Broader Social Factors and Gender - The Case for Nurture

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

Broader Social Factors and Gender
The Case for Nurture

No discussion of the nurture of gender would be complete without mention of broader social forces that mold the lives of women and men. Two important factors are: the powerful social roles that channel women's and men's behaviors and the pervasive status differences that exist between women and men.

Social Role Theory

Alice Eagly's social role theory (Eagly, 1987; Eagly, Wood, & Deikman, 2000; see Chapter 3), describes three central components to contemporary gender roles:

1. Women are more often homemakers and men breadwinners.

2. Women tend to work in different occupations than men do.

3. Women often have lower status than men do.

Social role theory proposes that each of these aspects of gender roles contributes to gender stereotypes and to sex differences in the behavior.

For example, the role of homemaker cultivates expressive traits (being warm, sensitive, and nurturant), whereas the role of breadwinner and worker cultivates instrumental traits (being independent, competitive, and assertive). In one study, college students were asked to judge the personality traits of men and women who stayed at home as parents and of men and women who worked full time. They judged homemakers—whether male or female—to be gentler and kinder, and they judged fulltime workers—whether female or male—to be more assertive and competitive (Eagly & Steffen, 1984). This suggests that judgments of women's and men's traits are more a function of their roles as homemaker and worker than of gender per se.

The second component of gender roles prescribes different kinds of work for men and women. Men are more likely than women to work in some occupations (military officer, politician, business executive), and women in others (nurse, librarian, elementary school teacher). These occupational roles lead to gender stereotypes ("men are aggressive," "women are helpful and nurturant"). Common sense may tell us that men and women choose different kinds of work because of their differing traits, but social role theory warns us that we may have the causal sequence backwards; powerful social roles have forced men and women into different occupations. Working men and women then behave differently because of their imposed occupational roles, and as a result, people form gender stereotypes based on these observed differences.

The mistake people make, according to social role theory, is in attributing men's and women's behavior (men's aggressiveness, women's helpfulness) to gender and not to social roles. One study showed that male-dominated occupations are judged to require stereotypic masculine traits (e.g., assertiveness and physical strength) and female dominated occupations are judged to require stereotypically feminine traits (e.g., sensitivity and physical attractiveness) (Cejka & Eagly, 1999). But is this really so? When male workers went off to combat during World War II, "Rosie the Riveter" and her sisters did just fine at supposedly male jobs. Today, as more and more women gain admission to the formerly male bastions of corporate management, law, medicine, and academia, we realize that women have what it takes to do these jobs. According to social role theory, past social roles channeled women into selected kinds of work, and people inferred women's traits from this fact. The mistake lay in not realizing that it was the invisible hand of social roles that led to women's "choices," not their innate traits or preferences.

The different occupational roles of men and women have often been confounded with status differences, the third main component of gender roles. The job of secretary (traditionally female) carries much less power than the job of executive (traditionally male), and the job of nurse (traditionally female) carries less authority than the job of doctor (traditionally male). Domestic roles—both at home (housewife) and in the work world (maid, janitor)—typically carry low status, and such roles have traditionally been assigned more to women than to men. Although many in our society give lip service to the importance of child care, most men remain unwilling to trade in their careers to work as full-time fathers, perhaps because they regard child care as a low-status undertaking. Although the wage gap between women and men has decreased in our society (see Chapter 7), women still sometimes receive less pay than men do for equivalent work, and in a capitalistic society like ours, status is gauged in part by salary. The reasons for the status differences between women and men are complex and in part reflect sexist ideologies and institutions (Ridgeway & Bourg, 2004). The point to emphasize here is that existing status differences contribute to gender stereotypes and to behavioral differences between women and men.

In one experiment, Alice Eagly and Valerie Steffen (1984) found that people in high-status roles are judged to be more assertive, independent, and dominant (i.e., to have more stereotypically masculine traits) than people in low-status roles. Not surprisingly, people in high-status roles (manager, executive) are also judged to be more influential, whereas people in low-status roles (secretary, clerk) are judged to be more easily influenced by others (Eagly & Wood, 1982). Of course, these are exactly the kinds of stereotypes that people hold about men and women. The implication is that common gender stereotypes are really stereotypes about high-status versus low-status people.

The different-status explanation for gender differences has been studied intensively in relation to nonverbal behavior. When interacting with others, women smile more and show more eye contact than men do. Women are more accurate in Judging facial emotions than men are. In contrast, men maintain more personal space in social interaction than women do (see Chapter 1). One explanation for these differences is that women show nonverbal behaviors characteristic of low-status people, whereas men show nonverbal behaviors characteristic of high-status, powerful people (Henley, 1977; La France & Henley, 1997).

A relatively subtle nonverbal difference between men and women is that men tend to engage in more eye contact while talking, whereas women tend to engage in more eye contact while listening. The first style of eye contact is more characteristic of high-status, powerful people (e.g., bosses), whereas the second style is more characteristic of low-status people (e.g., subordinates). A number of experiments suggest that when women are assigned to powerful roles (e.g., as supervisors) they then show powerful styles of eye contact. However, in equal status interactions, men show the more powerful style of eye contact than women do (Dovidio, Ellyson, Keating, Heltman, & Brown, 1988). Such findings indicate that unless the social setting assigns women power, gender serves as a kind of diffuse status cue, with women seen to be less powerful than men (Ridgeway & Diekema, 1992; Wagner & Berger, 1997).

To compensate for their lower status, women may engage in warmer styles of influence and persuasion (e.g., they smile more, maintain more eye contact) and are less forceful and abrasive. Otherwise, they risk not succeeding in influencing others (Ridgeway, 1982; Ridgeway & Diekema, 1992; Shackelford, Wood, & Worchel, 1996). Recall that one difference between women's and men's behaviors in groups is that women engage in more expressive, socioemotional behaviors, whereas men engage in more instrumental, task-oriented behaviors (see Chapter 1). One explanation for these differences is the unequal status women and men possess. Again, the mistake people make is in attributing behavior to women's and men's traits ("women are expressive," "men are assertive") rather than to power differences between women and men (Carli, 1991).