Gender Roles Explained

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Courtesy of Laura Berlinsky-Schine

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Gender roles pervade nearly every sphere of our lives. These expectations are dictated early on in children’s development and become ingrained.

So, how do they develop, and what do they affect? Here is what these expectations mean and do.

What is a gender role?

Gender roles are societal expectations dictating behaviors to which females and males should adhere based on the gender people are assigned at birth.

Different cultures have different prescribed gender roles and gender norms. They often result in stereotypes, gender biases, and sexist attitudes and affect many different areas of life, including at the workplace and home, in the media, and others.

How are gender roles developed?

It is important to note that gender is distinct from sex, which is biological and refers to a person reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics; gender, in contrast, refers the role and societal expectations of women and men. Gender identity, meanwhile, concerns how individuals identify in terms of gender, which does not always align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

What age does gender identity develop?

According to Dr. Jason Rafferty, gender roles are established early in a child’s life. He notes that the development of gender identity tends to follow this pattern:

• Around age two: Children recognize physical differences between males and females

• Before the third birthday: Children label themselves a boy or girl

• By age four: Most children have an established gender identity

Dr. Rafferty also notes that gender-specific behavior may be influenced by cultural expectations and societal norms, but gender identity cannot be changed and, of course, does not always align with individuals’ sex at birth.

When and how do gender roles develop?

Diane Ruble and Carol Martin break down gender role development into four components:

1. Concepts or beliefs

2. Gender identity or self-perception

3. Verbalized gendered preferences

4. Display of gender-typed behaviors

They identify a number of early development markers regarding gender markers that appear in most young children, including:

• Seven-month olds: Respond differently to male and female voices

• By 12 months: Can distinguish between male and female faces

• By 2-3 years: Understand stereotypes and exhibit preferences regarding toys, activities, and clothing

• By age three: Exhibit a preference for playing with same-sex partners

They explain that during the toddler and preschool years, children begin to develop an understanding of gender assignment.

Adults tend to treat boys and girls different starting in their infancy. Because children learn these gender expectations and receive approval and reinforcement for their behaviors early on, the roles become ingrained. This is part of the socialization process, which involves transferring societal values to its members. Parents, other adults, the media, and others generally contribute to socialization. 

For example, fathers might teach their sons how to fix things around the house, while mothers might give their daughters cooking lessons. Meanwhile, parents and other adults give girls dolls as gifts, reinforcing the idea of women as caretakers, while giving boys toys like firetrucks.

Gender norms can and do change within societies over time; for example, there are many female athletes, while many men teach.

What are stereotypical feminine traits?

In American society, there are a number of stereotypes about how women should behave. These extend to their appearance, demeanor, activities, and other areas of their lives. They include:

Behavioral characteristics

• Empathy and sensitivity

• Fragility

• Nurturance 

• Deference

• Gentleness 

Physical characteristics

• Clear skin

• Long hair

• Small waist

• Little body hair


• Teacher

• Housekeeper

• Cook

• Nurse

• Saleswoman

What are stereotypical masculine traits?

Similarly, American society has stereotypically “masculine” characteristics, including:

Behavioral characteristics

• Aggression

• Dominance and control

• Competitiveness 

• Control

Physical characteristics

• Broad shoulders

• Muscular physique

• Deep voice

• Larger build and height


• Doctor

• Engineer

• Athlete

• Pilot

• Builder

How is gender expressed?

Gender expression concerns the behaviors, attitudes, interests, and actions of an individual. This expression occurs outwardly, so while it can correlate to the gender norms society assigns to their gender identity, that is not always the case. For example, someone who is questioning their gender identity may express their gender in ways aligned with the gender role of their assigned sex.

Gender norms dictate that men should express their gender through “masculine” means, such as playing sports, being the breadwinner of their household, and engaging in “roughhousing” as children. In contrast, women are expected to express their gender through “feminine” behaviors, such as being sweet and kind, assuming nurturing or mothering roles, and taking on household chores including cooking and cleaning.

People may express their genders in different ways—through their clothing, physical appearance, behaviors, occupations, actions, and more. A woman wearing a dress is a form of gender expression, as is a man growing out a beard. Gender expression doesn’t necessarily have to conform to the gender norms that are dictated by the individual’s society; people can express their gender in a variety of manners.

The term “gender non-conforming” describes people who do not express themselves according to the gender norms associated with their assigned gender.

Issues with gender roles

Gender roles can have far-reaching consequences. They are very prevalent in LGBTQ people, who often face discrimination for not adhering to prescribed gender norms and may be accused of being too “masculine” or “feminine”; they can also be the targets of much more bigoted and cruel comments from unaccepting perpetrators. Trans people, in particular, often face discrimination for not conforming to the expected norms of their assigned genders.

Here are some ways gender roles can negatively impact people’s lives.

In the workplace

Gender inequality in the workplace is the subject of much controversy. Despite that fact that many women now hold jobs traditionally considered men’s purvue, the behaviors to which they are expected to adhere are often different from those of men. For example, a particularly demanding female leader may be deemed aggressive or cold, while male leaders who behave similarly do not face the same scrutiny and disparagement. Some other trends, according to research in, include:

• Women tend to ask questions rather than making declarations.

• Women exhibit less confidence, such as asking for raises and promotions less frequently than men do.

• Men tend to communicate more linearly and to the point.

Meanwhile, The Nest reveals that:

• Women exhibit more compassionate and constructive behavior in team settings.

• Men are stronger negotiators.

• Women take on more challenges.

In family dynamics

Although gender roles have certainly changed over the years, some are still considered the norm (the perception, not always the actuality), including:

• Women are caretakers. (While there is an increasing number of stay-at-home dads, this is still not the norm.)

• Men are the breadwinners.

• The definition of marriage is restrictive, excluding same-sex parents, adoptive parents, and extended families, although Pew Research reveals that less than half of children have “traditional” families.

In education

As noted above, gender roles start early, with treatment and attitudes toward girls and boys manifesting in markedly different ways. Some findings include:

• Boys are more likely to speak up in class, even if they are less knowledgeable about the topic than their female counterparts (Sadker, 2002).

• In coed groups, males are more likely to ignore females’ comments (Tannen, 2001).

• Women are more likely to downplay their academic achievements (Davies, 2005).

• Teachers tend to interact with boys more than girls (Measor & Sykes, 1992).

• Teachers tend to praise boys more than girls for correct answers and criticize girls more than boys for incorrect responses (Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Delamont, 1996).

In the media

A 2017 Common Sense Media report analyzed more than 150 articles, interviews, books, and other social-scientific research and revealed that these resources play a strong role in shaping children’s ideas of gender roles. These influences oversimplify gender roles and perpetuate stereotypes about how “masculine” and “feminine” men and women should be respectively, such as suggesting that men should be strong, brave, have large muscles, and so on, while women should be meek and submissive.

There characterizations teach children gender roles early on, affecting their self-esteem, relationships, careers, behaviors, and other areas of their lives.