things and people in his life can all-too-easily become status symbols: a girlfriend or wife becomes the symbol of sexual conquest; children, symbols of his virility; his house, the physical marker of his ambition and power. The pressure behind these interpretations of success and power can interfere with the “masculine” man’s ability to truly enjoy what he has and the people in his life. As Ehrmann points out, developing values requires engaging with one’s heart. A man whose worth in life is determined by things outside him hasn’t developed his values and therefore can’t truly find meaning in what he has.

If men were encouraged to engage emotionally with others and with the world, they could live more well-adjusted lives with less pressure, more love and a broader idea of what they are capable of. When men shed the idea that they are emotionally stunted by nature, they can choose to work on their communication skills, cultivate healthy relationships and engage with their hearts. Today 6% of nurses are men, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the number is growing.  Those men followed their hearts and chose a profession that allows them to care for patients in more than just a physical capacity. The National Education Association for Elementary Teachers reports that 13% of elementary school teachers are men. These men followed their desire to help nurture and educate young children, despite low pay and little prestige. Perhaps one of the best examples of a man following his heart is Erhmann himself, whose refusal to conform to the “macho man” norm has allowed him to care for the dying and spread his powerful message of heart to the world.   

Making Choices: Our Nature + Our Nurture + Our Heart

There are, of course, limitations to our choices. We can’t will ourselves taller, for example. However, we have a considerable amount of freedom over our intellectual, emotional and physical development. The nurture theory of gender categories says that these forms of development are available to all human beings, regardless of gender.  Yet, the nature theory indicates that many of our “traits and tendencies” are ingrained in us at birth and that their development is, to some degree, out of our control.  So, who is right?

We, as many people do today, think that both nature and nurture play a role in defining the individual we turn out to be.  However, we want to call attention to one other player, perhaps the most important one of all: our hearts. We encourage young men and women to listen carefully to their hearts as they make choices and chart their course in life.  We don’t have to limit our thoughts, in planning our futures, to feminine abilities or masculine abilities. Instead, we can think in terms of human abilities.

Once we begin thinking about emotional, intellectual and physical development as human abilities rather than gendered abilities, the range of possibilities before each of us grows immensely. While we can’t scientifically disprove that gender categories are natural or prove that they are chocked up to nurture, I think we owe it to ourselves to challenge the idea that we’re naturally one way or the other. I ask you to question yourself the next time you think you can’t do something because you’re a young man or woman. Challenge yourself to do it anyway, and to do it well. Realizing you’re capable of more than you thought may be enough experiential evidence to convince you that you are not determined by your sex.

We not only owe it to ourselves to challenge gender ideas, but to one another. Relationships between women and men can become more meaningful once we see one another differently. When a young woman equips herself with the means to provide for herself materially and to think for herself, her relationship with men – whether romantic, familial or platonic – changes; rather than people to rely on for something, men are fellow human beings with whom to form deep bonds of love and respect. When men see themselves as emotionally engaged individuals and women as capable of caring for themselves, their relationships with women – romantic, familial and platonic – also change. Women are not status symbols, sexual objects or caretakers; they are fellow human beings deserving of love and respect.

So a lot of good can come from challenging gender ideas, both for you personally and for your relationships with others. Still, the transition is not easy. Young men have to give up a false sense of strength and invulnerability; women have to take on the burden of intellectual development and independence. But the best choice is not always the easiest choice. By getting rid of some of our more comfortable but possibly inaccurate ideas about gender, we stand to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. That’s because it puts us in a position to make choices from our hearts instead of traits on a list.

Be courageous. Think critically. Engage with your heart.

“Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability.”
Sandra Day O'Connor

Written by Amée LaTour

Part 1:
How To Change Your Attitude Toward Gender Roles
Self-Concept and Decision-Making

Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller