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Gender equality calls for dynamic family roles

CHEN LI et al. | 2021-05-27 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A father kicks shuttlecock with his daughter at a park in Beijing in March 2020. Many men have shown a growing interest in helping with childrearing, traditionally a women-dominated household duty in China. Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST

In modern society, both men and women have multiple roles to play. Such roles as breadwinner and caregiver are typical in family life. Theoretically, individuals of different genders might play typical roles or a combination of many roles based on their characters, but in reality, many women and men are subject to inflexible social roles due to deep-seated views on gender. 
Gender roles generally refer to expectations of societally and culturally normative behaviors of the two sexes. In a modern social environment which advocates for gender equality and justice, it is necessary to understand the impact of stereotypes on gender roles, know about the status quo of men and women and the division of labor in family life, and realize the necessity of dynamic changes in gender roles. 
Gender stereotypes
Social role theory is a conceptual framework which examines gender roles. It theorizes that gendered differences in social behaviors originate from the societal formulation of a division of labor between the two sexes, which led to different expectations of gender roles and different skill development for men and women. Rigid expectations and constantly developing skills further led to differentiated social behaviors between the two genders. 
Before social role theory was introduced, most theories on traditional gender roles were rooted in a functionalist perspective in sociological works. From this perspective, men and women were assumed to be physiologically driven to assume the roles of family provider and homemaker, respectively, and thus the two genders were innately tied to these roles. This view doesn’t allow for, or consider, the possibility that these social roles could change flexibly.  
Based on functionalist thinking, social role theory further argues that people divide labor in light of the different social roles played by men and women, and the division of labor is directly subject to historical backgrounds, present conditions, and the cognition of biological gender differences. 
Gender stereotypes are derivatives of social role theory and gender role conceptions, reflecting people’s long-standing interpretations of men and women’s behaviors in their daily lives. The stereotypes convey to individuals in society how men should behave and what behaviors are suited to women, which usually provides a set of socially accepted norms. 
Most individuals’ activities are determined by different social roles and related behaviors. Gendered distribution of social roles mirrors common phenomena of gender stereotypes in life. 
If a group of people are often seen to engage in a specific activity, it might be believed that the abilities and qualities needed for the activity are typical of the group. Studies and shared experiences show that more women have been observed taking care of families, so people might think that the features necessary for caregiving jobs, such as nurturing children and providing warmth, are typical of women. Similarly, because more men are seen financially supporting families, their features are linked to instrumentality and dominance. 
Early gender studies designated agency and communality as the two defining features of gender stereotypes, and contended that men are more agentic and women more communal. Male characteristics were identified as instrumentality, dominance, and confidence, while women’s salient features were expressiveness, warmth, and caring. Recent studies and theories analyzed stereotypes of women and men from different angles, but generally they started from the expectation of fundamental sex differences. 
Evolving views
Over time, people’s views of gender roles in families have been evolving. According to the Third Wave Survey on the Social Status of Women in China conducted in 2010, gender conceptions of Chinese men and women were transitioning from traditional to modern at the time, but women’s gender conceptions were generally more modern, particularly among young women, while those of men were more traditional, which was highly consistent and stable among different age groups. 
In fact, over the past half a century, the integration of economic, social and technological factors created a multitude of opportunities for women to enter the paid labor market. Social psychology has been paying sustained attention to biases and barriers that hinder women from making progress in fields dominated by men, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but few efforts have been made to understand and rectify the absence of men in areas that are concentrated by women, such as nursing and early education. 
Gender inequalities in the labor market have extended to the division of labor in families. In modern life, although most men and women shoulder dual pressure from family and work, surveys on the social status of women in China suggest that in two-income households, most women were still burdened with the bulk of housekeeping and childcare labor, though men were making increasing contributions in both realms. Compared with men, women’s housework continuously mounted disproportionately, which largely affected their career prospects and real income. 
Research data shows that gender-egalitarian men and women tended to agree husband and wife should share household duties equally, but husbands’ actual behaviors often affected the levels and types of housekeeping jobs held by wives. 
In real life, although some couples are theoretically willing to even out the distribution of household chores, in practice, the distribution is usually based on traditional division of labor. For example, while fathers play with or read to their children, mothers are still more likely to perform nurturing tasks, such as feeding and bathing. Women who strongly uphold gender equality in love relationships maintain that the anticipated egalitarianism is unrealistic in marriage. They might end up finding a partner who will occasionally help them with housework, but do not expect true egalitarianism. 
To men, existing gender stereotypes have further reinforced the traditional division of labor within family units, featuring breadwinning men and homemaking women, so men’s breadwinning roles are taken for granted. When family roles like stay-at-home dad emerge, the men are often labeled as living off women and useless. However remarkable the contributions these men have made in caring for the family, their lack of career achievements or the failure to play the traditional breadwinning role will make it difficult for them to earn recognition from society and their families. 
When young people speak about their futures, they admit that they are likely to fall into similar gender models after getting married, however firmly they support gender equality. 
Although it is difficult to alter stereotypes regarding masculinity, many men have shown a growing interest in helping with housework and childrearing. Pertinent studies also indicate that personality traits and behaviors of fathers and mothers tend to bear more and more resemblances, and the tendency is more apparent in fathers. 
From the perspective of social culture, the lives of men and women are shaped by their cultural backgrounds and everyday social contacts. Studies conclude that as modern women gain more economic resources and a higher social status due to their own efforts, they care more about family-oriented traits when it comes to choosing a partner. Some social phenomena and certain studies indicate that women negatively judge a man who ignores crying babies, and are more attracted to those who make babies happy or participate in cleaning. Men playing with babies are more likely to draw women’s positive attention than those who don’t play with babies. 
Dynamic gender roles
Interestingly, as time goes by, women have become more agentic than before, and men have become more communal. Social role theory hints at a cyclical changing process, which might not be fully symmetrical. 
For example, when gendered representations of a certain role start to change, people’s gender stereotypes will gradually weaken. Specifically, when the homemaker role is not entirely represented by mothers and the role of family provider not unique to fathers, people’s gender stereotypes and entrenched social role cognition will also change. When men are capable of looking after their families, they must have such communal features as being expressive, warm, and caring, which creates conditions for breaking gendered stereotypes for men. 
Classical studies found that when men or women are described as the main family caregivers, they are both regarded as less competent and warmer, while high competence and low warmth are assigned to the role of the working professional, whether a man or woman fills the role. Such a result proves that stereotypes are more closely related to roles and identities, and not solely based on biological sex. This implies that shaking the rigid conception of social roles is key to changing gender stereotypes. 
Gender equality is a common concern for countries and regions all over the world. China also deems gender equality an important marker of the independence and full development of individuals. Though people’s gender roles are still influenced and constrained by the traditional view of “breadwinning men and homemaking women,” social roles are products of the interactions between traditional gender stereotypes and the cultures and environments they are in. 
When individuals are exposed to gender role information that is different from their past views and personal experiences, their cognition of their own roles will change too. The dynamic evolution of gender roles has provided us with different directions for thinking. 
First, relative occupational equality will enable individuals from both sexes to face role switching between family and work more gracefully. Second, the healthy and dynamic division of labor in families will ensure that men and women can exert their strengths freely, and unfetter them from the traditional division of labor. Additionally, individuals won’t have to play roles assigned to them by their biological sex or established social behaviors; they will be able to handle multiple roles at ease based on a wider range of interpersonal interactions. 
The authors are from the School of Psychology at Northwest Normal University.