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Gender Roles

Gender roles are societal expectations for what is considered to be appropriate behavior, attitudes, and activities of males and females. Many have argued that historically existing perceptions of what is “masculine” and “feminine” are the result of homophobia. Men and women who do not behave according to society’s expectations have often been presumed to be gay.

The same is true for women who choose to not behave according to societal expectations. For instance, women who prefer to wear clothing that is not considered feminine are often labeled as “tom boys” or lesbians.

Many of the labels imposed on those who do not conform to societal expectations are born out of stereotypes or assumptions associated with each of the genders. From the time individuals are born, those around them begin the socialization process associated with gender expectations including blue is for baby boys and pink is for baby girls. As they grow older, they are expected to engage in only those activities that are considered suitable to their gender. Boys may be encouraged to play football while girls are encouraged to be cheerleaders. Select the buttons below to read more about the stereotypes often associated with each gender.


Perspectives on Gender Stratification

There are four perspectives through which gender stratification may be viewed. Like race and class, the topic of race has been studied in great detail. Sociologists have looked at the topic of gender from the perspective of each of the major paradigms. In doing so, for the most part, they each have produced differing analyses of the topic.

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According to structural functionalists, differences in gender roles help to maintain societal cohesion and stability. For example, women are expected to remain in the home and not seek work outside their domestic responsibilities, which include child care, housekeeping, and cooking.

The relationship between females and males has generally been one of unequal power. For this reason, labor performed by men historically has been considered more valuable than the labor performed by women.

For example, a study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found a wage gap between men and women within the same occupations. Recently President Obama signed an executive order (the Lilly Ledbetter Law) that prohibits women from being paid less than men for performing the same job. The executive order is named after Lilly Ledbetter who discovered, after 20 years, that while she performed the same duties as the men who held a comparable position, she was being paid considerably less.

Like the feminist perspective, the conflict perspective holds that there has been an unequal distribution of power between men and women. Women have been historically excluded from academic thought.


Sources of Discrimination

Gender discrimination is found in various institutions as well as in the workplace. Most often, gender-based discrimination is takes place in occupational settings. Primarily, it takes place in those occupational settings that have been historically dominated by men. The term “glass ceiling” is often used in connection with the denial of opportunities associated with gender.

The glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that prevents the promotion or upward mobility of qualified individuals in places of employment due to their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. The glass ceiling exists in every major social institution in the U.S.


The United States is yet to elect a woman as president. As one-time presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in her 2008 concession speech, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” The former candidate continued, “and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

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Institutional Discrimination

Gender-based institutional discrimination often manifests in the educational and subsequent career opportunities pursued by women. Many times, the pursuance of such opportunities are done involuntarily. For instance, young girls are typically encouraged to enter fields that are seen as having a caregiving aspect such as teaching , nursing and social work, while men are steered toward occupations that are heavily based in science and math such as engineering and economics. As a result, men are paid more, since science and math fields typically garner greater pay.

Workplace Discrimination

In making hiring decisions, executives may assume that women are not committed to their jobs and will be distracted by family and home. Consequently, employers may be less likely to hire women who mention having children, or wanting to have children, during the course of an interview.

The “Mommy Track” is an unofficial corporate career track for women who want to divide their attention between work and family.

Despite the disparities, in 2004 more women were in the workplace compared to the number of women in the workplace in 1870. More women are returning to work after giving birth now compared to the situation 30 years ago.

Sexual harassment against women in the workplace has also been a historical problem. In the 1990’s, a massive scandal was uncovered within the U.S. Navy in which women sailors were being sexually assaulted by their male counterparts. Recently, the military has been noted for its widespread sexual against female Air Force Cadets.


Definition of Terms 


Race – a socially defined category based on real or perceived biological differences between groups of people (page 220)

Ethnicity – a socially defined category based on a common language, religion, nationality, history, or some other cultural factor (page 220)

Symbolic Ethnicity – an ethnic identity that is only relevant on specific occasions and does not significantly affect everyday life (page 221)

Situational Ethnicity – an ethnic identity that can be either displayed or concealed depending on its usefulness in a given situation (page 221)

Minority Group – social group that is systematically denied the same access to power and resources available to society’s dominant groups though they are not necessarily fewer in number than the dominant groups (page 223)

Racism – a set of beliefs about the claimed superiority of one racial or ethnic group; used to justify inequality and often rooted in the assumption that differences among groups are genetic (page 224)

Prejudice – an idea about the characteristics of a group that is applied to all members of that group and is unlikely to change regardless of the evidence against it (page 224)

Discrimination – unequal treatment of individuals based on their membership in a social group; usually motivated by prejudice (page 224)

Individual Discrimination – discrimination carried out by one person against another (page 224)

Institutional Discrimination – discrimination carried out systematically by institutions (political, economic, educational, and others) that affects all members of a group who come into contact with it (page 225)

White nationalism – the belief that the nation should be built around a white identity that is reflected in religion, politics, economics, and culture (page 226)

Privilege – unearned advantage accorded to members of dominant social groups (males, whites, heterosexuals, the physically able, etc.) (page 226)

