Minnesota Feminists Speak Out!

The unofficial blog of Minnesota NOW


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Gender Roles: What, Why, and How

This post was written by Colleen, a high school student and new Minnesota NOW volunteer.

Gender roles, defined as “a set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived sex,” can be found anywhere and everywhere. The concept of gender roles has been around for a loooooong time, beginning with anthropological data of cavemen/women sticking to their pre-ordained duties – hunting for men, housekeeping for women. Fast forward a bit to the Middle Ages when girls prepared to be married off to much older men knowing that the rest of their (most likely short) lives would be dedicated to giving birth, hopefully to sons. Then, of course, the lovely “cult of domesticity” ideal developed in the 1800s, followed by the push against women working outside of the home (because who, then, would cook and clean? M-men?! GASP!).

In today’s society, many people think that feminism is no longer necessary and that gender roles are either a) a thing of the past or b) something rather inconsequential. Gender roles are ubiquitous, widely accepted by many people, and can be detrimental. Gender roles promote heteronormativity (assuming everyone identifies as heterosexual or “straight”) and cisnormativity (assuming everyone identifies with their biologically-assigned sex). Promoting these ideas may seem inconsequential on the surface, but they strengthen institutionalized homogeneity that creates feelings of dissonance in those who identify outside of what is considered “normal.” This leads to an undermining of diversity in all areas that is costly for both the individual and society.

One example of gender roles in action happened just the other day. A few girls in my physics class were discussing Polly Pocket toys they played with in their youth and my teacher asked what those toys were, claiming ignorance because “I’m a boy- I don’t play with dolls.” I was shocked– here was a grown man, using the “I’m a boy” excuse.

Another more global example of gender roles can be seen walking down the toy aisle at your local big box store. The boys’ toys are generally constructed with materials in more masculine colors like blues, reds, and blacks, and showcase “tough” toys like construction trucks, swords, and war-simulating board games. The girls’ options are often pink, sparkly, and affiliated with either princesses or domestic tasks (i.e. play stoves/ovens, baby dolls with fake bottles and diaper kits, etc.). The gender roles reflected in kids’ toys are only the beginning, though – the packaging and advertising of products for adults often reflect stereotypical gender roles as well.

Gender roles are reflected in the common assumption that women will be the ones to quit their jobs upon having a child(ren), in Father’s Day commercials promoting grills and toolboxes, and in the gender-based labeling of myriads of products.  They’re reflected in decisions about who pays for dinner on a date and what boys and girls say they want to be when they grow up. For example, a study done by Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde at UW-Madison showed that when the participants were told that their sex wouldn’t be identified, women exhibited more aggression than men. This shows that gender roles are not innate or pre-programmed; they are taught and conditioned by society. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, girls loving to bake and plays with dolls boys playing with trucks are not bad things. Neither is a guy treating his date to dinner or a woman choosing to stay home with her kids.  What makes gender roles an issue is when they become rigid– which they so often do. It’s detrimental to stop a boy from making cookies with an Easy-Bake Oven “because he’s a boy” or to tell a girl not to play kickball with the boys because its “unladylike.” Women should of course stay at home with their children if that is what they want to do– but not because they feel pressured to do so. One of my best friends was raised by a stay-at-home dad while her mother is a high-level and very successful businesswoman; conversely, my mom chose to be a homemaker and has dedicated the past 30 years to raising four kids while my father worked. Both of these choices are valid– because they are choices and reflect personal fulfillment rather than compliance with societal-designated norms.

Gender roles confine and assume. The roles which should be promoted are those that promote the individual pursuit of happiness, not related to one’s gender/sexuality but to one’s personal passions and vocations. Define your own roles – let the boy wear pink shoes and the girl play football; promote people roles instead. Yay inclusivity! 🙂