Gender Roles: Prescriptions & Prohibitions

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The roles that are defined for us by society are accompanied by corresponding traits that we are expected to espouse to appropriately fulfil these roles. Although today many women are active in the labour market, women are still expected to be the principal caretaker in the home – minding children and seeing to the completion of domestic tasks. Consequently socialization is carried out, consciously or not, with this role in mind. Accordingly, women are expected to to be nurturing, affectionate, gentle, sensitive and responsive to the needs of others. Conversely, stubbornness, promiscuity, arrogance, and being controlling are considered unbecoming of the stereotypical woman.

Despite the growing incidence of stay-at-home-dads, as well as the above-mentioned fact that in many couples both partners are employed, men are still overwhelmingly expected to fulfil the role of the primary provider. The characteristics seen as most adequate to achieve this are, amongst others, assertiveness, ambition and dominance. Characteristics prohibited to men include being emotional, weak, and yielding (Prentice & Carranza, 2002).

Violations of these gendered rules of behaviour can result in social and economic penalties, or backlash as referred to by the American social psychologist Laurie Rudman:

In their 2010 study, Moss-Racusin, Phelan and Rudman found that men that were modest – and thus in violation of the masculine prescriptions of ambition and dominance – were considered less likeable in comparison to modest women.

An earlier study by Rudman & Glick (1999) highlighted a catch-22 with which women in the workplace are faced. The results of their study showed that women seeking promotion and that espoused the traits considered characteristic of an ideal leader, i.e. control, dominance, and ambition, were considered unlikeable and “socially deficient”. They were however considered competent. In the same study, men that exhibited these traits were considered competent as well as likeable.

However, it is not only rejection of these stereotypes that can lead to negative consequences:

Men that strongly adhere to masculine expectations tend to delay seeking help for physical and/or psychological health issues. With regard to the former category of conditions, this can result in the late diagnoses of serious diseases such as prostate cancer, drastically reducing the individual’s chances of recovery.

Again in a work context, women that exhibit stereotypically feminine traits are considered likeable but less competent than their male or less feminine counterparts, and thus unsuitable for promotion to managerial positions. Women that describe themselves as more feminine also tend to experience higher levels of stress, which in turns leads to higher prevalence of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.