Table of Contents
Sexologist John Money coined the term gender role in 1955. “The term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism.” Elements of such a role include clothing, speech patterns, movement, occupations and other factors not limited to biological sex. Because social aspects of gender can normally be presumed to be the ones of interest in sociology and closely related disciplines, gender role is often abbreviated to gender in their literature, without leading to ambiguity in that context.
Most societies have only two distinct gender roles — male and female — and these correspond with biological sex. However, some societies explicitly incorporate people who adopt the gender role opposite to their biological sex, for example the Two-Spirited People in some indigenous American peoples. Other societies include well-developed roles that are explicitly considered more or less distinct from archetypal male and female roles in those societies. In the language of the sociology of gender they comprise a third gender, more or less distinct from biological sex (sometimes the basis for the role does include intersexuality or incorporates eunuchs). One such gender role is that adopted by the hijras of India and Pakistan . The Bugis people of Sulawesi, Indonesia have a tradition incorporating all of the features above. Joan Roughgarden argues that in some non-human animal species, there can also be said to be more than two genders, in that there might be multiple templates for behavior available to individual organisms with a given biological sex.
Consideration of the dynamics of societies like those above prompted debate over the extent to which differences in male and female gender roles are learned socially, or reflect biology. Social constructionists argued that gender roles are entirely arbitrary, and biological preferences and aptitudes are irrelevant. Contrary to social constructionism, essentialists argued that gender roles are entirely determined by biology, unmodified by social adaptations. Although these extreme views are common enough in the history of literature on the subject, both are now rare in the peer reviewed literature. Contemporary sociological reference to male and female gender roles typically uses masculinities and femininities in the plural rather than singular, suggesting diversity both within cultures as well as across them.
Feminism and Gender studies
The philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir applied existentialism to women’s experience of life: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” In context, this is a philosophical statement, however, it is true biologically — a girl must pass puberty to become a woman — and true sociologically — mature relating in social contexts is learned, not instinctive.
Within feminist theory, terminology for gender issues developed over the 1970s. In the 1974 edition of Masculine/Feminine or Human, the author uses “innate gender” and “learned sex roles”, but in the 1978 edition, the use of sex and gender is reversed. By 1980, most feminist writings had agreed on using gender only for socioculturally adapted traits.
In gender studies the term gender is used to refer to proposed social and cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities. In this context, gender explicitly excludes reference to biological differences, to focus on cultural differences. This emerged from a number of different areas: in sociology during the 1950s; from the theories of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan; and in the work of French psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Bracha L. Ettinger and American feminists such as Judith Butler . Those who followed Butler came to regard gender roles as a practice, sometimes referred to as “performative.”
Sociologists consider society to be constructed, and it follows that gender in our society is also constructed. We tend to easily equate sex and gender, and assume that knowing someone’s biological sex implies her or his gender. Hurst states that some people think sex will “automatically determine one’s gender demeanor and role (social) as well as one’s sexual orientation (sexual attractions and behavior).” However, gender is not produced at birth, as sexual organs are, and we have cultural origins and habits for dealing with gender. Michael Schwalbe believes that humans must be taught how to act appropriately in their designated gender in order to properly fill the role. The way we behave as masculine, feminine, or any combination reflects the highly detailed gender maps that we have laid out in our society. Given how ingrained and detailed these gender schemas are, it is hard to imagine that we create and reinforce them ourselves. However, Schwalbe comments that we “are the results of many people embracing and acting on similar ideas.”
To maintain these detailed gender schemas, humans present and typically display their gender as either masculine or feminine. They do this through everything from clothing and hairstyle to relationship and employment choices. Schwalbe believes that these distinctions are important, because everyone wants to identify and categorize people as soon as one sees them. One tends to seek to place people into distinct categories in order to know how one should feel about them.
