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Should Women Stick To Their Gender Roles?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Sunday May 03, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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The "non-sexist" answer would be "of course not, you sexist moron," but I am not here to offer politically correct answers; I am here to offer scientifically correct ones. The actual answer is more complex than a yes or no answer, and not at all sexist since it considers both genders equally. So before you get offended with the idea that sticking to traditional and even stereotypical gender roles can possibly result in a more satisfying marriage, domestic partnership, or intimate relationship, read on.

About Gender Roles

Gender roles are defined partly by biology, culture, and society, with each role comprising a varied mixture of each influence. For example, while "the woman does the breastfeeding" is 100% biologically influenced, "the woman stays home with the children" is much more culturally influenced. The cultural and societal norms are generally a result of the biological influences, but this is a very slippery slope. The biological fact that men, as a group, are larger and physically stronger than women, as a group, serves as a catalyst for cultural gender roles such as "the men are the providers," since historically, "providing" was almost always associated with the need for physical strength. These cultural roles trickle down to the societal level where more specific norms are formed that unjustifiably pigeonhole each gender such as, "the men are the ones who run the companies." In this way, gender roles are both descriptive and prescriptive. That is, they are a result of what we observe as well as what roles we think people should play.

The Happy Grandparents

Rarely does a discussion of gender roles take place without someone mentioning how their grandparents, who adhere to strict 1950s gender roles, have been happily married for 60+ years. In previous generations, women were far less equal to men and as a result, faced more pressure to conform to the gender norms if they were to have a chance at some level of happiness. Undoubtedly there were (and still are) couples who play traditional gender roles and have experienced authentic well-being, but we cannot use such anecdotes as the basis for a prescribed norm across the population. In other words, just because Nanna and Grampy might have been happy as a real life version of Ward and June Cleaver, certainly doesn't mean that everyone will if they, too, fall in line with the traditional gender roles. Our grandparents' lived in a very different social environment that we might be tempted to bring back. However, due to the cognitive bias known as rosy retrospection, we are likely to idealize the past. We are also likely to forget how oppressive yesterday's social environment was by making it extremely difficult for women to pursue happiness and harmful to society by ignoring the potential contributions of 50% of the population—especially those of us who never experienced such oppression directly. The happiness of our grandparents' came with a significant personal and social cost, and that we cannot forget.

Why Gender Roles Should Not Be Prescriptive

Each of us is different, no matter what our gender. We all have different levels of ambition, goals, and desires. This means that in any given couple, both partners can have high levels of ambition, low levels, or one partner can be highly ambitious and the other not at all ambitious—regardless of gender. It could be argued that the societal norms of earlier generations had a significant effect on female ambition and goals. For example, women were both encouraged and expected to be stay-at-home moms, where men were both encouraged and expected to have a career. While this kind of "encouragement" might be a solution to get couples to play complementary gender roles, there are many women and men who strongly object to these roles. Research in the area of well-being supports the idea that the roles we play should be based on our ambitions, goals, and desires, not on our genders. If an overall pattern emerges based on these personal preferences for roles, and a correlation is found with gender, then so be it. Describing these patterns as "gender roles" is very different from prescribing the gender roles as a way to reduce conflict between partners at the expense of oppression of an entire gender.

Intimate relationships work best when each partner in the relationship is playing a role consistent with his or her ambition, goals, and desires, that also happen to be complimentary. The less complimentary the roles, the more compromises need to be made, which generally means more strain on the relationship. Adopting the rule "the one with the penis gets the final say" may work out well for the one with the penis (at least in heterosexual couples) but not for the other person, and ultimately not for the couple. Roles should be discussed prior to entering a relationship, as well as during the relationship, since ambition, goals, and desires frequently change throughout a person's life. If a relationship is authentically "better" where each partner is sticking to their traditional gender role, it is in spite of this fact, not because of it. The gender role only plays a moderating effect. It is the adherence to roles that are consistent with each partners' ambitions, goals, and desires that matters most.

Podcast Episode: Should Women Stick To Their Gender Roles?

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