Gender roles might feel outdated in the 21st Century, but they continue to be subtly reinforced through culture, media, and gender socialization to this day.
Traditional ideas about gender identity, fitting neatly into a male-female and masculine-feminine binary, have shaped society for many centuries.
From ideas that only men could be rulers of Kingdoms to historical notions of women’s roles in the home, today’s society’s gender stereotypes are fundamentally shaped by traditional societies’ limiting and often oppressive gender theories.
As you read through the examples in this article, keep a critical eye open for how these outdated ideas of gender might be perpetuated today, in film, songs, fashion, and even everyday conversations.
Gender Roles Examples
Traditional Gender Roles for Men
1. The Breadwinner Role
Historically, one of the traditional roles assigned to men was being the breadwinner of the family. In this role, they were expected to provide the primary source of income, working outside the home to support their families. This idea reinforced the concept that men should be strong, financially stable, and emotionally reserved. However, these assumptions are now outdated, as progressive ideas disavow the notion that the women are less capable of working for a living.
2. The Stoic Figure
Another traditional and now obsolete gender role is that of men as ‘stoic’ figures. This perspective disallowed men from openly expressing their emotions. Men were often expected to project strength and resilience, thus discouraging them from showing vulnerability or emotional distress. This concept has significantly contributed to the notion of toxic masculinity. However, contemporary understanding of emotional health recognizes the importance of emotional expression and mental health for all genders, effectively challenging this outdated stereotype.
3. The Protector Role
In the past, men were typically characterized as the protectors of their families and communities. They were expected to bravely confront dangers, defend their ‘territory’, and ensure the safety of their loved ones. This role reinforced the belief that men are inherently stronger and braver than women. Nowadays, however, this idea is seen as antiquated since both men and women are capable of providing safety and security, depending on their individual strengths and skills.
4. The Decision-Maker
The traditional gender role often cast men as the primary decision-makers within a household. They were presumed to be the ones responsible for major decisions regarding finances, family plans, and livelihoods. This role suggested that men are more rational and superior decision-makers, which is an outdated misconception. In modern times, the importance of joint decision-making in relationships is emphasized, recognizing women’s equally valuable insights and judgments.
5. The Fixer of Things
Historically, another gender role attributed to men was being the ‘handyman’. They were supposed to naturally excel in tasks like carpentry, automotive repair, and home maintenance. This stereotype restricted men to manual and technical tasks, inadvertently excluding women by implying that they were less competent in these areas. Now, it is widely accepted that proficiency in these tasks depends on individual interests and skills, not gender.
6. Dominance in Relationships
Classic gender roles often portrayed men as the dominant partner in relationships. Their assumed dominance manifested in controlling various aspects of the relationship, including decision-making and power dynamics. This stereotype fostered inequality, giving rise to a belief that men must inherently possess more power in relationships. Today, society places a strong emphasis on equality in relationships, deemphasizing traditional gender-based power dynamics.
7. Emotional Resilience
Traditionally, men were often instructed to show emotional resilience, which involved suppressing emotional responses. Crying or showcasing any form of emotional vulnerability was portrayed as a sign of weakness restricted mainly to females. Today, these sentiments are rapidly receding as more and more people understand the importance of emotional expression for everyone, regardless of their gender.
In the past, men were also represented as largely career-oriented. This traditional gender role perpetuated the belief that the professional realm is primarily the domain of men, while women should focus on homemaking and raising a family. Today, this representation is largely outdated as women are visible and successful across various professional spaces, and men are more involved in household tasks and child-rearing.
9. Leadership Role
In many traditional societies, leadership was regarded as a characteristic exclusive to men. Whether in politics, business, or the community, men were generally chosen to lead, leaving women in mostly subordinate roles. This outdated belief was based on the erroneous assumption that men are inherently more competent leaders. In recent times, we recognize that leadership qualities do not depend on gender but on individual capability and skills.
10. Adventure and Risk-taking
Another traditional masculine role involved adventure and risk-taking actions. Men were usually portrayed as thrill-seekers, willing to take on dangerous tasks or careers—often leaving women to the safer, routine tasks. Presently, this role has been challenged with advancements in gender equality as women have proven themselves in various risky and adventurous fields, negating gender as a determinant of risk-taking behavior.
Additional Examples of Traditional Male Gender Roles:
- Men don’t cry.
- Men are breadwinners.
- Men are strong and tough.
- Men don’t show emotion.
- Men are protectors.
- Men should be handy and good with tools.
- Men should not be interested in fashion or makeup.
- Men are not nurturing.
- Men should be dominant in relationships.
- Men should not be interested in “domestic” tasks like cooking or cleaning.
- Men should be interested in sports.
- Men should not display vulnerability.
- Men are not good listeners.
- Men are not interested in or good at childcare.
- Men should be sexually aggressive.
- Men should not be interested in gossip or “chick flicks”.
- Men should not express affection towards other men.
- Men should be the head of the household.
- Men should be interested in cars and mechanics.
- Men should not ask for help.
- Men should not be interested in arts or dance.
- Men should be stoic.
- Men should not be concerned with personal appearance beyond basic grooming.
- Men should not show fear.
- Men should be decision-makers.
