Sex-Role Development And Education Research Paper

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Today’s debate on sex or gender is dominated by two antagonistic paradigms: sociobiology and constructivism. On evolutionary terms man’s characteristics are determined by natural selection operating at the level of genes. Man has survived millions of years of competitive struggle for existence. This by definition implies egotism as a core feature of his genes, i.e., a readiness to maximize own reproductive chances at the cost of others. Egotistic genes may produce ‘altruistic’ behavior in case the net reproductive success of own genes (embodied in close relatives) can be increased (kinship altruism) or future repayments in emergencies can be secured (reciprocal altruism). Gene egotism has implications for sex differences. Across all species females’ investment in reproduction is greater: they produce fewer and larger, i.e., more costly gametes; among mammals they invest time in carrying and nursing the young and among humans in taking care of them during an extended phase of dependency. Both sexes—being but vehicles of egotistic genes—strive to maximize reproductive success. Different strategies, however, will be efficient. In view of their high pre-investment, taking care of the young pays for females and given that females will take care, it pays better for males to spread their genes as widely as possible. For females sexual reserve is the better strategy—it allows them to test a male’s fidelity and increase his investments; and it pays to select high status males, since their greater resources increase chances of survival for the few young a female will be able to bear. In contrast, males profit from quick seductions and from selecting females according to beauty and youthfulness—criteria that indicate high reproductive capacity. Further assumptions are needed: given that genes happen to reside half of the time of their existence in male, the other half in female bodies, they have to be assumed to operate differently in different environments. Also, the adaptive value of present characteristics can be justified only by reference to life conditions of our ancestors—of which we know little. Constructivism draws a contrary picture. Sex differences—so its core claim—are but social constructions. In fact, the classificatory system itself is a modern Western design stipulating the following features (see Tyrell 1986). (a) Reference to physical aspects, i.e., the presence absence of a penis (some cultures focus more on social activities like childcare or warfare). (b) Binary, i.e., a strictly exclusive categorization (some cultures allow for or even ascribe a positive status to hermaphrodites). (c) Inclusive, i.e., all individuals are classified even those with unclear genetic make-up (using an operation to improve outward appearance if necessary). (d) Irreversible (except via operation) (some cultures allow for social sex role changes). (e) Ascriptive from birth on (some cultures define children as neutrals and ascribe sex role membership only in initiation rituals). The very assumption of large sex differences is a modern idea that from the constructivist perspective is mistaken: it is an essentialist reification of what in fact is but a cooperative interactive achievement. Humans—so the basic tenet—don’t ‘have’ a sex and they ‘are’ not males or females, rather they ‘act’ and ‘see’ each other as such. Studies on transsexuality analyze the ways in which individuals perform and recognize gender. The two paradigms are based on opposite assumptions. In sociobiology man is but a vehicle for powerful genes, in constructivism he is an omnipotent creator. In sociobiology he is a lone wolf entering social relations only for reproductive concerns, in constructivism he is a social being whose very (even sexual) identity is dependent on interactive co-construction. Nevertheless, both paradigms concur in their ahistorical approach. In sociobiology genes that survived under the living conditions of our ancestors determine human dispositions forever—across all periods and societies. In constructivism man is created ever anew in each interaction situation. Both approaches simply ignore the power of history—consolidated in collective traditions and reproduced in biographical learning processes. These will come to the fore in the following analysis of present sex role understanding. Three aspects will be discussed: its empirical description, historical emergence, and ontogenetic development.

1. Sex Differences—A Descriptive Perspective

Sex differences can be analyzed on various levels: on the level of the individual, the culture, the social structure.

1.1 Psychological Level

Recent meta-analyses of US data show that with greater educational equality sex differences in cognitive performance have largely disappeared over the past few decades except for a slight overrepresentation of males at the very top of mathematical and the very bottom of verbal abilities and an average higher male performance in spatial ability tasks. Male spatial superiority is even greater among Mexicans but has not been found among Eskimos. These latter findings suggest a connection between the development of spatial understanding and cultural differences in degree of supervision and control exerted upon young girls.

It has been claimed that morality is gendered: women are maintained to be more flexible and careoriented, men to be more rigidly oriented to abstract principles and more autonomous. These differences are seen to arise from differences in the structure of self shaped by the early experience of female mothering. Girls can maintain the primary identification with the first caretaker (relational self ), while boys—in order to become different—have to distance themselves (autonomous self ) (Gilligan and Wiggins 1988).

Neither flexibility nor care, however, are specific to women. Flexibility is a correlate of a modern moral understanding. Kant had still ascribed exceptionless validity to negative duties given that God—not man—was held responsible for any harm resulting from compliance. On innerwordly terms, however, impartially minimizing harm is given priority over strict obedience to rules. If exceptions are at all deemed justifiable they will more likely be conceded by those who are aware of possible costs incurred by anyone affected. Individuals who are personally involved will be more knowledgeable of such costs. This may explain why women—in agreement with Gilligan— were found to judge more flexibly with respect to abortion, yet at the same time more rigidly with respect to the issue of draft resistance than men (Dobert and Nunner-Winkler 1985). Besides, those in power can insist more rigidly on their convictions, thus flexibility might be the virtue of subordinates. Care is not part of a relational self-structure produced in early childhood—rather it is part of the female role obligation. Indeed, preschool girls showed no more empathic concerns than boys (Nunner-Winkler 1994), but a majority of (especially older) German subjects more often justified strictly condemning working mothers by referring to their dereliction of duty and to their egotistic strivings for self-fulfillment than to the harm their children might suffer.

