Just Sociology

Understanding Gender Roles: The Influence of Socialization Processes

Sex-role theory is a prominent theory that proposes that every culture has specific gender roles and expectations that are taught to individuals from an early age. These gender roles encompass both the behavioral and psychological traits that are considered normal for males and females within a particular culture.

Through socialization, individuals are taught to adhere to these roles, and this often results in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and gender disparities. In this article, I will discuss the principles of sex-role theory and the importance of socialization in shaping gender roles and gender differences.

Additionally, I will discuss the different processes of socialization that contribute to the establishment and perpetuation of gender roles within society.

Gender Roles are Culturally-Based

Gender roles are a set of expectations and norms that are attributed to certain sexes within a culture. These roles encompass what is typically considered masculine or feminine behavior, expectations, roles, and traits.

According to sex-role theory, gender roles are socially constructed and are a product of the society in which an individual resides. Cultures have various expectations of what is normal and acceptable behavior for each gender.

These cultural expectations often differ between societies, meaning that gender roles are subjective and can vary according to cultural context. Gender roles are upheld by social institutions such as the family, schools, religion, politics, and the media.

These institutions enforce stereotypical gender roles and are responsible for socializing children and teaching them to adhere to particular gender expectations. For instance, the media often portrays women as emotional, nurturing, and passive individuals, while men are depicted as assertive, logical, and aggressive.

Socialization Shapes Behavior and Maintains Gender Differences

Socialization is the process of learning the norms, values, and beliefs of a culture. It plays a vital role in shaping an individuals personality and behavior.

In terms of gender, socialization instills gender roles in individuals by teaching them what is considered acceptable masculine or feminine behavior. Through socialization, children learn how to engage with others, how to communicate and interact in ways that are aligned with expectations of their gender roles.

Socialization also maintains gender differences by reinforcing gender stereotypes and expectations. Boys and girls are treated differently from birth, and these differences continue throughout their lives.

These differences often stem from cultural expectations regarding gender roles. For instance, boys are expected to be tough, strong, and aggressive, while girls are expected to be sensitive, nurturing, and passive.

Processes of Socialization


Manipulation is the process where parents, teachers, and caregivers direct children towards activities that are considered gender-appropriate. For example, parents may direct sons towards masculine toys such as trucks and swords, whereas daughters may receive more feminine toys such as dolls and playsets.

Through this process, children come to develop a sense of what is deemed appropriate for their gender.


Canalisation influences childrens behavior by directing them towards activities that are considered more suitable for their gender. For instance, boys are often encouraged to participate in physical sports such as football or basketball, whereas girls are encouraged to engage in more feminine activities such as dancing or gymnastics.

Through this process, children learn the specific behaviors that are associated with their gender.

Verbal Appellations

Verbal appellations refer to the use of gendered adjectives to describe individuals. These adjectives often convey cultural expectations regarding gender roles.

For instance, girls may be referred to as sweet, cute, or emotional, while boys are often described as strong, brave, or assertive. Through these types of early labeling, children develop a sense of which behaviors are considered appropriate for their gender, and they may begin to model their behavior accordingly.

Gendered Activities

Gendered activities can reinforce cultural expectations regarding gender roles. In many cultures, household chores such as cooking and cleaning are typically assigned to girls or women, while boys are expected to engage in more physically challenging activities like yard work or automotive repair.

These differences in assignments and expectations continue to influence behavior as individuals grow and may contribute to maintaining gender disparities in the labor force.


Sex-role theory argues that gender roles are a product of cultural expectations and socialization processes. Individuals learn to conform to gender roles through the institutions of family, schools, religion and the media.

These processes are responsible for perpetuating gender inequalities and maintaining the traditional gender roles of a culture. Understanding these processes allows for the identification of gender issues and the development of policies and programs aimed at addressing such disparities.

Through understanding the processes of socialization that shape gender, we can work towards creating a more equitable and inclusive society.

Criticisms of Sex-Role Theory

Sex-role theory has been criticized for oversimplifying the process of socialization and underestimating the role of cultural and societal influences in shaping individuals behavior. In particular, there have been criticisms surrounding the passive nature of socialization, the failure to account for power differences between men and women, the assumption that gender roles are clear and fixed, and the inability to account for the increasing diversity of gender identities.

Overstates the Passive Nature of Gender Socialization

One criticism of sex-role theory is that it focuses on the process of passive socialization, where individuals are assumed to absorb cultural norms and expectations without any input or interaction. However, research has shown that socialization is an active process, in which individuals negotiate and participate in shaping their gender roles.

Individuals have been found to reinterpret and resist gender norms, and this can be seen in a variety of contexts such as the workplace or social movements focused on gender equality.

Does Not Explain Power Differences between Men and Women

Another criticism of sex-role theory is that it does not account for the power differences between men and women. Sex-role theory assumes that gender roles are homogenous across society, and do not vary based on social status or power.

However, gender roles are often intertwined with power differentials, and the enforcement of gender norms is often used as a means of maintaining such differences.

Assumes a Clear Differentiation of Gender Roles in Society

Critics of sex-role theory argue that it assumes a clear differentiation of gender roles in society. However, gender roles are diverse and often overlap, and are dependent on cultural and social factors.

