Nurturing Sex and Gender: Western Culture, Gender Roles and Stereotypes


Sex refers to the grouping of humans into two categories: male and female. This grouping is based on biological differences between the two categories but is culturally elaborated in all societies.  If sex and gender are the mere result of biological differences between the sexes: why the need for elaboration? It is important here to again distinguish between sex and gender.

Sex refers to a person’s biological make-up as male or female. Typically, a person’s genotype (genetic makeup) and phenotype (observable traits) are used to determine a person’s sex.  While sex is the determination of whether a person is male or female which is viewed and accepted as ‘natural’, gender is the cultural understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman. Gender, takes many forms and is shaped by religious, political, legal, philosophical, linguistic, and other traditions. However, it can be argued that these social constructs or ‘norms’ of gender often have a biological component.

For example, historically in many cultures women are seen as the weaker sex both because they have less powerful social roles and because biologically, women tend to have less muscle mass and smaller bodies. However, depending on the culture a person finds themselves in they may express traits and roles, which are normally linked to those typical to the opposite sex. As a result, it is important to keep in mind that gender differences are a combination of social and biological forces; sometimes one or the other has a larger influence, but both play a role in dictating behavior. I will now investigate the cultural customs, which are seen as ‘natural’ and acceptable for the sexes and why.

Gendering children starts immediately after birth, when we wrap a baby in a pink blanket or a blue one. Babies have no idea what they’re even wearing and just need to be kept warm. In fact babies have no idea what their sex or gender is. It’s parents who buy into the binary, and the rest of us who are thoroughly uncomfortable when they don’t. Imagine arriving at a baby shower with a pink dress for a male baby, it’s not exactly the ‘norm’ now is it! This in itself provides evidence of how parents and society alike feel compelled to categorize and gender their child. This allows for the public to categorize and recognize the baby in the ‘correct’ sex and gender. It also helps the child own self-identification to one side or the other side of the gender binary. So what are a ‘normal’ gender, behavior and role for a particular sex? What conditioning factors are employed?

A baby is born knowing nothing, but is full of potential. The process by which an individual becomes a creature of society, a socialized human reflecting culturally defined roles and ‘norms’ is complex. Whilst biological factors help determine the appropriate gender for a particular sex, nurturing factors such as certain colours, cultural customs and expectations are placed heavily on the infant at a very early age by its parents and society. This rearing and conditioning inevitably influences the child’s gender. For a little girl she will be assigned the following: pink, baking, cleaning, playing ‘house’, dolls, make-up, dancing, manners, politeness, gentleness, ‘all things sugar and spice’. For little boys they will be assigned: blue, guns, soldiers, trucks, cars, puzzles, sports, outdoors, mud, rough and readiness. These differences and differences in rearing depending on the sex of the child I will explore in more detail later but even in short it’s evident that societies and parents even of very young males and females have certain expectations and norms they want them to abide by. It’s expected for females to be feminine and males to be masculine, whilst this has a biological basis, the roles, toys and norms we set for each sex category further our expectations and understanding of acceptable genders and behaviors for the sexes as well as our own.

Gender Socialization

Gender socialization is the process by which males and females are informed about the norms and behaviors associated with their sex. Through the socialization process humans come to more or less completely internalize the roles, norms and values appropriate to the culture and subculture within which they function. Cultural definitions also become personal definitions of normality and worthiness. In Western contexts, gender socialization operates as a binary, or a concept that is exclusively comprised of two parts. In other words, individuals are socialized into conceiving of their gender as either masculine (male) or feminine (female). Identities are therefore normatively constructed along this single parameter.

Gender Roles


Gender roles refer to the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex. Our culture recognizes two basic gender roles: masculine (having the qualities attributed to males) and feminine (having the qualities attributed to females). People who step out of their socially assigned gender roles are sometimes referred to as transgender. Other cultures have three or more gender roles.

In Western culture, females are expected to be the caregivers, soft, weak, which are considered feminine attributes and males’ are expected to be the breadwinners, strong and powerful, which are seen as masculine traits. These are the socially and culturally accepted ‘norms’ the two sexes. From a biological stance, these ‘norms’ could be seen as the result of the somewhat universal physical differences between the sexes and the differences within our functions, desires and biological tendencies.

Females are physically smaller and weaker than males as a result, they are perceived by males as vulnerable creatures who need to be protected and cared for, which is sexually appealing. Males are bigger and physically stronger which is necessary for them to function as efficient providers and protectors and also attracts a sexual mate. As a result, it is seen and accepted that femininity is to be petite, maternal and gentle and being big, powerful and strong as masculine. Females will rear the children and support her male partner. Males will work, provide and protect his partner and offspring. As outlined earlier, from infancy we will be conditioned to live out these expected and socially accepted gender roles and behaviours. Girls will be given baby dolls to play with to enhance maternal and caring feelings, almost a taster of what her future has in store whilst boys will be given guns and play sports which will emphasize feelings of power, aggressiveness and leadership all idealized and accepted masculine traits. These early gender preparations influence our understanding of what is expected of our sex, what is a ‘normal’ gender identity for a particular sex and how to behave as a male or a female.

Gender roles and gender socialization can lead to generalizing the sexes, thus gender-stereotypic ideas are formed. Gender-stereotypic studies have shown that the majority of beliefs that people hold about the differences in women and men can be summarized in terms of two dimensions, the communal and the agentic, both of which define positive personal attributes.

“The communal dimension of gender-stereotypic beliefs primarily describes a concern with the welfare of other people, and women are believed to manifest this concern more strongly than men. Examination of the attributes that comprise this dimension in various studies (e.g. Bem, 1974; Broverman et al., 1972; Spence and Helmreich, 1978) shows that caring and nurturant qualities predominate”. (Eagly, p.16)

In other words, women manifest more affectionate qualities, they are helpful, submissive, soft and sympathetic. Additional traits such as an awareness of others feelings, emotional expressiveness and aspects of personal style such as gentleness and soft voice are also evident. According to Bakan, communal qualities are manifested by selflessness, a concern for others and a desire to be with others. All of which are stereotypically expressed by females and are therefore considered feminine and appropriate to females. Females both from a biological and social view are expected to rear children be supportive, caring and loving and so if a female expresses these communal qualities this is ‘normal’.

“The agentic dimension of gender-stereotypic beliefs about personal qualities describes primarily an assertive and controlling tendency, and men are believed to manifest this tendency more strongly than women. Examination of the attributes that comprise this dimension in various studies (e.g. Bem, 1974; Broverman et al., 1972; Spence and Helmreich, 1978) shows that the majority of attributes pertain to self-assertion”. (Eagly, p.16)

In other words, men tend to be more aggressive, ambitious, and forceful and dominant and independent from other people as well as expressing self-reliance and independence. Additional traits pertain to personal efficacy such as feelings of superiority and confidence and aspects of personal style such as directness and resilience. According to Bakan’s definition, agency are qualities manifested by self-assertion, self-expansion and the urge to master. Males from both a biological and social view are expected to lead, provide and be strong so if the male expresses these agentic qualities this is considered ‘normal’.

Whilst all these behavioral differences between the sexes, have, as I’ve already outlined, a biological basis and origin, cultural and societal expectancies have shaped and maintained these, thus forming gender stereotypes, which inform our ideas of gender ‘norms’ and roles. Femininity is linked to communal qualities and masculinity is linked to agency qualities. Throughout history and even in modern day males are more dominant and females more submissive and nurturing. Although, its origins may appear biological recent changes in gender roles and relatively modern phenomenon such as female bodybuilding and transsexuals present that certain attributes cannot be exclusive to a particular sex, they are just more common to a particular sex.  But why do people conform to these stereotypes?

Gender Stereotypes

People have expectations about female and male characteristics, which is found within ideas surrounding gender stereotypes whereby many differences between males and females are perceived. Yet these expectations are more than beliefs about the attributes of women and men: many of these expectations are ‘normal’ in the sense that they describe qualities or behavioral tendencies, which are desirable for each sex. Again this has a ‘natural’ origin, linking to our supposed innate biological tendencies, which derive from the earliest days of human development. Females were weak, small and vulnerable, males were big, strong and protective, aesthetics, which are evident today. Both sexes find these attributes sexually arousing in their opposing sex as described by Desmond Morris, which ensures sexual intercourse and offspring. People expect sexes to behave differently as this is considered ‘normal’ and desirable to the opposite sex.

Girls and boys are expected to act in certain ways, and these ways are socialized from birth by most parents and society. For example, girls are expected to be clean and quiet, while boys are messy and loud. As children get older, gender stereotypes become more apparent in styles of dress and choice of leisure activities. “Young people learn to conform to gender role expectancies that females be communal and males agentic, they manifest behaviors that are presumed to help them become successful occupants of the roles that are typical among adult members of their sex” (Eagly, p.21) As a consequence to stereotypical roles and behaviors being sufficiently taken on by males and females, division of labor, patriarchy and gender inequality still exist within modern culture. People who are considered outside the ‘norms’ are also treated and seen differently as a result of these stereotypes and sex roles.

Same-age peers for being ‘different’ usually tease boys and girls who do not conform to gender stereotypes. This can lead to negative effects, such as lower self-esteem and an unnatural compulsion to behave gender-stereotypically. From this it could be suggested that conforming to gender roles, which are stereotypical to a particular biological sex links to our human desire to be accepted, successful and ‘good’. Humans want to live up to expectations to make people ‘proud’ as well as to feel a sense of security in which they are. Individuals often hold gender stereotypic expectancies about their own behaviour as well as others behaviour. They also describe themselves in gender-stereotypical terms. The idea that people may apply stereotypic expectations to themselves suggests that peoples own attitudes and values have the stamp of societal gender roles on them also. (Eagly, p.18-19). As a result, gender stereotyping, gender roles and gender, as a whole is neither the result of biology or nurture, instead it is a combination of cultural, biological and personal concepts of what gender really is.


Eagly, A H. (1987). Sex Differences: In Social Behaviour: a Social Role Interpretation. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. p1-

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