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Placed into a Prophecy: An Examination of the Social and Psychological Roots of Gender Roles

By: Sarah Ansari

Let’s conduct an experiment; I’m going to list some words, and I want you to tell me what gender you associate them with: 


Now, I’m going to tell you a secret: these words were random– just things in my immediate vicinity or which came to mind. At least in English, there are no nomanatives attached to give the words “gender”, yet there’s a large chance that you were able to classify them anyways.

The examples I chose are fairly neutral, but when gender is subconsciously attached to words with negative connotations, we open up room for bias. When heard often enough, these bits of language hold a unique power to create a base set of expectations (also referred to as heuristics in psychology). Heuristics bleed into toxicity when we allow them to shape our implicit attitudes towards particular demographics, and in turn, grant prejudice and discrimination the ability to fester. 

This isn’t to say that words alone are the source of the social division between genders. If anything, they are symptoms of a long-running conflict of millions of factors that are difficult to boil down to any single instigator. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the history of gender roles and their impacts, and this article seeks to examine them from a psychological/social perspective.

Here’s the part where I bring in a super smart philosopher to make me seem more qualified: Judith Butler. Perhaps the most succinct summary of her discussion of gender occurs on the first page of her essay, “Performativity and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology”. A quote from Simone de Beauvoir reads, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman”. In other words, gender is performative, rather than solely biological.

And this is where someone jumps in to tell me that there are distinct physiological differences between [cisgender] males and females– and there definitely are! However, biology explains little of the divide between genders, and has become more of an excuse for the existence of sexism. (If you’re interested in data regarding the correlation between biology and the wage gap, here’s a resource: xxx.) 

Gender, according to Butler, is a “constructed identity” (like an actor playing a role) where the audience consists of society. An explicit comparison of gender roles to a theatre performance indicates that a pre-existing script must exist to dictate how a “cast member” should act. If the audience is not pleased with the performance, the actor is subject to social ostracization. 

In the previously linked article about biology and the wage gap, a chart displays the damage gender roles can have on a child’s future. In India, areas with access to shows that depict women in positions of authority displayed a sharp decrease in automatic preference for a son rather than a daughter. While this study focuses more on parental attitude, the portrayals of gender can just as easily affect a child’s perceptions of themselves and their capabilities.

For example, several studies (summed up in this report) show that children tend to be aware of gender only on a base level, but are free from stereotypes. As they learn more about expectations assigned to the male/female label, they gravitate towards gender-assigned objects and activities (such as girls to dolls, boys to trucks) more than children who did not see as much exposure. 

Flash forward a few years, and the internalized beliefs about what one should like or be good at impacts not only perceptions about one’s own capabilities, but also future career paths. This ties into another psychological phenomenon, known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. When people are repeatedly told that they are less capable of accomplishing something, they subconsciously turn to destructive behaviours that validate their self-perception. A boy who is told that nursing is a woman’s career, for example, might begin to feel anxiety when placed into a nursing class, or otherwise not bother to study for it (believing that he’ll be terrible anyways), and as a result, do poorly, thus fulfilling his self-expectations. Suddenly, we have a system where a man feels he must meet the ideals of the “strong provider” who rarely expresses emotion, and a woman thinks that there’s something wrong with her if she doesn’t want children. 

Many solutions have been proposed to combat gender roles, such as the abolition of gender itself. However, simply erasing the concept casts aside years of struggles and history experienced by both men, women, and nonbinary people. Perhaps the best starting point to enable future generations to overcome the stigma of gender would be to let them choose. When young, don’t tell kids what they should play with, or what careers they can have. Don’t tell them that “boys will be boys” or that they need to “man up”. Let them express themselves early on, and expose them to strong, gender role-defying characters, so that when they grow up, they are more certain in their own identity and less likely to fall into psychological traps. Social norms and culture always have the ability to change, provided that people are aware of them and take active steps to shift them, rather than turning society into a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own right.