The title of a best selling book proclaimed that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. This title encapsulates the image that the two sexes are completely different and opposite to each other. Gender-role development is one of the most important areas of human development. In fact, the sex of a newborn sets the agenda for a whole array of developmental experiences that will influence the person throughout his or her life. Gender roles, norms and stereotypes play a pivotal role in the way men and women are raised and perceived, not only by parental and family figures, but also by society as a whole.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) believed that we are all born ‘Tabula Rasae’, a blank slate that is written on by the pen of experience. Gender roles, influenced and enforced by society, can often determine how the pen of experience writes on our blank slate and how we develop into our male or female identity. Why are gender identification and gender roles so important in relation to human development? First and foremost, one’s sex is one of the most salient characteristics that are presented to other people.
Second, who one is as a male or a female becomes a significant part of one’s overall identity; it is one of the first descriptors people use about themselves. Labeling oneself as a “boy” or “girl” can begin as early as age eighteen months. Third, gender is an important mediator of human experiences and the way in which individuals interact with each other and the physical environment. Individuals’ choices of friends, toys, classes taken in secondary school, and vocation all are influenced by sex.
Gender roles and stereotypes change throughout time, change from one geographical location to another and can shape our existing and future identity. Gender role adaptation and the affects of not conforming or adapting to gender roles, will ultimately affect the way the developing human perceives themselves, as either male or female. The word ‘gender’ is often used to refer to the social, cultural and psychological qualities of being male or female. The term “sex” denotes the actual physical makeup of individuals that define them as male or female.
Sex is determined by genetic makeup, internal reproductive organs, the organization of the brain (such as in the control of hormone production), and external genitalia. Differences and variations in gender roles and what men and women ‘should’ be like occur over time and place. For example in Victorian England the mark of real femininity was a ladylike paleness and weakness, whereas in other countries, such as Kenya, real femininity is proven by a woman’s ability to undertake very hard and strenuous work on behalf of her family.
During the Samurai Age of Japan, real masculinity was proven on the battlefield, where fiercesome warriors reigned supreme. Among other cultures, such as the Hopi Indians of North America, men were peaceful, passive and non-aggressive. Even as recently as the past few decades the roles and relations of men and women have been changing. In many Western nations many women have begun to do things that were considered exclusively for men, such as the work of doctors, tradesman, lawyers and university professors.
Similarly men have begun to redefine fathering to include some of the ‘women’s work’ of feeding, diapering and otherwise caring for and nurturing children. Adrienne Burgess once said that: “Everyone always thinks of mothers and children. No one ever seems to realise that most men want to play just as big a parental role as women. ”(Burgess, 1996, p212). Gradually over time men’s and women’s relations have started to become more egalitarian. So what has caused this shift of social norm? Society, in particular Western civilisations, have been changing rapidly over the last couple of hundred years.
Pekacz quoted Jean-Jacques Rousseau Emile as saying that: “Women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, counsel and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant. ” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau Emile, 1762) A statement such as this, by today’s standards, would be viewed as chauvinistic and prejudiced against women, however in 1762 this may have been seen as an acceptable view in relation to women.
The pace at which the world is changing has put some people, in the words of futurologist Alvin Toffler, in a ‘future shock’. Rapid economic and technological changes have altered established habits of work and also destabilised long standing methods of thinking and acting. How are gender roles established and developed? The power of traditional gender roles can be seen in the behaviour of children as young as two or three years old. Traditionally boys are cuddled less, given toy cars, trains and guns to play with and are generally taught to be self-sufficient.
Girls are commonly hugged, given dolls and cubby houses with pretend kitchens and urged to play gently. Dr Nola Alloway of James Cook University has made a study of the field of children and gender roles. She believes that boys and girls are born with the same mentality and emotions, but their upbringing socialises them into the traditional gender roles, often bestowed upon them by their parents or family figures (Alloway, 2002. P21). The years from approximately age two to age six are crucial years in the development of gender roles.