1.2 Cultural Level

Two aspects—although empirically concurring—need to be distinguished: gender stereotypes and genderrole obligations.

Gender stereotypes are collectively shared assumptions about the different ‘nature’ of men and women. Across cultures men are assumed to be aggressive, independent, and assertive, women to be emotional and sensitive, emphatic, and compliant. Contradictory evidence does not detract from such persuasions— immunity to empirical refutation is the very core of stereotypes and there are mechanisms to uphold them. Expectations guide the way observations are perceived, encoded, and interpreted, e.g., noncompliance is perceived as a sign of strength if shown by a man, of dogmatism if shown by a woman. Behavior that conforms to expectations is encoded on abstract terms, discrepant behavior with concrete situational details. This eases making use of the ‘except clause’ when interpreting deviant cases (e.g., for a woman she is extraordinarily assertive). Thus, suitably framed and interpreted even conflicting observations can stabilize stereotypes.

With gender-role obligations, women are assigned to the private sphere, men to the public realm. Thus, taking care of children and household chores is seen to be primarily women’s task, breadwinning men’s. These roles are defined by contrasting features. Family roles are ascribed, diffuse, particularistic, affective and collectivity-oriented; occupational roles are achieved, specific, universalistic, affectively neutral, and self-oriented (Parsons 1964). Identifying and living in agreement with one’s gender role will influence ways of reacting, feeling, and judging. Thus, gender differences might be understood as a correlate not primarily of genetic dispositions or of a self-structure shaped in infancy, but rather of the culturally institutionalized division of labor between the sexes.

1.3 Sociostructural Level

Gender stereotypes and role obligations influence career choice and commitment to the occupational sphere. In consequence, there is a high gender segregation of the workforce. The proportion of women is over 90 percent in some fields (e.g., secretary, receptionist, kindergarten-teacher) and less than 5 percent in others (e.g., mechanic, airplane pilot). Jobs that are considered women’s work tend to offer fewer opportunities for advancement, less prestige, and lower pay than jobs occupied primarily by men. Worldwide the gender gap in average wage is 30–40 percent and it shows little sign of closing. Top positions in economy, politics, and sciences are almost exclusively filled by men, and part-time working is almost exclusively a female phenomenon. Both men and women tend to hold negative attitudes towards females in authority. Women entering male occupations are critically scrutinized, males entering female occupations (e.g., nursing) in contrast easily win acceptance and promotion.

2. The Historical Emergence Of Gender Differences

There are two (partly independent) dimensions implied in the debate on gender roles: the hierarchical one of equality vs. inequality of rights and the horizontal one of difference vs. sameness in personality make-up. We begin with equality. According to medieval understanding individuals find themselves in different social positions by the will of God and it is God who commanded that women obey men. Enlightenment declared all men to be equal—irrespective of gender (or race). Thus, a new justification was needed if the subordination of women (or black slaves) was to be maintained. This instigated a search for ‘natural’ differences between women and men (between blacks and whites) that soon succeeded in specifying differences in brain size or the shape and position of sexual organs (in IQ)—much to the detriment of women (or blacks). Legal discrimination has largely discontinued. Women (and blacks) are granted full rights to vote or to participate in the educational system.

The assumption of gender differences, however, is still prevalent. It arose in consequence of the industrialization process. In agricultural economies women had their own sphere of control (house, garden, cattle, commercialization of surplus products) and their contribution was essential for subsistence: ‘These women in no way resemble the 19th century image of women as chaste, coy, demure … Peers describe them as wild, daring, rebellious, unruly’ (Bock and Duden 1977). Industrialization led to a separation of productive and reproductive work, i.e., to the contrast between familial and occupational roles described above. With rapid urbanization and increasing anonymity around the turn of the twentieth century, antimodernist discontent grew. Increasingly, female ‘complementary virtues,’ e.g., empathy, emotionality, sensitivity came to be seen as bulwark against the cold rationality of the structure of capitalist economy and bureaucratic administration. This sentiment was (and partly still is) shared even by feminists deeply committed to secure legal, political, and social equality for women.