Go Deeper: Examples of Masculinity
Traditional Gender Roles for Women
1. The Caregiver Role
Conventionally, women were delegated the role of caregivers in the family unit. They were primarily responsible for bearing children, nurturing them, and taking care of the household duties. The stereotype conditioned society to believe that women are innately more nurturing and suited for caregiving. However, these stereotyped duties have been challenged today, as both men and women share caregiving responsibilities, proving that caregiving is not confined to one gender.
2. The Homemaker Role
Historically, women were also predominantly assigned the role of homemakers. The tasks associated with homemaking, such as cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the home, were considered their exclusive domain. This traditional belief perpetuated the image of women as domesticated beings and severely limited their pursuits outside the home. Presently, this notion is outdated as both women and men actively contribute to home maintenance and chores, reflecting a more balanced distribution of domestic responsibilities.
3. The Subservient Partner
Considered outdated now, women used to be seen as lesser equals in a relationship, often expected to be submissive to their male partners. They were purported to be less capable, both mentally and physically, thereby needing male companionship for completion. This misrepresentation fostered an unhealthy dynamic in relationships. Modern perspectives advocate an equal partnership wherein both individuals share responsibilities, rights, and voice their opinions.
4. The Emotional Support Role
Traditionally, women were often assigned the role of emotional support within family structures and relationships. They were envisaged as sensitive, empathetic, and nurturing individuals equipped to handle the emotional needs of their family members. This limited view placed undue emotional burden on women, while absolving men from expressing or dealing with emotions. Today, this stereotype is rejected as emotional capability and sensitivity extend beyond gender boundaries.
5. Appearance Conscious
In the past, women were often pressurized to prioritize their appearance, deemed an essential part of their identity. They were expected to conform to societal beauty standards, regularly engage in beauty rituals, and present impeccable appearances. This traditional role minimized the value of women to their appearance, undermining their other capabilities. Nowadays, this shallow view is constantly being challenged as beauty norms diversify, appreciating people for who they are and not merely for how they look.
6. The Nurturer
Women, according to age-old gender roles, were perceived as the primary nurturers of children. They were expected to cultivate moral, social, and cultural values in children, while men were typically absolved of these duties. This belief perpetuated the stereotype that women are inherently naturally adept at nurturing, while men are not. In contemporary society, this role is shared equally by both parents, recognizing that nurturing comes not from gender, but from the ability to care for and understand the needs of children.
7. The Peacekeeper Role
In bygone eras, women were perceived as the peacekeepers in households and social gatherings. They were expected to maintain harmony among family members and soothe any tensions or arguments. This traditional role imposed undue emotional labor on women while relieving men of such responsibilities. Today, however, we understand that emotional labor should be shared between both genders.
8. The Patient Listener
In the past, women were seen as patient listeners, often providing an empathetic ear to family members, friends, or partners. They were expected to contain their feelings and opinions to patiently listen and comfort others. This stereotype borrows heavily from the idea that women are often relegated to supportive roles and could promote emotional suppression in women. In modern times, the importance of equality in dialogue and emotional exchange in relationships is widely acknowledged.
9. The Multi-Tasker
Traditionally, women were often portrayed as adept multi-taskers, expected to juggle various responsibilities, from household chores to childcare, without any complaint. These expectations created an image of women as indefatigable workers shouldering multiple roles seamlessly. Today, this role is considered outdated, as it reinforces gender inequality. It’s understood that the ability to multitask is not gender-specific and societal expectations should reflect shared responsibilities between both genders.
10. Natural Teacher
In many past societies, women were seen as natural teachers, especially for young children. Regardless of their education or profession, they were expected to take responsibility for their children’s early education and moral guidance. This presupposition confined women to educational roles based solely on their gender. In today’s world, this stereotype is rebuffed as teaching is recognized as a skill, not a gender-dictated obligation.
Additional Examples of Traditional Female Gender Roles:
- Women are emotional and irrational.
- Women are caregivers and nurturers.
- Women should be primarily responsible for domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning.
- Women are not as physically strong as men.
- Women should be submissive and passive.
- Women are primarily valued for their appearance.
- Women should be interested in fashion and beauty.
- Women are not good at math or science.
- Women should be the primary caregivers for children.
- Women are more interested in relationships than careers.
- Women are not good at sports or are only interested in “feminine” sports.
- Women are more prone to gossip.
- Women are not as ambitious or driven as men.
- Women should be modest and demure.
- Women are not as sexually aggressive as men.
- Women should prioritize family over career.
- Women are more intuitive than logical.
- Women should not be too outspoken or assertive.
- Women are more interested in “chick flicks” and romance novels.
- Women are not good with tools or mechanics.
- Women are more sensitive and easily hurt.
- Women should aspire to be wives and mothers above all else.
- Women are more concerned with personal appearance.
- Women are not as capable in leadership roles.
- Women are more prone to be followers rather than leaders.
Go Deeper: Examples of Femininity
Gender roles are not innocuous. If we continue to perpetuate the idea that men can’t do things, women can’t do things, and so on, we will perpetuate gender bias and limit individual freedom and autonomy for everyone. But by continuing to talk about them, examine them, and look at how gender is socially constructed through media and culture, we can start to deconstruct them and highlight the absurdity of patriarchal worldviews that have been so pervasive for so much of human history.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]