In many cultures, there has been an increased acceptance of male nurturing and female leadership roles, suggesting that gender roles may be becoming more fluid and less defined. As such, the notion that gender roles can be easily differentiated into male and female may not capture the complex and changing nature of gender identity and behavior.

Sex-Role Theory Does Not Explain the Increasing Diversity of Gender Identities

Finally, sex-role theory has been criticized for failing to account for the increasing diversity of gender identities. While sex-role theory has been instrumental in highlighting the socially constructed nature of gender roles, it has largely failed to recognize the existence of gender identities other than male and female.

Research suggests that gender is a spectrum, and that individuals may identify with different gender identities that do not fit neatly into the categories of male and female. Therefore, the sex-role theory may not be equipped to explain a world that is becoming more diverse in terms of gender identity expression.


Whereas sex-role theory focuses on the way individuals are socialized and conform to existing gender norms and expectations, gendering theories argue that gender is an active process where individuals are continuously doing gender.’

Gendering theories thus focus on the ways in which individuals actively construct their gender identities, rather than simply internalizing pre-existing gender norms. Three Levels of


Gendering theories propose that gender is not fixed or universal, but rather is shaped and constructed at the micro, meso, and macro levels. The micro-level includes individual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors around gender, while the meso-level includes family and peer-group interactions.

The macro-level includes cultural and societal norms, as well as institutional policies and practices that reinforce gender roles.

Gendering at the Micro, Meso, and Macro Level Limits Behavior

While gendering can be an empowering process, it also has negative consequences.

Gendering at the micro, meso, and macro level can limit behavior and reinforce gender stereotypes, such as gendered activities or the division of labor within the household.

These limitations can be particularly problematic for individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms, leading to social exclusion, harassment, or discrimination.

Pop Stars are Among Those Most Likely to Break with Traditional Gender Norms

Pop stars have been instrumental in breaking down traditional gender norms, and thus represent an example of active gendering. Pop stars such as Prince, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Billie Eilish have challenged traditional gender norms through their music, fashion, and performances.

These pop stars have been associated with diverse gender identities, ranging from male-to-female transitions, gender non-conformity, to a full embrace of gender fluidity, and have pushed the boundaries of gender expression. In doing so, they have played a crucial role in promoting a more diverse and inclusive understanding of gender, challenging the rigid norms typically associated with traditional gender roles.


This article primarily relates to the Culture and Identity option, which is a foundational topic within A-level Sociology. Culture and Identity aim to explore how individuals sense of self and identity is developed within and through cultural processes.

In particular, the theories and processes discussed in this article touch on how individuals are socialized into specific gender roles, and how cultural norms and expectations shape behavior and identity. As such, this article is relevant for students studying these topics within A-level Sociology.

Sources/Find out more

For those interested in exploring the topics presented in this article further, there are several sources available that provide more in-depth information. For instance, the book Gender Trouble by Judith Butler provides a critical analysis of sex-role theory and provides alternative ways of understanding gender as a performance.

Michael Kimmels Guyland explores the cultural expectations and socialization of young men, while Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine provides an accessible critique of the scientific explanations for gender behavior differences. Additionally, scholarly journals such as Gender & Society and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society provide up-to-date research on gender identity and behavior.

Online resources such as Sociological Science, Sociological Review, and the American Sociological Association also provide valuable information regarding gender and identity issues. By using a combination of books, journals, and online resources, students and researchers can deepen their understanding of the complex issues surrounding gender roles and identity within society.

In conclusion, sex-role theory highlights the culturally and socially constructed nature of gender roles and the importance of socialization in shaping individuals behavior and identity. However, criticisms of sex-role theory have pointed out that socialization is an active process, and there is an increasing recognition of gender diversity issues.

Gendering theories, on the other hand, argue that gender is an active process of individuals doing gender, with limitations and consequences associated with the micro, meso, and macro levels. By unpacking the concepts surrounding gender roles and identity, individuals can create a more inclusive and equitable society that embraces diversity and recognizes the fluidity of gender identity expression.


1. What are gender roles?

Gender roles refer to a set of expectations and behaviors that are associated with being male or female in a particular culture. 2.

What is socialization? Socialization refers to the process of learning the norms, values, and beliefs of a culture.

3. How are gender roles perpetuated through socialization?

Socialization perpetuates gender roles through the institutional reinforcement of gender norms, such as family, school, religion, politics, and the media. 4.

Why is sex-role theory criticized? Sex-role theory is criticized for oversimplifying the process of socialization, failing to account for power differences between men and women, assuming a clear differentiation of gender roles in society, and not explaining the increasing diversity of gender identities.

5. What is gendering?

Gendering is an active process in which individuals continuously construct their gender identities through micro, meso, and macro level interactions. 6.

Can gender roles change over time? Yes, gender roles can change over time as cultural expectations and societal attitudes evolve.

7. How do pop stars challenge traditional gender norms?

Pop stars challenge traditional gender norms through music, fashion, and performance, promoting more diverse and inclusive understandings of gender identity and breaking down rigid gender roles.

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