3. Ontogenetic Development

Each generation of newborns is an invasion of barbarians—nonetheless, within a decade or two most turn into useful members of their specific society. How is this effected? Education is too narrow a term in that it refers primarily to methods purposefully applied in order to produce desired results. Children, however, are influenced not primarily by planned educational actions, but rather by the entirety of their life conditions. They are not merely passive objects to social instruction, rather—in mostly implicit learning processes—they actively reconstruct the basic rule systems underlying their experiences. This way they acquire knowledge systems, value orientations, action dispositions. In this (self-)socialization process different learning mechanisms are at work: classical and instrumental conditioning produce response tendencies; through bestowal and withdrawal of love a conformity disposition is shaped; through parental authority and firmness the internalization of values is furthered; children imitate behavior of models they deem interesting and they implicitly recognize regularities and rule structures. With increasing cognitive and ego development reflexive self-distancing from and consciously taking a stance towards one’s previous learning history becomes possible.

How are sex roles acquired? Increasingly parents advocate identical educational goals for boys and girls. Nevertheless, unwittingly, especially fathers tend to treat them differently—handling male infants more roughly and disapproving of sissy behavior (Golombok and Fivush 1994). Also, from early on, children prefer same-sex playmates (Maccoby 1990). Such early experiences may leave some traces. More direct sex role learning, however, seems to depend on sociocognitive prerequisites. A change has been documented to occur in children’s understanding of concepts. They shift from focusing on externally observable surface features to basic definitional criteria (in the case of nominal terms) or to the assumption of stable and essential inner characteristics that all members of a given category share (in the case of natural kind terms). Sex is treated like a natural kind term, i.e., sex is understood to remain constant despite outward changes, to denote some ‘essential’ even if unobservable commoness, and to allow for generalizing new information across all members of the same category (Gelman et al. 1986). This constitutes a universal formal frame of reference (that makes stereotypical thinking so irresistible). It needs to be filled with content. Children learn what is typical and appropriate for men and women in their culture by beginning to selectively observe and imitate exemplary same-sex models (Slaby and Frey 1975). Largely, this learning process is intrinsically motivated (Kohlberg 1966), i.e., by the desire to be a ‘real boy/girl’ and become a ‘real man/woman.’ It proceeds by (mostly implicitly) reconstructing those gendered behavioral, expressive, and feeling rules that are institutionalized in the given culture. In our culture there are many cues from which children will read what constitutes sexappropriate demeanor. The sexual division of labor is seen already in the family: women are more likely to sacrifice their career for the family (and men their family-life for their career) and even full-time-employed mothers spend considerably more time on childcare and housework than fathers. In the school, teachers tend to give more attention to boys and praise them for the quality of their work (while praising girls for neatness). Curricula may segregate the sexes, offering home economics to girls, contact sport or mechanic training to boys. The social structure of the school impresses the idea of male authority over women with most principals in elementary school being male although most teachers are female. In fact, it has been found that first-graders attending schools with a female principal display less stereotypical views on gender roles than children in schools with a male principal. These early lessons on sex differences are reinforced in public: in politics and business top positions are mostly filled by men and books, films, TV, and advertisements depict men as dominant, powerful, and strong, women as beautiful, charming, and yielding. Thus, consciously treating boys and girls alike in family and kindergarten will be of little avail in counterbalancing the impressive overall picture of structural sexual asymmetry and alleged personality differences between the sexes in personality characteristics and behavioral dispositions.

4. The Future Of Sex Roles

With modernization, ascriptive categories lose importance. Social systems increasingly come to be differentiated in subsystems each fulfilling a specific function and operating according to its own code (Luhmann 1998). Gender is the code of the family; it cannot substitute for the codes of other subsystems, e.g., in science it is the truth of a statement, on the market it is the purchasing power, in court it is the lawfulness of the sentence that counts; the gender of the author, the customer, the judge are (or should be) irrelevant. True, there still exists inequality between the genders. Nevertheless, all over the world it has been drastically reduced over the past few decades. In all countries women have profited more by the educational expansion of the 1960s and 1970s; while at the beginning of the twentieth century in less than 1 percent of 133 countries analyzed voting rights were conceded to women, today all of them with male franchise (over 90 percent) have extended suffrage to women (Ramirez et al. 1997). Many countries have inserted a clause concerning equal social participation rights for women in their constitution and set up special institutions; also some have introduced affirmative actions. Increasingly, women come into prestigious positions which will improve chances for succeeding women who now meet with role models and old girls’ networks. Nevertheless, merely increasing the proportion of women on top will not suffice. It may only increase the tendency of a split up of female biographies with women opting for either family or career (while men can have both). A real change requires a more equal distribution of productive and reproductive work between the genders. In this respect Sweden has been quite successful by institutionalizing an egalitarian welfare regime (e.g., providing publicly financed daycare centers across the whole country; granting a generous leave of absence to both parents at child birth, and offering a specific paternity leave to fathers which 83 percent make use of ). In Sweden we find a high birthrate (1.8) along with a high rate of female employment (75.5 percent). This stands in contrast to the situation in Germany where both rates are low (1.3; 59.7 percent). The German welfare system is described as paternalistic (e.g., women are offered extended publicly financed maternity leaves yet there are hardly any daycare centers for infants or all-day schools and the disapproval of working mothers is especially high (Garhammer 1997). Such differences between countries may indicate that social policy does have an important part to play in reducing or reproducing gender inequalities.


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