The concept of gender as socially constructed highlights how gender is not a naturally occurring concept. While sex is biological, gender is a cultural classification that explains how people of certain sexes should behave.
In simple terms, this concept holds that gender is nurture not nature.
We learn from early on that boys should act masculine and girls should act feminine. Through childhood, boys are rewarded when they do masculine things and are presented with masculine role models in films, toys, and the men in their lives. These role models and rewards for masculine behaviors help them to develop a masculine disposition. The same goes for girls and femininity.
Definition of Social Construction of Gender
The social construction of gender is a term that highlights how the meanings we ascribe to genders are socially and culturally mediated.
Since the late 1980s, scholars in women’s, media, and cultural studies have highlighted the ways gender is constructed through language, media, and dominant cultural discourses.
One key scholar was Judith Butler, who in Gender Trouble (1991) separated the concepts of gender and sex. She argued that gender socialization is something that begins from the very moment we are born and continues throughout our whole lives.
In simples terms, Butler explains the core idea behind the social construction of gender:
“The meaning of the word ‘gender’ has evolved and differentiated from the word ‘sex’ to express the reality that women’s and men’s roles and status are socially constructed and subject to change.” (Butler, 2004, p. 182)
Note: Cognitive theorists propose an alternative model, called gender schema theory, that supports the notion that social interaction underpins gender construction, but explores it from a Piagetian cognitive perspective.
How is Gender Socially Constructed?
Most cultural scholars argue that social construction occurs through language and signs.
The words we choose and the narratives we construct about the world reinforce and reiterate social norms and ideals.
We can observe this in several ways:
- Language – The normalized ways of speaking about a topic socially constructs it, in a process called linguistic determinism. When people continually describe men in masculine terms (“men don’t cry”, “mow the lawn”, “carry your mother’s groceries for her”) and women in feminine terms (“ladies don’t speak like that!”), we learn about desirable and normal gendered behaviors. (see also: Sapir-Wharf hypothesis)
- Media – Dominant discourses in media socially construct reality as well. When Hollywood ad nauseum tells stories of strong and heroic men saving the sweet and helpless woman, audiences see what sorts of gendered identities are idealized. Men (biological sex) should act strong, heroic, and tough (gender).
- Discourse – Discourse is a term to describe the social narratives that are repeated over and over again until they are seen as natural. Normative gendered discourse is repeated everywhere we look (see also: discourse analysis).
We can also see evidence of social construction by looking at how the topic changes across social contexts, such as:
- Time – Across generations, definitions of masculinity and femininity change. The idea of the stay at home dad would have been laughable in the 1950s, but today is increasingly common. Similarly, the idea that a woman would be in a leadership position was out of the question once, but is increasingly normalized today.
- Culture – Social constructs also change across cultures. Some cultures see women as strong matriarchs, others see that they have no place to speak even in their own homes. These differences demonstrate differences in how gender is socially constructed (or, in this case, culturally constructed).
Social Construction of Gender Examples
1. Portrayal of Women in Hollywood
Women tend to be portrayed as damsels in distress in Hollywood films.
These messages normalize and idealize a certain construction of femininity. It encourages women to aspire toward the role models on the big screen, and encourages men to be attracted to that sort of woman.
The repetition of this narrative over time reinforces a dominant discourse of desirable femininity in society.
2. Portrayal of Men in Hollywood
While women were historically often framed as damsels in distress in Hollywood, men are still commonly framed as tough, strong, heroic figures.
These messages about the man who saves the day help to reinforce the idea that men are at the top of the social hierarchy and that the ideal man is the strong protector of women.
3. Parental Discourse
The language parents use from a very young age teaches children about how they should behave.
When parents are gentler with their daughters, encourage them to play with dolls, and use feminised language to describe them, the daughters learn to lean into femininity.
At the same time, when boys are encouraged to play roughly with one another, dig in the yard, help dad with construction tasks, and so on, the sons learn to lean into the gender roles that earn them praise from their parents.
4. Gendered Workplaces
My mother, now in her 70s, told me that when she finished high school she had two options: to be a teacher or a nurse.
