“Act Like a Lady!" ... "Be a Man!”: Discussing the Impact of Gender Roles and Stereotypes

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

I’ll never get tired of telling you this, but gender roles are not biological traits; they are learned behaviors. Gender roles are a construct that identifies particular transactions which are understood to be appropriate based on your biological sex. These gender-based roles are put in place to maintain and protect a patriarchal social and economic order (Levant & Powell, 2017 / Chick et al, 2002). We are taught our gender roles from birth and come to understand early what is expected of us in order to be accepted by our family and society. Once children become aware of their sex identity (around the age of 2) ,preference for gendered play, gender-based toys, and friends starts to play a role in development (Levant & Powell, 2017). It is argued that the gendered preference comes from reinforced behaviors of the caregiver. Studies show that interactions that affect gender socialization and gender-role development occur frequently in a caregiving setting (Chick et al, 2002). For the remainder of our lives, we are taught that masculinity equals dominance and aggression, and femininity equals submissiveness and nurturance (Levant & Powell, 2017 / Biernat, 2018) and our lives come with tangible rewards for conforming to sex-typed and socially accepted gender roles as well as negative consequences for failure to confirm to these roles (Levant & Powell, 2017)

Gender Role Strain / Stereotypes in Women

When we cannot conform to the socially desired gender roles, we experience Gender Role Strain. I know an awful lot about this, as I’ve suffered from gender role strain for most of my adult life. My socially acceptable role was to be a quiet, submissive, wife & mother. I tried to fit in this assigned role for well over a decade, but found myself completely miserable. I figured I was doing it wrong; if everyone else lived like this and was happy, why wasn’t I? When I was involved in more masculine roles (military, corporate career, higher education) I found myself most happy. Women receive pressure to conform to gendered roles not only from home, educational, and work roles, but from media and advertisements as well. Recently, a high school teacher recreated sexist ads to teach students about the dangers of gender role stereotypes (The Female Lead, 2021).

While you may not think higher education has been masculine assigned, you'd be wrong. I’ll take you back to the late 1800s where Harvard professor, Edward Clarke M.D. wrote in his book, Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, “There have been instances of females…graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married and were sterile…The system never does two things well at the same time. The menstruation and the brain cannot function in their best way at the same moment.” (Swaby, 2015). I'd say the 3 teenage boys I birthed and am raising have disproven Dr. Clarke’s theory.

In addition to education, women experience discrimination in the workplace role congruity theory. Many know this role strain/congruity as sexism, which is comprised of 2 components: hostility and benevolence (Biernat, 2018). Role congruity theory happens when women are regarded and evaluated as less competent than men in contexts perceived as masculine but more competent than men in the contexts perceived as feminine (Biernat, 2018). How many women have stories of office expectations of being nice and quiet, while their male counterparts are applauded for being rude and loud. I was actually once counseled by a male leader that I should, “look happier in meetings”. Who looks happy to be in a meeting? Women work harder at our jobs to be noticed and devote 2 more hours of domestic work and caregiving than men (Biernat, 2018).

All this work and women still make 70% to 90% less than men and studies show women receive positive subjective feedback at work yet fail to receive meaningful zero-sum outcomes such as salary and promotion. A study of Wall Street attorneys showed that women received more favorable comments, but men received more favorable ratings that mattered for promotion (Biernat, 2018). I've, as many women, have experienced the 'praise but no raise' cycle many time in my career by receiving high marks for performance, yet no raise or promotion as an outcome. Most common excuse being, “we simply don’t have the budget for a promotion right now.” I want to believe you, but it’s just that I’ve spent the past 16 years+ working for Fortune 500 companies.

Gender Role Strain / Stereotypes in Men

Gender roles and role strain is not just an issue that women face. Men face great pressure to be the strong, stoic, providers of the household, and the hardest workers in the office. The masculine ideology is that men should not be feminine, strive to be respected for successful achievement, never show weakness, seek adventure and accept violence if necessary (Levant & Powell, 2017). Men are taught vulnerability is weak and unacceptable. As a young boy, how many of you remember being told to “stop crying” or “shake it off” when you were hurt or sad.

As a mother to 3 boys, I had to come to some hard truths about my own parenting style. As I educated myself on the gender bias and role strain, I had to realize that I’m raising future men and am solely responsible to the messages they receive. Research shows that masculinity ideology differs across many factors to include region and race. African American males endorse masculinity ideology to a greater extent than do Latino Americans, who endorse the ideology to a greater extent than European Americans. By region, The Southern states uphold masculine ideologies greater than the Northern states (Levant & Powell, 2017).

Toxic masculinity is still very ramped and quite dangerous. The Representation Project (TRP) is a non-profit dedicated to ensuring all humans achieve their full potential, unencumbered by limiting gender norms. According to TRP, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for boys, boys are 2 times more likely to flunk or drop out of school, 2 times more likely to receive special education, and 4 times more likely to be expelled. 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn before age 18 and 21% of young men use pornography every day, while only 22 states require public schools to teach sexual education (TRP, 2015).

The Trevor Project was founded in 1998 after the creation of the Academy Award winning short film TREVOR, about a young boy who attempts suicide after struggling to fit within the gender norm and is bullied by his school mates and ignored by his parents (Trevor, 1998). The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25. I recently watched this 16-minute short film and it profoundly affected me. Not only because of the very serious and real storyline, but that the child actor who plays, Trevor, reminded me of one of my sons. As a mother, I couldn’t imagine watching my child suffer struggling through their gender roles and not providing them guidance and a soft place to land.

As parents, we always want what’s best for our children, but sometimes the social constructs we were taught are not the best avenue to take. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it works for your kid(s). And raising one child is not like raising another. We are human; we are unique.

I leave you with a call to action to challenge gender stereotypes by monitoring actions and language of yourself and others. Be a part of the change to ensure curriculum, skills, jobs, and culture are fair for all genders. Do the work to educate yourself better on the challenge gender stereotypes play in our daily lives and be a better ally.

Resources for Allyship:

· 10 Ways to Remove Gender Bias from Job Descriptions (Glassdoor)

· Resource Information Preventing Suicide (Trevor Project)

· The Representation Project

· The Gender Unicorn (TSER)


Biernat, M. (2018). Gender stereotyping, prejudice, and shifting standards. APA handbook of the psychology of women: History, theory, and battlegrounds., Vol. 1. (pp. 343–361). American Psychological Association.

Chick, K. A., Heilman-Houser, R. A., & Hunter, M. W. (2002). The impact of childcare on gender role development and gender stereotypes. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(3), 149-157.

Female Lead, The (2021). High School Teachers Recreates Sexist Ads to Teach Students a Lesson. The Female Lead. https://www.thefemalelead.com/post/high-school-teacher-recreates-sexist-ads-to-teach-students-a-lesson

Lecesne, J. (1998). Trevor Film. The Trevor Project. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/about/history-film/

Levant, R. F., & Powell, W. A. (2017). The gender role strain paradigm. In R. F. Levant & Y. J. Wong (Eds.), The psychology of men and masculinities. (pp. 15–43). American Psychological Association.

Representation Project, The (2015). The Boy Crisis in America. The Representation Project. http://therepresentationproject.org/film/the-mask-you-live-in-film/the-issue/mask-infographic-2/

Swaby, R. (2015). The Godmother of American Medicine. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/getting-educated-does-not-make-women-infertile-and-other-discoveries-made-in-the-1880s/389922/

117 views0 comments