The Social Construction Of Gender And Gender Roles
Exploring How Society Defines Human Behaviour and Aspirations
Adhering to the ascribed roles of society, humanity tends to protect, nurture, and propagate gender-based identities, believing them to be inherent and biological in their nature. However, all it takes is for one to raise the question, the question of how society ascribes certain roles to an individual. The answer to such a question unravels layers of the discursive phenomenon that collectively contribute towards the construction of such specific roles. Exploration of the social construction of gender not only enables us to decipher the founding constructs of society and the roles of their members, but it also allows us to deeply comprehend how such phenomenon influences a person’s behaviour, thinking patterns, or at large freedom of a person.
One can exemplify the outliers in a society’s natural assumptions about the roles of its members by taking an example of transgenders, as on a few occasions I have found myself in deep thought as to whether a transgender person was rebellious to society, or they were simply living as though their hearts desired.
Sex, being a biological distinction between a male and female in humans, as in the case of many other animals and plants as well, is inherently different from the idea of gender.
Where sex refers to a biological phenomenon backed by factual, objective evidence, the associated gender with a broader construct about interests, inclinations, behaviour or even the fundamental life choices is in essence different, as it finds its foundations, not in the form of some objective reality, but instead associated with the societal constructs and role ascription. The phenomenon of gender-based role ascription starts from the infant age, from the blue colour clothing for boys to the doll toys for girls, what we witness is a cyclic, self-perpetuating phenomenon of gender role ascription, which begs the question, what if that was the wrong way of thinking? Suppose we were all just brainwashed for there to be order amongst humans? Briefly, let’s imagine there was not a category of gender, and we were free to do as we will. I think some people would lose control over making sound decisions regarding whose role can do a better job. The lack of restraint over not having dominance over another can cause confusion. People then would have to accept equality in every aspect of life. Now ask yourself are we, as a society, ready for that? Can we change from traditions? When and how is this going to happen? To answer these questions a person must first understand what gender and social construction means in accordance with one another. Gender is a term used to categorize a person’s identity as female or male about social and cultural differences rather than biological terms. Social construction is the meaning placed on an object by society and adopted by the people of the society regarding how they deal, view, or feel about an object. At birth, I was born female and I identify as such but, how did I know I was female? Well, like the entire society and myself we have been taught the difference of gender based on genitalia assigned to us at birth. Females have vaginas and are given pink to wear with typical names such as Daisy, Kimberly, or Felicia. In contrast to males having a penis and given blue to wear with typical names like Matthew, Damian, or Christian. This is done to make identifying a baby easier. The topic of gender touches areas of culture, parenting, religion, science, psychology, and free will. Since each of these areas has a major impact on society’s outlook, changing the way they influence gender social construction can help in the fight for equality. Teaching gender to be recognized one way or the other gives people the opportunity to choose how they want to act, look, and be referred to. Society is obsessed with needing to categorize everyone and everything ultimately making the reformation of society problematic.
The Social Construction of Gender by Judith Lorber argues that gender is produced and reproduced by culture, influences, interactions, and societies need to keep traditions going. Lorber begins by explaining that gender has been done in everything and everywhere we, as people, inhabit (Lorber and Farrell). It is oblivious to us as if it were certain to happen or assumed beforehand. Traditions have taught us there is either male or female and anything else that is out of the ordinary is questionable. Some find themselves uncomfortable, confused and dislocated until they have placed a category on a person. Lorber gives us an example that gender construction starts with an assignment to a sex category based on what genitalia is assigned to us at birth and parents use that to identify the child. By the time, a child can understand what gender means they have been moulded to view these sexual organs as whether they are male and female, what they can do or not do, how they are treated by the opposite sex, and the expectations placed on gender norms. Lorber tells us the different expectations that have been placed on us as adults in the workplace, as mothers and fathers, through life experiences all of which produce different feelings, skills, consciousness, and relationship on being masculine or feminine. All of this constitutes the process of social constriction of gender, but Lorber brings the reader to the awareness of gender roles changing. Parents are switching roles, girls and boys are wearing unisex clothing, and women and men are working in the same workplaces doing the so-called gender societal roles. Of course, although change is happening there are some groups that would like traditions to remain with gender differences. Lorber says to explain why gender is done from birth we must not look at gender as a way a person experience gender but at gender as an institution. People use gender to organize their lives. All societies use gender and age to determine responsibilities along with two ways people are chosen for task one being talents, incentive, or achievements, and the other way is race, gender, and ethnicity. Lorber pushes that the process of gendering and its outcome are legalized by religion, law, science, and society’s values. Lorber backs her thesis by breaking down gender as a process, stratification, structure, and the paradox of human nature.