In her day, she says, women and men were shuffled into gendered job roles, and there weren’t many options to challenge these expectations.
While today this is more subtle, even I – in the 21st Century – recall being mocked for training to be a teacher. “That’s women’s work,” they would say.
This language about work for women and for men pushes women and men toward gendered lifestyles in order to fit into the norms of social expectations.
5. Patriarchal Social Construction
Perhaps most demonstrative of this was the fact that in 2020, there were more men named Peter who were CEOs in the top 100 Dutch firms than there were women.
This patriarchal social structure sends subtle messages about gender: men are leaders, women are not. More perniciously still, there continue to be social narratives that cast shame on women with careers, with people whispering “who’s looking after the children?”
6. Subtle Discrimination
Subtle gender discrimination helps to retain social norms and the current social construction of hegemonic masculinities.
One way this was demonstrated was through a study of men’s vs women’s resumes.
A group of researchers from the University of Yale (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012) created two identical CVs, but one had a woman’s name on it (Jennifer), while the other one was a man (John).
The CVs were randomly sent to different university departments for assessment.
The results showed that resumes were not evaluated just on the merits shown: Jennifer was considered less competent, universities were less willing to hire her as a lab manager and even the salary they would offer her was 13% less than John’s.
7. Role Models
Role models are extremely important in the formative years. A positive role model can help a young person see the sorts of identities they can embrace as they grow older.
Seeing a woman in power could help a girl feel as if she, too, can embrace a gender identity that is strong and assertive.
Similarly, if boys have male teachers, these men can be positive role models for them. However, role models also model gender, and provide subtle messages to children about what is and isn’t considered an appropriate gender identity.
8. Disney Films
Disney has long been criticized for its history of heavily gendered storylines. From Cinderella to Snow White, Disney was one of the most influential purveyors of the damsel in distress storyline.
More recently, Disney has moved toward a wider range of gender constructions in their films, such as in the depiction of strong girls in movies like Brave.
Interestingly, Disney’s move toward a wider range of gender constructs (as well as more diverse constructions of race) has been met with backlash from cultural conservatives who have felt that Disney is not attempting to re-construct gender to fit a “woke” image.
9. Two Spirit
While generally, we look at two gender constructions: masculine and feminine, we need to simply look to Native American cultures to understand that there are other gender constructions to be found in various cultures around the world.
In some Native American cultures, there is a long history of a two-spirit gender identity. This is a gender identity where a person is born into a biological sex, but embraces a gender identity that doesn’t match the sex identification.
In their traditional cultures, two-spirit people often held revered positions, such as healers, councilors, and matchmakers.
Read more about the diversity of gender constructs in my types of gender article.
10. Children’s Toys
Children’s toys offer a great insight into how society constructs gender. Even the characters in Barbie tell us a story of what is an idealized feminine body, and what sort of women should be desired by men (in Barbie’s case, Ken).
At the same time, if we look back in time at the most popular boys’ toys, we see action heroes showing that the idealized male gender is constructed as the active, tough guy.
The core question here is: are these gender constructs chosen by children, or pushed on them by a society sending subtle gendered messages that construct and define gender roles for us?
1. Margaret Mead
Well before the social construction of gender was a hot topic in cultural studies, famed cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead demonstrated how gender is defined differently across cultures.
Mead conducted ethnographic research with girls in Samoa in the 1930s. Her research showed how an entire culture had come to understand girlhood in a vastly different way to how it’s understood in Western cultures.
The girls in Samoa had far less expectations placed upon them socially and academically. But, perhaps more interestingly, it was normalized for girls to sleep around. They could explore their sexuality liberally, while in the West, to be normatively feminine, a woman was expected to withhold from intimate relationships until marriage.
Here, we can see how the female gender is constructed more liberally, with different gender norms and expectations placed upon the women. To be an adolescent woman in Samoa in the 1930s was, in sum, an entirely different cultural concept than that of adolescent womanhood in the West.
