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Explain cultural variations in gender roles

Matsumoto (1994) defines culture as a set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people and communicated from one generation to the next though cultural practices and language.

  • If gender roles were based on biology alone it would be natural to assume that gender roles are universal and based on evolution. For example, women have traditionally done most of the household work and spent more time on childcare than men, but does this indicate that housework and child caring is based on women’s biology?
  • If gender roles were based on culture it would be natural to assume that gender roles vary across cultures according to a specific culture’s beliefs and expectations with regard to men and women’s roles (gender role ideology). In most cultures, women have had the major responsibility for taking care of the children and house work.
  • Eagly’s (1987) social role theory suggests that gender stereotypes arise from the different roles occupied by males and females. Women and men are seen as best suited for the roles they occupy respectively and this gives rise to beliefs about how women and men behave and feel respectively. Some of these stereotypes may become cognitive schemas, which are resistant to change.
  • In modern societies, physical strength is no longer the only way to assure “bread winning”. Women and men are more likely to have the same jobs and share the responsibility for the family.

Goffman (1977) predicted that gender roles will shift as societies shift from a belief that gender roles are based on biological differences to a belief in general social equality.

Support for this could be research on new male gender roles in Western cultures:

  • Reinicke (2006) found that young fathers in Denmark find childcare important. Being a father is an important part of their identity and they want to be close to their children.
  • Engle and Breaux (1994) found that, if fathers participated in programs on parenting and child development, they became more involved with their children.

Mead (1935) compared gender roles in three New Guinean tribes.

She argued that masculine and feminine roles are not related to biology but gender role ideology. Cultural differences in gender roles are more likely to reflect cultural expectations than biology.

I would like to point out that societies that accept social inequality seem to accept not only class differences but also social differences between men and women. In societies where males control resources and dominate the political system, women are more likely to conform to the stereotypical gender role.

Gender equality may be the road to change in traditional stereotyped gender roles. The women’s movement for social equality started in individualistic societies and ideas of social equality of men and women have been adopted in most individualist societies.