To fully understand Lorber’s argument on The Social Construction of Gender we must first understand what it means today and the important cultural influence that contributes to it. How can the reconstruction of gender norms/roles begin? I believe it begins at home. The cultures we are raised in, the traditions passed down to our children, rituals practised, the teaching of religion, and so on. No matter which culture you are raised in there are gender norms taught. The beliefs, norms, and values that circle the social construction of gender are systematically perpetuated in an unfelt manner through social institutions including religion, media, and education systems. It is through these social institutions that gender roles are constructed which further the development of identity and personality in a person.
One can take numerous sets of examples to visualize how the process of the social construction of gender takes place, such as the fact that females in the society are, from the very beginning of their childhood taught to be nurturing, caring, and compassionate. While at the same time, the male children are expected/ motivated to be competitive, hardworking, and assertive in their character. Male children are also elaborately encouraged to actively suppress their emotions especially the emotions of tenderness and weakness (Ganesh and Phookan). The meaning of gender is in essence a socially constructed phenomenon, and with the changing social and cultural context, the meaning ascribed to gender is also changed. It has been seen that people of a particular sex are expected to behave in a certain manner, which meets the expectations that are associated with their gender, which is because of the societies being constructed in terms of gender, which is where the ascription of the responsibilities and roles based on gender begin (Strebel et al.).
Another important contributing factor towards gender construction is the prevalent culture of the society, which classifies and ascribes people into different categories based on personality traits and abilities. It tells us that gender, and gender-based role ascription is a structural aspect of the society which permeates all kinds of interactions between and among men and women in professional, informal, or formal environments. Gender doesn’t essentially exhibit the sex of a person as a woman or man, in a larger aspect exhibits the socially learned behaviours, ascribed expectations, and the prearranged distinction between the gender-based responsibilities associated with femininity and masculinity.
Gender, being a socially constructed phenomenon also exhibits some fundamental problems and challenges as well. While one can argue that gender tends to play a foundational role in societal development through role ascription, at the same time it carries the ability to discriminate and marginalized communities based on their sex as well. Gender, with the inherent capacity to assign roles, is much about power and often power is gendered, where it attributes privileged and powerful roles to the men, while there remains a large strength of male who finds themselves subordinated in the hierarchical system of power ascription, none the less it places them in the competitive footing against other men. It tells us how gender, through the construction of roles and responsibilities tends to assign specific roles to people based on their sex.
In conclusion, gender being a socially constructed phenomenon tends to adapt to the changing social and cultural instructions, whereas on the other hand sex remains an objective reality irrespective of the cultural settings. This is why, in the contemporary world we witness different gender-based roles across the globe based on the cultural and social premises, where a broader movement of feminism seeks to change the gender-based designation of roles and responsibilities, and particularly the gendered based distribution of power and attempts to deconstruct gender in the pursuit of equality.
Ganesh, Kamala and Jaya Phookan. “Block-3 Social Construction of Gender.” IGNOU, 2018.
Lorber, Judith and Susan A Farrell. The Social Construction of Gender. Sage Newbury Park, CA, 1991.
Strebel, Anna et al. “Social Constructions of Gender Roles, Gender-Based Violence and Hiv/Aids in Two Communities of the Western Cape, South Africa.” SAHARA-J: Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS, vol. 3, no. 3, 2006, pp. 516–528.