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A gender role is a set of societal norms dictating the types of behaviors which are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their actual or perceived sex or sexuality. Gender roles are usually centered on conceptions of femininity and masculinity, although there are exceptions and variations. The specifics regarding these gendered expectations may vary substantially among cultures, while other characteristics may be common throughout a range of cultures. There is ongoing debate as to what extent gender roles and their variations are biologically determined, and to what extent they are socially constructed.

Various groups, most notably the feminist movement, have led efforts to change aspects of prevailing gender roles that they believe are oppressive or inaccurate.

The term gender role was first coined by John Money in 1955, during the course of his study of intersex individuals, to describe the manners in which these individuals expressed their status as a male or female in a situation where no clear biological assignment existed.


The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender roles as "socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women".[1] Debate continues as to what extent gender and its roles are socially constructed (i.e. non-biologically influenced), and to what extent "socially constructed" may be considered synonymous with "arbitrary" or "malleable".[2][3][4][5][6] Therefore, a concise authoritative definition of gender roles or gender itself is elusive.

Some systems of classification, unlike the WHO's, are non-binary or gender queer, allowing for more than two possible gender classifications.[7][8] Gender roles are culturally specific, and while most cultures distinguish only two (boy and girl or man and woman), others recognize more. Androgyny, for example, has been proposed as a third gender.[9] Other societies have claimed to see more than five genders,[10] and some non-Western societies have three genders – man, woman and third gender.[11] Some individuals (not necessarily being from such a culture) identify with no gender at all.[12]

It is important to note that many transgender people reject the idea that they are a separate third gender, and identify simply as men or women.[13] However, biological differences between (some) trans women and cisgender women have historically been treated as relevant in certain contexts, such as sport.[8]

Gender role - defined as referring in some sense to cultural expectations according to an understood gender classification - should not be confused with gender identity, the internal sense of one's own gender, which may or may not align with categories offered by societal norms. The point at which these internalized gender identities become externalized into a set of expectations is the genesis of a gender role.[14][15]

Gender roles are usually referenced in a pejorative sense, as an institution that restricts freedom of behavior and expression, or are used as a basis for discrimination.[Citation needed]

Because of the prevailing gender role of general subordination, women were not granted the right to vote in many parts of the world until the 19th or 20th centuries, some well into the 21st.[16] Women throughout the world, in myriad respects, do not enjoy full freedom and protection under the law (see Women's rights). Contrariwise because of the prevailing perception of men as primarily breadwinners, they are seldom afforded the benefit of paternity leave.[17]

However, for some individuals gender roles may provide a positive effect, and their absence may prove difficult: while gender roles may be used as deleterious gender stereotypes, they can offer a clear avenue to verify and structure socially accepted behavior. Additionally, holding the view of one's self as fulfilling prescribed gender roles has been correlated with increased self-esteem.[18] The flip side of this is that not holding that view can lead to lower self-esteem. As Kelsey Beckham, who self-identifies as gender neutral, phrased it:

"It just makes me feel separated from society, when we have to keep talking about it. It’s like — am I even human?...I mean, I know I’m not normal."[19]

In Western Society[]

Western society recognizes only two binary gender roles: women and men.

Traditionally men  have been given the responsibility of providing for his family or society, whether in terms of money, food, housing, protection, or any number of other things.

Traditionally  women throughout history have been given the responsibility of motherhood. Giving birth, raising children, and in some time periods and societies, home-schooling them.


Main article: Transgender

As long as a person's perceived physiological sex is consistent with that person's gender identity, the gender role of a person is so much a matter of course in a stable society that people rarely even think of it. Only in cases where, for whatever reason, an individual has a gender role that is inconsistent with his or her sex will the matter draw attention. There are cases wherein the external genitalia of a person, that person's perceived gender identity, and/or that person's gender role are not consistent.[Citation needed] Some people mix gender roles to form a personally comfortable androgynous combination or violate the scheme of gender roles completely, regardless of their physiological sex. People who are transsexual are born and assigned one sex, are brought up in the corresponding gender, but have a gender identity of the opposite sex and seek to live in that gender and perform that gender role.[Citation needed]


Note that many people consider some or all of the following terms to have negative connotations.

  • A male adopting (or who is perceived as adopting) a female gender role might be described as effeminate, foppish, or sissy. Even more pejorative terms include mollycoddled, milksop, sop, mamma's boy, and namby-pamby.
  • A female adopting (or who is perceived as adopting) a male role might be described as butch, a dyke, a tomboy, or as an amazon (See amazon feminism). More pejorative terms include battleaxe.

See also[]


  1. What do we mean by "sex" and "gender"?. World Health Organization (2015). Archived from the original on 2015-08-18. Retrieved on 2015-08-18.
  2. The social construction of race. The Atlantic.
  3. Henry, S. (2009) Social construction of crime. In J. Miller (Ed.), 21st Century criminology: A reference handbook. (pp. 296-306). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  4. Hacking, I (1999) The social construction of what?. Harvard University Press.
  6. Francis, B. (2000) Is gender a social construct or a biological imperative? Family Futures : Issues in Research and Policy 7th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
  7. Federation of Gay Games - Gender in Sport.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sykes, Heather (2006). "Transsexual and Transgender Policies in Sport". Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal 15 (1). Retrieved 31 July 2016. 
  9. Error on call to Template:cite book: Parameter title must be specifiedEleanor Emmons, Maccoby (1966). The Development of Sex Differences pp. 25–55. Stanford University Press.
  10. Graham, Sharyn (2001), Sulawesi's fifth gender, Inside Indonesia, April–June 2001.
  11. Roscoe, Will (2000). Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan (June 17, 2000) ISBN 0-312-22479-6
    See also: Trumbach, Randolph (1994). London’s Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture. In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Gilbert Herdt, 111-36. New York: Zone (MIT). ISBN 978-0-942299-82-3
  12. "LGBTQ Needs Assessment" (PDF). Encompass Network. April 2013. pp. 52–53. Retrieved 06 March 2015.
  13. Lopez, German (18 April 2016). 9 questions about gender identity and being transgender you were too embarrassed to ask. Retrieved on 31 July 2016. “"Transitioning can be made much more difficult by persistent misconceptions, including the myth that trans people belong to a third gender."”
  14. Adler, P.; Kless, S.; Adler, P (1992). "Socialization to gender roles: Popularity among elementary school boys and girls". Sociology of education 65: 169–087. 
  15. Acker, J (1992). "From sex roles to gendered institutions". Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 21: 565–569. 
  16. "In Saudi Arabia, a Quiet Step Forward for Women". The Atlantic. Oct 26 2011
  17. James Poniewozik. "it's time for paternity leave for working fathers",, 10 June 2014. Retrieved on 14 June 2015. 
  18. Frome, P. & Eccles (1996) Gender roles identity and self-esteem. Poster presented at the biannual meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence.
  19. The Washington Post. When no gender fits: A quest to be seen as just a person.