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Gender roles are something that are found in every culture. Roles may differ in each culture, but the idea is the same. Males and females are usually expected to play a specific role and make certain societal contributions based on their gender. Traditional gender roles typically involve men working outside of the home to support and protect the family, so they need to be aggressive, strong, and dominant. Women are expected to take care of the home and children, so they need to be sensitive, submissive, and nurturing. Men are often seen as the head of the household and have power and authority over both women and children. These roles have been embraced and used for centuries and continue to be used today. People who live outside these norms are ridiculed, insulted, and looked down on. However, more people are increasingly rejecting these roles and fighting for gender equality.
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In Sweden, the government has done its best to encourage gender equality between men and women and a balance between work and home life for all parents. In Chile, the government has recently made some major changes to support equality, but according to a study done by the United Nations Development Programme in 2010, 62% of people in Chile are still against gender equality and believe women still belong in the home (Lumen, 2019). In the United States, gender roles are being challenged and constantly changing. Women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly for decades to achieve equal rights and break the mold of traditional gender roles as they continue to fight for equality today. This paper will examine gender roles from four different sociological perspectives to hopefully explain why traditional gender roles have been so pervasive for so long.
The functionalist perspective looks at society on the macro-level and evaluates things based on their contribution to society as a whole. It looks at how each part of society is structured and how it contributes to the overall stability and success of society. According to sociologist Talcott Parsons “if an aspect of social life does not contribute to a society’s stability or survival—if it does not serve some identifiably useful function or promote value consensus among members of society—it will not be passed on from one generation to the next” (Schaefer, 2018:13).
Functionalist theorists would suggest that specified gender roles have continued to be such a significant part of many cultures because they have a successful function and they benefit society. They efficiently divide the labor force and help socialize and teach children how to fit in. Men focus on and provide the physical needs for their families while women focus on the emotional and intangible needs. Their roles complement and support each other and help maintain order. Gender roles also give children a sense of direction and identity and teach children how to live and behave within their society. Teaching gender roles from a young age allows men and women to fall into their perspective roles more easily as they get older and keeps society running smoothly. Many people criticize this theory for ignoring the suppression and discrimination of women both in and out of the home.
The conflict perspective tries to understand society based on the struggle over power and resources between groups. It focuses on how societal institutions may help one group maintain dominance over the other. Conflict theory understands gender roles to be a product of men trying to maintain dominance, which keeps women in the subordinate role. In ancient times, men gained power because of their physical strength. They were able to hunt and kill to provide for and protect their families so women relied on them for food and shelter. Even though most cultures have long since changed to no longer rely on the physical strength of men, the power imbalance has continued to remain.
Conflict between men and women has brought about great social change and caused many social movements like the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the more recent feminist movement. Women now have the right to vote and are accepted in the workplace. Even though women are just as capable of working and providing for their families, they are still treated as though they are lesser than men outside of the home. Men’s strengths are considered more valuable than women’s, so men are given better jobs and are paid more. Women are more likely to get jobs that seem more feminine like teaching or nursing. They are not respected in jobs that are seen as more masculine like engineering, policework, or construction. Conflict theorists would suggest that this is because men are still trying to hold on to their superiority and power and are threatened by women entering their domain.
The interactionist perspective understands a social phenomenon as something that arises from human interactions. People behave in certain ways because of how they interpret their interactions with other people. They believe symbols are an important part of communication and that humans establish a universal meaning for these symbols and use those symbols to interact. Because interactionism uses symbols to understand and explain behavior, it is also called symbolic interactionism. One popular interactionist method introduced by Erving Goffman is called the dramaturgical approach. This approach views people as performers and compares life to being on a stage. This approach explains that people want to be perceived in a certain way, so they display certain traits and hide others. They conform to the behaviors of others in order to fit in and be accepted.
This perspective would say that gender is a social construct and gender roles are an act or a performance. Gender is not something that someone is, rather it is something that they do. Gender roles exist because they are reinforced through everyday interactions and social expectations. Physical anatomy has become a symbol for specific sets of behaviors. Smaller and softer features, long hair, and curves have been assigned the symbolic meaning of femininity. Broader, sharper features and bodies with more muscles have been assigned the symbolic meaning of masculinity. Society wants people who look like men to be masculine, so men typically want to be perceived that way. Therefore, they continue to “do their gender” by performing masculine behaviors. Society teaches people that look like women that they should be feminine. If they want to be perceived as such, they need to perform feminine behaviors. Therefore, society expects people to behave in certain ways based on how they look.
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Social exchange theory works under a few assumptions. It proposes that people want to seek out rewards and avoid being punished, to maximize profits and minimize costs, and they are rational and will calculate the rewards and the cost before deciding how to behave. Based on these assumptions, social exchange theorists would say that gender roles exist because society rewards those who behave according to set social norms and punishes those that do not.
The pros of someone behaving according to their assigned gender role would be acceptance, support from their community, and a sense of belonging. The cons would be being rejected, ostracized, and ridiculed. People seek out relationships and social connections because relationships are an important part of their development and happiness. People want to be accepted by their community so they can from relationships and improve their wellbeing. They fear rejection and loneliness. Therefore, they choose the behavior that has the most reward and the least risk, which is to conform to gender norms.
What about people who reject gender norms, like people that are a part of the LGBTQ community? The pros and cons are different for them. The cons of conforming to social norms would be denying who they really are and living a life that brings them nothing but depression and pain. The only pro would be that they are accepted by mainstream society and maintain relationships with their current family and friends. Choosing to come out and be true to themselves has many more pros than cons. If they come out, they face the possibility of rejection from their friends and family as well as discrimination and ridicule from society. However, with the growing LGBTQ community, they can see that they are not alone. Although they may have to start a new life, they can build happier and healthier lives in a community that loves and accepts them. Even people outside of the LGBTQ community that simply reject traditional gender roles and the discrimination that comes with them can choose to live the lives they want and still be happy and accepted because more and more people are speaking up and fighting for change. Social exchange theory does explain why gender roles have existed for so long, but it also explains why gender roles are continually being challenged and changed. As pros and cons change, so do behaviors.
If people were to study a social phenomenon such as gender roles from these sociological perspectives, I think they would have much better understanding of why these kinds of behaviors exist and be more open to altering their behaviors. Each perspective has some valid reasons that explain the existence and importance of certain behaviors and studying all the perspectives allows individuals to see the issue as a bigger picture and form a more complete understanding of their existence. The best perspective to study gender roles is the conflict perspective. It contains the best explanation for where gender roles came from and why they continue to exist and cause contention. Power is a very influential and common motivator for certain behaviors and men have had power for so long that they feel threatened by women and the idea that they could be equal partners. It would wound their pride to be brought to the same level as women, who have been seen as inferior for so long. Men continue to try and control women and exact dominance over them which is why women have had to fight so long and hard to get to where they are today. However, I do believe that each perspective has something valuable to say about the existence of gender roles and each theory should be considered when trying to have a complete understanding of this social phenomenon.
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