ROLE OF GENDER IN FAMILY LIFE
Published April 21, 2020, 5:10 p.m. by Moderator
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) describes gender as social constructs that govern relationships between men and women. Gender is not determined based on female or male characteristics but it is a set of social codes created over many generations that members of a specific community adhere to. There is a common misconception that gender concerns only women’s rights and does not include men’s rights. Gender encompasses all the relationships that determine individual rights such as right to use and control of resources, division of labour, benefits, and requirements. Gender relationships affect many aspects of family life for example domestic security, family welfare, wealth distribution, and distribution of roles and responsibilities. Gender relations are social constructs that assign rights, responsibilities and identities to men and womenfolk (FAO, 2019).
Gender roles can thus be described as the social description of what is ‘male’ and what is ‘female’? Gender roles are not universal. They usually vary across cultures, communities, age groups, social classes and generations. Gender-specificity is the allocation of specific roles and responsibilities to women and men. Gender-specificity is typically determined by family size, level of income, prevailing economic and environmental conditions. The allocation of specific roles to men and women is usually necessitated by needs and requirements. But this resulted in the marginalization of specific groups in the community particularly women and children. Gender relationships and roles affect every facet of family life such as marriage, divorce, children rights and career choices (Giddens et.al, 2006).
In conservative communities, gender roles in individual families are usually defined by the father being the ‘head of the household’ and sole ‘breadwinner’. The father also acts as the final decision maker in family matters. The wife is the ‘primary care giver’ responsible for overseeing the welfare of the family. All her decisions are predicated on the wishes of the husband, needs, and requirements of the family. In liberal societies, males and females have overlapping gender roles with no clear boundaries. Gender roles are based on environmental and social conditions (Eriksen, 2004).
Gender identity is as a result of socialisation. Gender should not be confused with sex which is biological. Gender is a social construct that defines the behaviour of male and females. Gender is not spontaneous but is a continuous process of socialisation by society, family, media and peers. It determines family dynamics and personal choices such as career, marriage partners, reproduction, and access to education and wealth. Family is the principal agent in determining an individual’s identity. The family is tasked with inculcating the socially defined gender roles and responsibilities and any deviation from these norms is deemed as immoral and shameful to the family (Carsten, 2004). This is usually seen when parents encourage their sons to pursue their goals while discouraging their daughters from doing the same. Secondary socialisation occurs through influence of peers, media and authority figures. Majority of children aged between 4 and 18 who regularly attend school are socialised by the education curriculum (Crespi, 2004).
In the United Kingdom for instance gender roles have been shifting across generations impacting on family structures. There has been a marked increase in divorce rates and cohabitation and a decrease in marriage and fertility rates. According to the Office of National Statistics, cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the United Kingdom increasing from 1.5 million households to 3.3 million. This is despite cohabitation couples not being recognized as legally married in the United Kingdom. This is a social indicator of changing family structures (Horscroft, 2017)
A University of Cambridge article, ‘Gender and its effect on working life’ showed that there is a lack of consensus among women employees surveyed on relevance of gender with regard to career advancement at the University of Cambridge. There were women who regarded their gender as an integral part of career growth while there were those who did not regard gender as relevant. The article denotes a noticeable shift in the relevance spectrum as the women got older or started families with most noting that their gender played an increasing role in terms of their career growth (University of Cambridge, 2019). In this case, the choice to start families had negative career advancement prospects as their gender assigned roles was now seen as ‘primary care givers’ to their husbands and children and thus were less likely to be chosen for advancement compared to their male counterparts (Cheal, 2002).
For younger women employees, gender played little relevance as age discrimination masked the relevance of gender in career advancement but as they got older and had families, the prevalence of gender discrimination increased (University of Cambridge, 2019). In most cultures and societies, women have been specifically assigned the gender role of ‘primary care givers of the family’ and thus have to choose between family and career. On the other hand, men have been assigned the gender role of ‘bread winners’ which is one of the prevailing social construct that spurs gender discrimination. These social constructs are largely based on cultural or social stereotypes that deem women less capable than men (McCarthy-Ribbens and Edwards, 2011).
