Understanding gender roles has been a long-term issue since the 1980s before feminists brought the concern of equality to light. Many traditional societies were patriarchal, based on gender inequality which favored males over females. In fact, most of these ancient cultures still exist with evident discrimination between the genders and sexes. In the earlier days, all the authority and power in the economic, social, religious, educational, political, and domestic spheres had been reserved for men. The patriarchal structure which has material-based social relations enables men to appear superior to women. The social stratification in traditional society was made based on sex, thus, placing constraints on the female roles. With globalization, technology, and feminist movements across the world, gender roles have changed in society. However, it is still evident that men still dominate most spheres of development in society.
In the last four decades, there were clearly defined sex roles that ensured that men and women engaged in particular activities. Traditionally, men were prohibited from engaging in domestic roles such as child-rearing as such roles were exclusively meant for women (Jurėnienė, 2010). Men were considered to possess significant qualities including powerful courage, vigor, strength, self-confidence, and the ability to deal with the intrusion. Such qualities were reflected in the type of activities they engaged in; they were majorly responsible for “heavy” labor to provide for their families. According to Connell (2014), traditionally speaking, the men ensured the family was stable and had enough income for safety and provision of basic needs. Their roles were further accompanied by stereotyping; the men controlled relationships, and as a matter of fact, they were expected to make all family decisions. In addition, the males controlled the family labor force, productive resources, and capacity of reproduction.
Women, on the other hand, have always been considered homemakers with most of their roles domesticated. Unlike men who are considered aggressive and self-confident, women are often expected to be emotional, understanding, and accommodative. These qualities enable them to inhibit domestic behaviors including taking care of the children, cleaning the home, cooking, and nurturing the children into becoming responsible individuals (Jurėnienė, 2010). Gender roles have also traditionally emerged in physical appearance; while men are expected to be tall and masculine, women have always been expected to be graceful and thin. As such, traditionally, they have been expected to groom and dress in a particular manner, keeping long hair and wearing dresses that are seductive to their husbands (Connell, 2014). In the professional world, women who worked in the late 1960s were limited to secretary, teaching, or nursing roles. They were never welcomed in the “technical” professional programs, and as a result, only 6% represented the world doctors, while 3% and less than 1% represented lawyers and engineers respectively (Connell, 2014).
Gender roles began to take a shift with the emergence of the feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s which were focused on eradicating any form of discrimination and gender inequality. In 1964, the prohibition of gender inequality was added to the Civil Rights Act in the United States through the advocacy of Howard Smith, the Virginia Representative (Weeks, 2014). Furthermore, since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission failed to protect the rights of female workers, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was launched in 1966 which aided in fighting against female discrimination at the workplace (Weeks, 2014). The movements at the time ensured that gender equality was popularized both at the political and personal level. Changes were, thus, experienced in the relationships, birth control, sexuality, boy image and clothing, roles in marriage, housework, and childcare.
In contemporary society, changes in gender roles have been witnessed due to feminist movements. Unlike a patriarchal society where women were to stay at home, women currently occupy occupational and leadership positions. With rising economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, women have filled new job roles (Oakley, 2015). Currently, two-thirds of women in developed countries are in the workforce, resulting in the rising of the middle-class lifestyle since women can now support their husbands in taking care of family needs. Women in modern society are also occupying the educational sector. In almost every country, at least half of the women have the opportunity to go to school (Connell, 2014). Furthermore, at least a third of students in technical subjects like medicine, engineering, and chemistry are women, an indication of the transformed gender roles that encourage the participation of women in community development.
The witnessed transformation of gender roles has directly impacted relationships and family settings. A significant change witnessed in modern society is the women’s position as breadwinners. Since women are now taking career opportunities and job roles, they generate income which they use to raise the family (Weeks, 2014). However, some men have not taken this new role positively, believing that it is their role to provide for family needs.
While women in traditional society were expected to be submissive, the modern woman has the opportunity to make family and relationship decisions; this may pertain to financial decisions, education of the children, and even where the family is to live (Connell, 2014). Nonetheless, men are still involved in the process of decision-making as a sign of unity among the partners. Additionally, the modern woman has shifted from staying within the confines of traditional domestic roles to a more professional role. According to Oakley (2015), rather than staying at home and taking care of the children, women currently have other parties like nannies and house-helps who do cleaning and nurture the children. Women have also moved away from the traditional mode of dressing where they wore dresses and long skirts to more trendy shorts and jeans just like males. Reduced stereotypes have changed the limitations placed on personal development as women can express their personality through their looks.
Amidst the improvement in the roles of men and women, there is still a hindrance to gender equality as women are still perceived as inferior to men. This view is traced back to the era of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who claimed that human rationality was equal to masculinity in men while women were significant in terms of their emotions, bodies, and sexuality (Oakley, 2015). The notion has always resulted in the concept of superiority in which men are considered more intelligent than women. Aristotle’s association of women with their bodies is still relevant to date as it remains clear that a man is considered the redeemer, donor, and liberator in the relationship, thus, valuing the subjection of women. Superiority is more than evident in the workplace in modern society. The national Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in California, the income of women each week is 15% below that of men (Blau & Kahn, 2017). Women that are full-time workers earn a salary of $775 every week compared to $914 for men. The gender pay gap is, thus, a reflection of discrimination that is still persistent in society.
It is also still persistent in relationships and family settings that men do not show their emotions which are associated with weakness. Because of traditional masculinity stereotypes, men are still discouraged to be emotional and are rarely capable of discussing their feelings. This has been evident in the studies in the United States and the United Kingdom where there has been a relationship between depression and traditional masculinity among males in the universities (Connell, 2014). Men are inhibited from expressing their feelings due to fear of being perceived as weak by other males and females (Blau & Kahn, 2017). This has resulted in the development of depressions and anxiety among men, a situation that has threatened their self-image and esteem. The deprivation of emotional expression has caused many men to resort to violence to remain superior to women, an act that is condemned by contemporary society.
The change in gender roles has been beneficial to relationships especially when dealing with economic challenges. Unlike traditional times when men had the sole responsibility of taking care of the family, women help out with financial needs. In addition, women have become empowered and can become useful in the political, social, and economic spheres of development. Traditionally, men dominated over women, which resulted in domestic violence cases; however, with economic empowerment, most women are now independent and aware of their rights. The rising domination of women in the education and economic sectors has been made possible by movements that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Although there is still resistance within society to acknowledge women as equal to men, it is important to recognize the efforts women make in society.
Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (2017). The gender wage gap: Extent, trends, and explanations. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(3), 789-865.
Jurėnienė, V. (2010). Gender Roles in Lithuanian Society. Global Journal of Human-Social Science Research, 10(6).
Connell, R. W. (2014). Gender and power: Society, the person, and sexual politics. John Wiley & Sons.
Oakley, A. (2015). Sex, gender and society. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..
Weeks, J. (2014). Sex, politics and society: The regulations of sexuality since 1800. Routledge.