2. Hegemonic Masculinity
Connell (2002) is one of the preeminent scholars of the social construction of gender. Her work highlights how dominant – indeed hegemonic – gender norms create hierarchies in society, with the idealized male at the top of the social hierarchy.
The closer someone is to the hegemonic ideal, the more social status they can claim.
We can see this in the idealization of, and gravitation of power toward, hyper-masculine men like Vladimir Putin, Joe Rogan, Jean Claude van Damme, and so on.
Hegemonic masculinities define successful and dominant ways of “being a man” and simultaneously mark other less dominant ways of embodying manhood as inadequate or inferior.
Connell argues that hegemonic masculinity is not a set character type that stays the same, and is the same, everywhere. It is rather the masculinity that is positioned as hegemonic. And this position can always be contested (Connell, 1995).
3. Gendered Dolls
Substantial scholarly research has looked at the role of dolls in gender socialization. It highlights how subtle messages about how to ‘do’ masculinity and femininity occur from a very young age.
Campenni (1999) and Kollmayer et al (2003), for example, both observed that many parents had different expectations of what toys were appropriate for boys and girls.
We can see how a father who disallows his son from coddling dolls or, worse, berates him for it, will push the son toward the internalization of masculinity from a young age.
At the same time, the encouragement of a girl for playing mother and pushing her doll around in a stroller demonstrates how girls from a very young age are pushed toward idealizing a domestic and feminized lifestyle.
Critiques of Social Constructionism
Critics of the concept of social constructionism highlight the following issues:
- Biopsychology: Some biopsychologists point to the fact that the biological sexes (men and women) have different physiologies, which impacts their psychology, behavior, and identity. Men’s increased testosterone may be a reason they’re more likely to act impulsively; and their physical strength may be a reason for patriarchy. Women’s higher levels of estrogen may explain why they gravitate to caring, nurturing, and motherly roles. In sum, nature rather than nurture may go a long way toward explaining gender norms.
- A Religious Critique: Some (but not all!) religious scholars highlight that gender was given by god, and that social constructionism attempts to undermine this fundamental truth.
There are, of course, more critiques than just these two.
Dominant Gender Constructs in Western Society
|Traditional Patriarcal Masculinity||Traditional Patriarchal Femininity|
|1. Stoicism||1. Empathy|
|2. Provider||2. Nurturer|
|3. Logic||3. Emotionality|
|4. Strength||4. Kindness|
|5. Active||5. Passive|
|6. Domineering||6. Submissive|
|7. Preoccupied with power||7. Preoccupied with looks|
|8. Independent||8. Dependent|
|9. Public sphere||9. Domestic sphere|
|10. Quiet||10. Talkative|
|11. Analytical||11. Creative|
|12. Blunt||12. Tactful|
|13. Bold||13. Shy|
|14. Leader||14. Follower|
|15. Rugged||15. Refined|
The idea of gender as a social construct has gained significant currency outside of academia in recent years. It’s influenced society into working toward breaking old habits and striving for gender equality in areas such as workplace participation, political representation, and more equal parenting roles.
Nevertheless, the concept is not without its critics, and attempts at increasing inclusion of women in positions of power is often met with pushback. This pushback is more often about the methods used (i.e. critiques of affirmative action) than the general premise that we as a society should ensure men and women can embrace the identity of their choosing in a free society, and should be free to follow their chosen passions in life without discrimination or prejudice.
Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. Cambridge: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Cambridge: Routledge.
Campenni, C. (1999). Gender stereotyping of children’s toys: A comparison of parents and nonparents. Sex Roles, 40(1), 121-138.
Connell, R. W. (2020). Masculinities. Melbourne: Routledge.
Cranny-Francis, A., Waring, W., Stavropoulos, P., & Kirkby, J. (2017). Gender studies: Terms and debates. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kollmayer, M., Schultes, M. T., Schober, B., Hodosi, T., & Spiel, C. (2018). Parents’ judgments about the desirability of toys for their children: Associations with gender role attitudes, gender-typing of toys, and demographics. Sex Roles, 79(5), 329-341.
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]