Color-blind racism – an ideology that removes race as an explanation for any form of unequal treatment (page 226)

Race consciousness – an ideology that acknowledges race as a powerful social construct that shapes our individual and social experiences (page 227)

Microaggressions – everyday uses of subtle verbal and nonverbal communications that convey denigrating or dismissive messages to members of certain social groups (page 227)

Cultural appropriation – the adoption of cultural elements belonging to an oppressed group by members of the dominant group, without permission and often for the dominant group’s gain (page 227)

Reverse racism  – the claim by whites that they suffer discrimination based upon their race and, therefore, experience social disadvantages (page 229)




Sex – an individual’s membership in one of two categories—male or female—based on biological factors (page 253)

Primary sex characteristics – biological factors, such as chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs, that distinguish males from females (page 253)

Secondary sex characteristics – physical differences between males and females, including facial and body hair, musculature, and bone structure, that are unrelated to reproduction (page 253)

Intersex – a person whose chromosomes or sex characteristics are neither exclusively male nor exclusively female (page 253)

Gender – the physical, behavioral, and personality traits that a group considers normal for its male and female members (page 254)

Essentialists – those who believe gender roles have a genetic or biological origin and therefore cannot be changed (page 255)

Gender Binary – a system of classification with only two distinct and opposite gender categories (page 255)

Constructionists – those who believe that notions of gender are socially determined, such that a binary system is just one possibility among many (page 256)

Gender Identity – an individual’s self-definition or sense of gender (page 256)

Cisgender – term used when gender identity and/or expression aligns with the sex assigned at birth (page 256)

Transgender – term used when gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex assigned at birth (page 256)

Gender Expression – an individual’s behavioral manifestations of gender (page 256)

Gender Nonconforming – term used when gender identity and/or expression differs from societal expectations about gender roles (page 256)

Sexuality – the character or quality of being sexual (page 256)

Sexual Orientation or Identity – the inclination to feel sexual desire toward people of a particular gender (page 256)

Heterosexuality – sexual attraction toward members of the other gender (page 256)

Homosexuality – sexual attraction toward members of one’s own gender (page 256)

Bisexuality – sexual attraction toward members of both genders (page 256)

Asexuality – the lack of sexual attraction of any kind; no interest in or desire for sex (page 256)

Queer Theory – social theory about gender and sexual identity; emphasizes the importance of difference and rejects ideas of innate identities or restrictive categories (page 257)

LGTBTQ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (page 257)

Gender Role Socialization – the lifelong process of learning to be masculine or feminine, primarily through agents of socialization (page 257)

Heteronormativity – the belief that heterosexuality is and should be the norm (page 257)

Social Learning – the process of learning behaviors and meanings through social interaction (page 257)

Rape culture – a set of beliefs, norms, and values that normalizes sexual violence against women (page 258)

Patriarchy – literally meaning “rule of the father”; a male-dominated society (page 263)

Sexism – the belief that one sex, usually male, is superior to the other (page 263)

Misogyny – an ingrained prejudice against women; dislike, contempt, or hatred of women (page 263)

Homophobia – fear of or discrimination toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (page 263)

Transphobia – fear of or discrimination toward transgender or other gender-nonconforming people (page 263)

Heterosexism – belief in the superiority of heterosexuality and heterosexuals (page 263)

Cisgenderism – belief in the superiority of cisgender persons and identities (page 263)

Coming out – to openly declare one’s true identity to those who might not be aware of it; short for “coming out of the closet,” a phrase used to describe how gays and lesbians have felt compelled to keep their sexual orientation secret (page 263)

Microaggressions – everyday uses of subtle verbal and nonverbal communications that convey denigrating or dismissive messages to members of certain social groups (page 264)

Instrumental role – the position of the family member who provides material support; often an authority figure (page 264)

Expressive Role – the position of the family member who provides emotional support and nurturing (page 264)

Feminization of Poverty – the economic trend showing that women are more likely than men to live in poverty, caused in part by the gendered gap in wages, the higher proportion of single mothers compared to single fathers, and the increasing costs of child care (page 278)

Second Shift – the unpaid housework and child care often expected of women after they complete their day’s paid labor (page 271)

Feminism – belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes; also the social movements organized around that belief (page 276)

First Wave – the earliest period of feminist activism, from the mid-nineteenth century until American women won the right to vote in 1920 (page 276)

Suffrage Movement – the movement organized around gaining voting rights for women (page 277)

Second Wave – the period of feminist activism during the 1960s and 1970s, often associated with the issues of women’s equal access to employment and education (page 277)

Third Wave – the most recent period of feminist activism, focusing on issues of diversity, globalization, and the variety of identities women can possess (page 277)

Men’s Liberation – a movement that originated in the 1970s to discuss the challenges of masculinity (page 277)

Men’s rights movement – an offshoot of male liberation whose members believe that feminism promotes discrimination against men (page 277)

Pro-Feminist Men’s Movement – an offshoot of male liberation whose members support feminism and believe that sexism harms both men and women (page 277)

Same-sex marriage – federally recognized marriage between members of the same sex; made legal in the United States in 2015 (page 278)



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