Gender differences exist in nearly every social phenomena. From the moment of birth, gender expectations influence how boys and girls are treated. In fact, gender expectations may begin before birth as parents and grandparents pick out pink or blue clothes and toys and decorate the baby’s room with stereotyped gender colors. Also, since the first day of a baby’s life, research shows that girls are handled more gently than boys. Girls are expected to be sweet and want to cuddle whereas boys are handled more roughly and are given greater independence.
Sociologists make a clear distinction between the terms sex and gender. Sex refers to one’s biological identity of being male or female while gender refers to the socially learned expectations and behaviors associated with being male or female. Sex is biologically assigned while gender is culturally learned.
Gender as Culturally Learned
The cultural origin of gender becomes especially apparent when we look at other cultures. In Western industrialized societies such as the United States, people tend to think of masculinity and femininity in dichotomous terms, with men and women distinctly different and opposites. Other cultures, however, challenge this assumption and have less distinct views of masculinity and femininity. For example, historically there was a category of people in the Navajo culture called berdaches, who were anatomically normal men but who were defined as a third gender considered to fall between male and female. Berdaches married other ordinary men (not Berdaches), although neither was considered homosexual, as they would be in today’s Western culture.
Looking at gender sociologically reveals the social and cultural dimensions of something that is often defined as biologically fixed. Gender is not biologically fixed at all, but rather is culturally learned and is something that can and often does change over time.
Nature Vs. Nurture In Gender Identity
There is a lot of debate about how much of a person’s gender identity, among other things, is due to their biological makeup (nature) and how much is due to their social surroundings and the way they are brought up (nurture). From a sociological perspective, biology alone does not determine gender identity, but rather it is a mixture of biology and socialization.
Gender socialization is the process by which men and women learn the expectations associated with their sex. Gender socialization affects all aspects of daily life and society, including one’s self-concept, social and political attitudes, and perceptions and relationships about other people. Family, peers, schooling, religious training, mass media, and popular culture are just a few of the agents through which gender socialization happens. It is reinforced whenever gender-linked behaviors receive approval or disapproval from these influences.
One result of gender socialization is the formation of gender identity, which is one’s definition of oneself as a man or woman. Gender identity shapes how we think about others and ourselves and also influences our behaviors. For example, gender differences exist in the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse, violent behavior, depression, and aggressive driving. Gender identity also has an especially strong effect on our feelings about our appearance and our body image, especially for females.
Major Sociological Theories of Gender
Each major sociological framework has its own views and theories regarding gender and why gender inequality exists. Feminist theorists also address issues in gender and address new issues that the major theoretical frameworks do not.
Functionalist theorists argue that men fill instrumental roles in society while women fill expressive roles, which works to the benefit of society. Further, it is our socialization into prescribed roles that is the driving force behind gender inequality. For example, these theorists see wage inequalities as the result of choices women make, which involve family roles that compete with their work roles.
Symbolic interactionists look at gender from the micro perspective and examine gender stratification on a day-to-day level. For example, men are more likely to interrupt women in conversations and their workspaces generally reflect greater power. These theorists also focus on how gender roles are internalized by males and females.
Conflict theorists view women as disadvantaged because of power inequalities between women and men that are built into the social structure. For example, from this viewpoint, wage inequalities that exist between men and women result from men’s historic power to devalue women’s work and benefit as a group from the services that women’s labor provides.
Feminist theory emerged out of the women’s movement and aims to understand the position of women in society for the sole purpose of improving their position in society. There are four major frameworks that have developed out of feminist theory: liberal feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, and multiracial feminism.
Liberal feminists argue that gender inequality results from past traditions that pose barriers to women’s advancement. It emphasizes individual rights and equal opportunity as the basis for social justice and reform. Socialist feminists, on the other hand, argue that the origin of women’s oppression lies with the system of capitalism. Because women are a cheap supply of labor, they are exploited by capitalism, which makes them less powerful both as women and as workers. Third, radical feminists see patriarchy as the main cause of women’s oppression and argue that women’s oppression lies in men’s control over women’s bodies. Finally, multiracial feminists examine the interactive influence of gender, race, and class, showing how together they shape the experiences of all women and men.
Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.