Hurst comments that in a society where genders are so distinctly presented, there can often be severe consequences for breaking these cultural norms. Many of these consequences are rooted in [discrimination based on sexual orientation]. Gay and [Lesbian|lesbians] are often discriminated against in legal system. Hurst describes how this discrimination works against people for breaking gender norms, no matter what their Sexual orientation is. He says that “courts often confuse sex, gender, and sexual orientation, and confuse them in a way that results in denying the rights not only of gays and lesbians, but also of those who do not present themselves or act in a manner traditionally expected of their sex. (Hurst, p.141)” This prejudice plays out in our legal system when a man or woman is judged differently because he or she does not present the “correct” gender. How a person presents and displays his or her gender has consequences in everyday contexts but also in institutionalized aspects of our society.
A person’s sex as male or female has legal significance — sex is indicated on government documents, and laws provide differently for men and women. Many pension systems have different retirement ages for men or women. Marriage is usually only available to opposite-sex couples.
The question then arises as to what legally determines whether someone is male or female. In most cases this can appear obvious, but the matter is complicated for intersexual or transgender people. Different jurisdictions have adopted different answers to this question. Almost all countries permit changes of legal gender status in cases of intersexualism, when the gender assignment made at birth is determined upon further investigation to be biologically inaccurate — technically, however, this is not a change of status per se. Rather, it is recognition of a status which was deemed to exist, but unknown, from birth. Increasingly, jurisdictions also provide a procedure for changes of legal gender for Transgender people.
Gender assignment, when there are indications that genital sex might not be decisive in a particular case, is normally not defined by a single definition, but by a combination of conditions, including chromosomes and gonads. Thus, for example, in many jurisdictions a person with XY chromosomes but female gonads could be recognised as female at birth.
The ability to change legal gender for transgender people in particular has given rise to the phenomena in some jurisdictions of the same person having different genders for the purposes of different areas of the law. For example, in Australia prior to the Re Kevin decisions, transsexual people could be recognised as having the genders they identified with under many areas of the law, including social security law, but not for the law of marriage. Thus, for a period, it was possible for the same person to have two different genders under Australian law.
It is also possible in federal systems for the same person to have one gender under state law and a different gender under federal law (a state recognises gender transitions, but the federal government does not).
Gender and development
Gender, and particularly the role of women has become widely recognized as vitally important to international development. This results in an increased focus on gender-equality, ensuring participation, but includes an understanding of the different roles and expectation of the genders within the community.
As well as directly addressing inequality, attention to gender issues is regarded as important for the success of development programs, for all participants. For example, in microfinance it is common to target women. Besides the fact that women tend to be over-represented in the poorest segments of the population, they are also regarded as more reliable at repaying the loans. Also, it is claimed that women are more likely to use the money for the benefit of their families.
Some organizations working in developing countries and in the development field have incorporated advocacy and empowerment for women into their work. A notable example is Wangari Maathai’s environmental organization, the Green Belt Movement.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Gender Identity
- John Money, “Hermaphroditism, gender and precocity in hyperadrenocorticism: Psychologic findings’, Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital 96 (1955): 253–264.
- Gilbert Herdt (ed.), Third Sex Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, 1996.
- Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
- Nanda, Serena (1998). Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Wadsworth Publishing. [0-534-50903-7]
- Reddy, Gayatri (2005). With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. (Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture), University Of Chicago Press (July 1, 2005).
- Sharyn Graham, “Sulawesi’s Fifth Gender,” Inside Indonesia April-June, 2001.
- Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, University of California Press, 2004.
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949, as translated and reprinted 1989.”
- Chafetz, JS. Masculine/Feminine or Human? An Overview of the Sociology of Sex Roles. Itasca, Illinois: F. E. Peacock, 1974.
- Chafetz, JS. Masculine/Feminine or Human? An Overview of the Sociology of Sex Roles. Itasca, Illinois: F. E. Peacock, 1978.
- Stephanie Garrett, Gender, (1992), p. vii.
- Hurst, C. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. Sixth Edition. 2007. 131, 139-142
- Schwalbe, M. The Sociologically Examined Life: Pieces of the Conversation Third Edition. 2005. 22-23
- Chafetz, JS. Masculine/Feminine or Human? An Overview of the Sociology of Sex Roles. Itasca, Illinois: F. E. Peacock, 1974 (1st ed.), 1978 (2nd ed.).
- Lepowsky, Maria. Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.