What Are Gender Roles and Stereotypes?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 07, 2024
5 min read

Gender roles are stereotypes regarding attitudes, attributes, and actions imposed on men and women based on gender. These kinds of preconceptions are usually harmful to society — yet, understanding what they are and their history is crucial to overcoming them. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Gender stereotypes are a set of preconceptions regarding the role of a certain gender in society. These characteristics are then attributed to every person of that gender, often causing individuals harm and distress. Gender roles perpetuate inequality and greatly affect minorities who may not be in a position to reject these stereotypes.

Although at first glance many of these gender stereotypes may not seem harmful, they often cause damage. For example, a common stereotype is that women should be nurturing mothers and caregivers. While this may not sound too bad, it can lead to women being excessively burdened with social responsibilities. 

Other common gender roles are much more hurtful and discriminatory, such as men having sexual ownership over their wives. Naturally, these aggressive stereotypes have been getting less and less prevalent— yet, they are still common in certain parts of the world.

Whether a specific stereotype is aggressive or not at first glance, they all cause similar amounts of damage in the long run. Gender role-related consequences can show up in many ways — for example, often, little girls are deprived of going to school due to their gender. Other, similar gender-related problems often affect hospitals and workplaces.

Yet, arguably the biggest problem with gender roles comes in the form of gender-based violence. Attacks on women can be motivated by sexual or ideological reasonings, but many of them stem from hurtful gender roles and stereotypes.

Experts often discuss the origin of gender roles — while many attribute them to biological factors, others point out that it all comes from sociological aspects. Whatever may be the case, it’s clear that gender roles as we know them today mostly originated during the Victorian era.

The Victorian era, which comprises most of the 19th century, was characterized by strong ideas regarding the roles of each gender in society. Mostly, men were expected to present themselves in public spheres, such as politics and business. Women were expected to stay at home, taking care of the private sphere. 

While not all women and men abided by these stereotypes, the majority of them did, meaning that those who didn’t were seen in a bad light. For example, the term “New Woman” was often used to insult women who fought for their right to higher education and voting.

Eventually, different areas across all continents started rejecting colonialism, embracing new ideas regarding gender roles in society. Because pre-colonialist societies often had men and women working together, the new Victorian ideology was strongly rejected. This way, many movements came together, merging political and economic claims, along with gender-related ideas.

Another key element in the history of gender stereotyping is Marxism, which is the cornerstone of many postmodern philosophies. Marx, in his theory, saw all humans as equal, without regard for gender or class. 

Along with nationalism, which also embraced new gender roles, these phenomena came together and gradually toppled Victorian gender stereotypes. For example, figures such as Lady Liberty came to represent, partly, the proposed new freedom for women.

However, this battle wasn’t entirely successful. Gender stereotyping is still prevalent across modern societies, as Victorian gender roles haven’t fully disappeared yet.

Gender roles vary greatly depending on where you live, as stereotypes differ among countries and cultures. However, there are a few general guidelines you can keep in mind. These are some of the most common gender stereotypes.

Women in the kitchen. One of the most common and hurtful stereotypes is that women should be the ones taking care of the cooking. For example, while men are expected to leave the house to work a job, women are expected to welcome them back with prepared meals.

Domestic chores. In the same vein, some societies also expect women to take care of most of the chores related to the household. Because they should be the ones staying at home, things like cleaning, taking care of the kids, and similar tasks fall to them.

Masculinity. The idea of masculinity is a stereotype imposed on men, as they are expected to be strong, muscular, and tall. Personality-wise, this stereotype dictates that men should de dominant and aggressive, never leaving room for more measured or sensible thoughts.

Work and aspirations. Men are often expected to occupy hard and public jobs, while women are thought of as being more suited for nurturing jobs. For example, one might think of men as pilots or doctors, while women may be expected to be nurses or teachers.

Naturally, this isn’t a full list of the stereotypes. Plus, depending on where you live, some of these may not even seem prevalent at all. Yet, these are common stereotypes that have survived the Victorian era, despite the many battles for gender-related freedoms.

Overcoming the gender roles assigned to you can be a difficult task — yet, it’s an important step to avoid feeling oppressed by these topics. Speaking out at work when you notice discrimination and sharing your story can be helpful both for you and the victims. If you find yourself unable to accomplish that, supporting campaigns that share these ideas is a great way to help.

One of the most important aspects of overcoming gender roles is education. Children are sensitive to ideas such as stereotypes, so it’s crucial to make them understand, through teaching and playing, that women and men are equal.

As a parent, you can try to:

  • Let your child play with any toy regardless of the assigned gender for that activity — trucks, for example, are commonly thought of as a boys-only thing but can be enjoyed by girls as well.
  • Assign chores equally among your children — for example, try letting your son cook and let your daughter help you with fixing something.
  • Join your children for an activity that’s not usually associated with your gender — if you’re a man, you could try getting your nails done with your daughter.
  • Give an example of how to deal with gender stereotypes — many people are used to not giving respect to an authority figure if she’s a woman, so try giving the opposite example.

It’s normal to feel like these changes aren’t making a difference — however, in the long run, all of these attitudes matter. Through a constant battle against gender roles, society may one day be able to break free of harmful stereotypes imposed on both men and women.