How to Change Your Attitude Toward Gender Roles

Self-Concept and Decision-Making
Part 1 of 2

“Man up!”

“That’s not very ladylike.”                     

“You throw like a girl!”

The vast majority of us have heard and said statements like these many times – statements that direct or judge actions based on gender. Our ideas about how men and women are supposed to act, their strengths and weaknesses and the types of choices they should make can greatly impact our self-concept, or how we see ourselves. Self-concept is a key factor in the choices we make, since it determines what we see as right, and even as possible, for ourselves. When ideas about our gender unconsciously influence our self-concept, we run the risk of guiding our lives by assumptions that, when exposed to the light of conscious thought, might turn out to be wrong. This is why it’s important to think critically about gender ideas and how they influence our decision-making.

What is Gender?

First, we need to understand the difference between sex and gender. Sex is biological; you’re male if you were born with XY chromosomes and female if you were born with XX chromosomes. A minority of people – about 1 in 2,000 – are born with different chromosomes and their sex is not clear. For most people, sex is not up for debate, and it’s not what we’re talking about in this article.

Gender, on the other hand, is a much more debatable concept. The World Health Organization defines gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are sex categories, while ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are gender categories.” Gender categories are what we’ll be thinking through in the following sections.

Let’s Take a Closer Look

First, we’ll consider common ideas or stereotypes about women in a discussion on femininity. We’ll look at what, generally, women are thought to be like, what types of activities they’re supposedly well- or ill-suited for and what types of behavior are deemed appropriate for them. Then, we’ll do the same for ideas about masculinity. Once we’ve got a handle on the gender categories, we’ll consider whether or not these ideas are valid. Finally, we’ll discuss how gender ideas may be affecting our ability to experience the full range of possibilities that lie before us and the capacities we have to pursue them.

I ask you to embark with me upon this journey down gender lane with an open mind and the courage to think critically. Questioning long-held beliefs and ideas can be rather unsettling, particularly when it involves your self-concept. Aside from being one of the more dignified of human activities, thinking critically can be immensely rewarding. You may find that you have more possibilities and capacities than you imagined before. Also, you may gain a newfound respect for members of the opposite sex by thinking through gender ideas. It is with these considerations in mind that I ask you to have the courage to question what you may have been told and what you’ve told yourself about gender.

Femininity: What’s “Ladylike”?

“Men are governed by lines of intellect - women: by curves of emotion.”
James Joyce

In my job as a youth worker, I ran an activity on gender issues in which teen and pre-teen participants generated a list of terms commonly associated with femininity and masculinity. I’ll draw from this as well as the lists featured on the Health Guidance website in order to bring to light the gender categories we’re confronting in our culture today.

The following is a partial list of traits, strengths, weaknesses and expectations associated with femininity:

Not athletic
Obsessed with looks
Like to talk about feelings
Wear makeup
Not in charge
Good at cooking/housework
Not good at hands-on work
Want to have babies
Value relationship/family over career
Want to be liked/yearn to please
Bad at math/science
Should make effort to be attractive
High maintenance
Low sex drive
Should shave body hair

The list above paints a picture of women as unintellectual, overly-emotional and predestined to care for others, while being cared for themselves financially and protected physically by men. It also reflects cultural pressure on women to be attractive by putting plenty of effort into their physical appearance. On the more positive side, it describes women as emotionally intelligent and caring individuals. While women have made significant progress over the past half century in terms of becoming more independent and better educated, the cultural association between femininity, dependence, appearance and feeling over competence, intellectual development and thinking still remains.

What effect do these ideas about femininity have on females? Girls and women may find themselves subjected to pressure from family, friends and even strangers to conform to ideas about femininity. Here are some examples of how ideas about femininity manifest in daily life. 

  • Girls and women who don’t fit the femininity mold as described above may be called “tomboys,” insinuating that they aren’t behaving like “real women.” They may also have their sexuality called into question.
  • One study found that women who wear makeup are more likely to be perceived as being competent, likeable and trustworthy, meaning that abstaining from this standard practice could lead to unfair snap judgments about a woman’s character and abilities.
  • It’s not uncommon for women in their 20’s to be pressured by relatives to get married and start a family, while intellectual and professional achievements are less encouraged or respected.
  • Men may expect women to perform the bulk of childcare and housework duties.
  • According to research into gender biases in the classroom, teachers often ask girls easier questions than they ask boys and provide less thorough or substantial feedback on work done by girls than work done by boys.

Now we have a better understanding of the expectations associated with femininity and some of the ways they may play out in girls’ and women’s lives. After delving into ideas about masculinity, we’ll begin considering where gender ideas come from and whether or not they hold any water.

Masculinity: What’s “Manly”?

“Boys will be boys, and so will a lot of middle-aged men.”
Kin Hubbard

Like the list of terms associated with femininity, the one associated with masculinity includes supposed strengths and weaknesses, character traits and behaviors expected of men. 

Not good at talking about feelings
Good at hand-on work
Simple (no complicated emotions/needs)
Not nurturing
Promiscuous/attracted to many women
Should be good at outdoor activities (like fishing and hunting)
Hypersexual/little control over sexual impulses
Vocal – express opinions
In charge
Bad at cooking/housework
More focused on job than family/relationship
Anger as primary negative emotion
Good at math/science

This list highlights some of the pressures and conflicting messages young men are confronted by concerning how they are and should be. It portrays men as “in control” of their lives and those around them while simultaneously controlled by sexual and aggressive impulses. Common ideas about masculinity tell boys and men that they aren’t supposed to have a well-developed emotional life or be able to communicate well with those around them. Men are pressured to provide financially and physically for women and their families, and, because they are supposed to be independent and competent, any vulnerability or need for assistance is frowned upon.

How do these ideas about masculinity affect males? As for women, pressure to conform to gender ideas can come from all sides and walks of life, from close relatives to complete strangers. Here are some examples of pressures boys and men may face due to ideas about masculinity.

  • “Wuss,” “pansy” and “Sally” are some of the gentler names that men who don’t conform to ideas of masculinity may be called, and, as with non-conforming women, their sexuality may be called into question.
  • Peers may bully non-conforming men and act out violently toward them.
  • Teachers and parents may expect male children to be tougher and less emotional than female children, and therefore may react dismissively or apathetically when a male child cries.
  • Teachers may negatively judge a male student for being quiet and studious, expecting more assertive and boisterous behaviors.
  • Even though it is much more common today than in the past for women to work and support themselves, a survey found that men tend to foot the bill for dating expenses and feel guilty accepting money from a woman. Nearly half of the women surveyed expected men to pay for dates.

Now that we have a handle on what masculinity and femininity are thought to consist of and some real-life ways in which they impact males and females, we’re in a position to consider where these ideas come from and whether or not they are valid. Then, we’ll look at how our gender-based self-concept affects our ability to make choices in our lives. Time to move on to Part 2.

Written by Amée LaTour

Part 2:
How Gender Roles Can Limit Your Success
Making Decisions from the Heart

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle