Chicken and Egg: Role and Attribute

What is the relationship between culturally prescribed gender roles and culturally prescribed gender attributes?
Isn’t an attribute just a personality role anyways? 
It is somewhat of a chicken and egg question, but vital as men and women are now ‘free’ to DO whatever they want, but still not allowed to BE whoever they are.

11 thoughts on “Chicken and Egg: Role and Attribute

  1. Quester says:

    And are there really only two genders? If so, are they defined biologically, culturally, or by some combination or something else?

    • prairienymph says:

      Good point. Its hard to put a number on something that seems to be more a blended spectrum instead of separate concrete entities. I guess that part of the problem is that we try to put people into categories that are usefel but not entirely accurate. Would it be more accurate to say that there are as many representations of gender as there are people?

  2. Quester says:

    Less than that, I’d guess, but more than two. *grin*

    Yeah, labels are useful, and practically necessary. We just have to remember that they’re largely arbitrary.

  3. Jay says:

    Ever read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides? It goes straight to the arbitrary nature of labels.

    We’re accustomed to thinking in terms of two genders, but that need not be the case (nor is it. Bdelloids are exclusively female, and many bacteria have more than two effective genders).

    But, we tend to stick with what we know. At any rate, I’m not quite sure what you’re considering as gender attributes. Are you looking at something beyond the primary and secondary sexual characteristics that we commonly use to distinguish between males and females? If so, then I’d probably be inclined to say that beyond some very specific biological roles (father qua sperm donor and mother qua egg donor and incubator), there aren’t any intrinsic relationships between gender attributes and modern gender roles.

    Modern, by the way, is a relevant concept. I would venture to say that one reason that men became associated with hard, dangerous work is that pregnancy can restrict a woman from some activities that she’d be abundantly capable of doing otherwise. Women in modern society can largely control whether and when they become pregnant, so that consideration isn’t as strong as it was thousands of years ago.

    If you’re taking gender attributes to include what I would call cultural beauty norms – women should shave their legs, wear makeup, grow their hair long, and so forth – then I think it’s more complicated. People who more closely fit such norms may be more likely to, say, get jobs in fields that are traditionally male or female, than people who don’t, so there may be some correlation there.


    After all that, I still feel like I’ve missed some essential part of your question. Where did I go off the rails?

    • prairienymph says:

      I didn’t define attribute. What I meant was the social role that people fill, not their careers or beauty norms. For example, why is it considered masculine to be assertive and feminine to be passive? Why do we train our little girls to be nurturing to others but tell them it is selfish to stand up for themselves?

      When you name different personality traits: active, thoughtful, caring, excitable, calm, emotional, and so on, we often get a picture in our mind of gender. I see these stereotypes of personality influencing the stereotypes of visible roles (doctor, nurse) and was wondering if our society unconsciously trains boys and girls to act in certain ways and then pushes them into the vocational roles that suit the personality traits they feel pressured to conform to (speaking from personal experience).
      I don’t feel I’m explaining myself very well, so please tell me if more clarification would be helpful.

  4. Jay says:

    No, I think I get where you’re going with this, and I think you’re probably correct that to some extent social conditioning tends to steer boys and girls into certain tracks.

    But – and this is where things get muddled – it’s not a settled question whether the personality traits you’ve mentioned are social constructs or consequences of subtle biological differences between males and females. (If you haven’t read Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, I highly recommend it.) There are good arguments to be made that they are, in fact, at least partly biological. Personally, I think it’s plausible that they are, but that we as humans can use our intellect to overcome our instinct (though we don’t always), and therefore the issue functionally shifts back into a social one.

    Going back to your original question with the benefit of your additional elaboration, I think I would begin to answer it thus:

    Some gender attributes may have biological origins (which predate anything that we could reasonably call modern gender roles), and some may be purely social constructs which are taught (and may or may not predate modern gender roles). There are social constructs which reinforce and perpetuate those attributes, which consequently tend to steer people towards roles reflective of those attributes. However, those attributes aren’t immutable – for example men can learn to be nurturing, and women can learn to be assertive, so a reasonable follow-on question to ask is how do we (can we?) as a society decouple gender from attributes?

    (By the way, I’d be happy to pull my comments over onto my blog if you’d rather me not drag things down here. This wasn’t exactly a path I’d planned to go down in my gender roles posts, but it’s an interesting one. Your call.)

  5. For sure there is a biological basis to personality attributes, I’m not suggesting that it is purely socialization nor that it is a bad thing to socialize people in certain ways.
    It seems to me that people noticed that boys and girls tended to certain paths on their own. My daughter loves playing with dolls. (She also loves playing with cars. I liked playing with horses so her playing with dolls and cars aren’t my influence). People, children included, then labelled certain activities and personality attributes according to gender, and then push themselves and others to fit into the groups. This is what I have a problem with.
    There are some avid gardners in our neighbourhood. I knkow three who are are women and three men. The men downplay their enjoyment and skill of gardening because they feel that being nurturing in that way isn’t masculine. That bothers me.
    My neighbour saying her girl is So Helpful in the kitchen but her boy is Too Boyish to learn to cut vegetables- what? She says that her boy is disorganized because he is male-? That bothers me.
    I have no problem with girls tending to be more whatever and boys whatever, but when people are pushed into something or discouraged from something because of cultural norms I think we all lose out.

  6. Jay says:

    but when people are pushed into something or discouraged from something because of cultural norms I think we all lose out.

    Yes! I’m tracking with you now. I can be quite dense sometimes, I’m told.

  7. That’s ok, you’re male 😛

    Sometimes what is clear in my head is harder to draw with words.

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