It is during these years that children become aware of their gender, where play styles and behaviors begin to crystallize around that core identity of “I am a girl” or “I am a boy,” and that the social context of family, school, the peer group, and society in general exert potent messages in stereotyped ways. Because of the centrality of gender-role development during these years, most theories of social and personality development highlight the early childhood years.
For example, in the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, in the third stage of psychosexual development a male child encounters the Oedipal Crisis, a time when the only way in which he can cope with his desire for his mother and fear of his father is to completely identify and incorporate his father’s characteristics within himself. Freud posited a similar process for girls’ desires for their fathers (the Electra complex).
Although many contemporary psychologists do not agree with this theory in general, Freud is credited with highlighting the development of gender and gender-role behaviors very early in childhood and their link to identification with parents. Social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura, emphasizes the importance of children’s imitation of the behavior of others (models). The theory posits that boys learn how to behave as boys from observing and imitating masculine behaviors, especially from their fathers, and girls learn from imitating females, especially their mothers.
When children imitate same-sex behaviors, they are rewarded, but imitating the other sex may carry the threat of punishment or disapproval from parents. Finally, cognitive developmental theory underscores the importance of understanding what it means to be a boy or girl in the development of gender roles. In 1966 Lawrence Kohlberg conceived of gender development as a three-stage process in which children first learn their identity (“I am a boy”), then gender stability (“I will always be a boy and grow up to be a man”), and finally gender constancy (“Even if I wore a dress, I would still be a boy”), all by about six years of age.
A newer version of this approach, formulated by Carol Martin and Charles Halverson in 1981, emphasized the development of gender schemas— children’s ideas of gender that help them categorize experiences as relevant to one sex or the other. Gender roles are rigid role expectations of men and women, which can often be stereotypical. Gender stereotypes include a range of characteristics about what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’; masculine and feminine. These may include physical characteristics, attitudes regarding ‘typical’ behaviours, personality traits and the respective roles men and women are supposed to play in society.
Although it appears to be merely descriptive, it is actually prescriptive. Stereotypes don’t describe, they dictate. Gender stereotypes function as a barrier between what a man should be like and what a woman should be like. Even within the same society, women and men have diverse experiences of age, ethnicity, religion and class, and these experiences interact with being masculine or feminine. Our identities as women and men are developed through complex sets of interactions in specific social and material contexts. These identities can be both unchanging and fluid.
In closing, it would be reasonable for one to conclude that ‘gender matters’. Because of the large importance placed on gender and conforming to gender roles, that society has prescribed; children will ultimately learn what is expected of them. Gender is often seen as a fundamental unit of identity, however it is often more of a performance. We are often ‘typecast’ by society and family as to what role we are designed to play. Gender roles and stereotypes often create the impression that men and women are on the opposite sides of an abyss that should not be crossed.
Bridging the gap between the different genders is important to establish and maintain equality, as well to create greater partnership between not only men and women but also the diverse nations, races, religions and ethnic groups worldwide. Alloway, N. (2002). Boys and Literacy Learning: Changing Perspectives. Sydney, New South Wales: Australian Early Childhood Association. Bandura, Albert. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall, 1977. Burgess, A. (1996). Changing Fatherhood. Fatherhood Reclaimed (p. 212). London: Mary Braid. Kohlberg, Lawrence. A Cognitive-Developmental Analysis of Children’s Sex Role Concepts and Attitudes. ” In Eleanor E. Maccoby ed. , The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1966. Martin, Carol L. , and Charles F. Halverson. “A Schematic Processing Model of Sex Typing and Stereotyping in Children. ” Child Development 52 (1981):1119-1134. Pekacz, J. T. (1999). The Salonnieres and the Philosophes in Old Regime France: The Authority of Aesthetic Judgment. Journal of the History of Ideas,, 60, 277 – 297. Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Random House.