Conservative parents discourage their daughters from pursuing professions such as engineering, construction, and science oriented professions due to a misconception that girls are less smart compared to boys. Majority of the women who succeeded attributed their successes to having supportive parents who expected them to prosper and challenge stereotypes. Gender specificity is as a result of cultural traditions that are mostly outdated and unwarranted and reinforced through learning, rewards and punishments (University of Cambridge, 2019).
Marks et.al (2012), conducted a study to identify family patterns of gender role outlooks, origins and their contribution to domestic disputes. The final results showed that families differed in their patterns of parents' and children's gender role approaches. In most of the families surveyed, there was similarity across four members of a family; either moderately liberal or moderately conservative when matched to persons from other families. On the other hand, one cluster of families displayed dissimilar patterns in which both family members displayed more liberal outlooks despite both parents having conservative views about gender roles. This divergence is an indication of within-family variability which suggests that other social parameters or conditions have changed the social dynamics of the household (Marks et.al, 2012).
Comparative results show remarkable similarity and variance in gender roles’ outlooks between and within-family family patterns. In both the liberal and conservative clusters, there was variation between fathers and mothers attitudes towards gender roles. For example, fathers in the liberal clusters had more conservative views compared to their wives, while mothers in the conservative clusters had more conservative views compared to their husbands. However the results did not show dissimilarity between two siblings in terms of their attitudes towards assigned gender role. This similarity in gender roles outlooks can be attributed to social learning where the younger siblings model their gender role outlooks from observing their older siblings (Marks et.al, 2012).
In Mali, for instance, gender specificity has resulted in knowledge ‘niches’ where Malian women have more knowledge about rice varieties, seasons, diseases than Malian men. This is because in Malian society, rice is considered a ‘women’s’ crop’. Despite this, the funding allocations for rice cultivation are given to men who traditionally are the heads of the households despite the women having more intricate knowledge about rice cultivation. The men do not have to consult the women on any issues regarding the cultivation. This is an excellent example where overlapping gender roles and responsibilities lead to domestic conflict (FAO, 2019).
Gender roles are also shaped by level of income, geographical location, and single families. For instance in rural communities where men have migrated to urban areas to look for jobs, women have become the defacto heads of the households making most of the day to day decisions with the men retaining the power to decide on financial and land issues. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) article indicates that most of primary family related responsibilities are majorly performed by women even though men are still considered heads of households. Women are the major producers of food in Africa and Asia despite most not having the right to own land (FAO, 2019).
Gender roles and responsibilities are not cast in stone and are subject to change across generations. Gender varies across cultures, social classes, age groups and families. Most gender roles and responsibilities are predicated on assumptions and stereotypes which are not grounded in facts. This has led to gender discrimination that has negatively impacted women and children. Modern society reinforces individualism over community interests and individuals are more focused on self-actualization rather pursuant of community obligations leading to delayed or same-sex marriages that are considered an affront to socially constructed gender roles. Democratic principles give individuals a wider variety of choices and gender roles are being reconstructed especially in urban areas which are the more liberal than rural areas. Women have been accorded more rights such as marriage rights, right to inheritance and suffrage but that does not necessarily translate to equal rights.
Carsten, J., (2004). After kinship (Vol. 2). Cambridge University Press.
Cheal, D., (2002). Sociology of family life. New York: Palgrave.
Crespi, I., (2004). Socialization and gender roles within the family: A study on adolescents and their parents in Great Britain. MCFA Annals, 3, pp.1-8.
Eriksen, T.H., (2004). What is anthropology?. London: Pluto Press.
FAO. (2019). What is gender?. [online] Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/y5608e/y5608e01.htm [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Appelbaum, R.P. and Carr, D., (2006). Essentials of sociology. New York: Norton.
Horscroft, D. (2017). Families and Households - Office for National Statistics. [online] Ons.gov.uk. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2017 [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
Marks, J., Bun, L. C., & McHale, S. M. (2009). Family Patterns of Gender Role Attitudes. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3270818/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
McCarthy-Ribbens, J. and Edwards, R., (2011). Key concepts in family studies.
University of Cambridge. (2019). Chapter 3: Gender and its effect on working life. [online] Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/women-at-cambridge/chapters-and-themes/chapter-3-gender-and-its-effect-on-working-life [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].