Ann Oakley developed sex-role theory to argue that there are distinct gender roles that come from culture rather than biological differences between men and women.
These roles are learned through childhood and continue on into adulthood and tend to maintain male dominance and female subservience.
Socialisation and Gender Roles
Socialisation shapes the behaviour of boys and girls from a young age, with boys and girls learning that there are certain activities gendered: some ways of acting are appropriate for boys and others for girls. Oakley (1974) argued here are four main processes involved.
- Verbal appellations
Parents start to manipulate their children into gendered identities from the very first days of their lives. For example, girls tend to be ‘cooed to’ and held more tenderly than boys who are more likely to be ‘bounced on the knee’ (albeit gently when they are very young) and hence treated a little more roughly.
Mothers will also pay more attention to a girls appearance, especially bonding through doing her daughter’s hair, and girls will be dressed at least occasionally in more ‘feminine’ dresses while boys will be dressed in more ‘masculine’ clothes.
Gender differences are reinforced through canalisation which involves the direction of boys and girls towards gendered objects, which is most evidence in the different toys available for boys and girls, which tend to reflect stereotypical future male and female roles in society.
Boys will be directed towards toys which encourage manual labour such as Bob the Builder toy tool sets, toy cars and trains which emphasise speed and excitement and even overtly violent toys which encourage aggressive behaviour such as guns.
Girls are more likely to be directed towards more passive toys such as arts and crafts, flower arranging, and those encouraging the house-wife and motherhood role like toy domestic appliances, dolls and prams.
Boys are more likely to be encouraged to engage in adventurous or risky activities, such as camping, climbing, going to adventure playgrounds, and physical sports such as football and rugby.
Boys are also expected to be naughty more than girls, with some parents even think it is more acceptable for boys than for girls to spend time playing football (for example) rather than doing their homework.
Girls are expected to play more of a role doing domestic chores and maybe even caring for younger siblings, and are generally expected to be more passive and less adventurous than girls.
One manifestation of these differences might be that boys are allowed to travel further on their scooters or bikes when out with their parents compared to girls.
Boys are less likely to be told off for being ‘deviant’ than girls while girls are more likely to be cautioned against such behaviours and praised for being good and obedient.
Girls are more likely than boys to be called ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ which may explain why girls are more likely to worry about their appearance in later life compared to boys.
Boys are more likely to called tough or strong: ‘oh my, what a strong boy you are, look how fast you can run’ and so on.
Criticisms of Oakley
Oakley’s work has been very influential within Feminist sociology but she has been criticised for overstating the passive nature of gender socialisation and sex-role theory entirely fails to explain the increasing diversity of gender identities.
Sex-role theory does not explain power differences between men and women. It does not explain WHY it is men who are socialised into dominant positions and women in subordinate positions.
Oakley’s theory is based on the notion that there are clearly differentiated roles for men and women in society, whereas postmodern feminism suggests there is more of a diversity of roles.
It is a very passive theory of socialisation. It assumes that girls and boys simply soak up gender norms from their parents, whereas in reality boys and girls play a more active role in their own socialisation, and there are plenty of children who actively resist being socialised into traditional gender norms.
Gendering refers to an active process of individuals ‘doing gender’ and thus actively creating gender differences. It recognises that individuals play an active role in their own socialisation rather than it being a passive process in which their identities are simply determined by their social environment.
Individuals are influenced by their social environment but they actively engage and interact with it, and some choose to accept dominant gender norms and thus reproduce more traditional gender roles, but others choose to resist and challenge such norms creating a greater diversity of gender identities and changing the social environment.
Three levels of gendering
Harriet Bradley (2007) developed a theory of how gendering works, suggesting that that it operates at three different levels:
- The micro level involves individual decisions by men and women
- The meso level involves social institutions which rules about the expected behaviour of men and women: such as gendered school uniforms in school and sex-segregation in sports and prisons, for example.
- The macro or societal level. The micro and meso level come together to form structural differences in gender norms and roles which are very robust and operate across the whole of society.
Gendering at the these three levels operates to limit the behaviour of most ordinary men and women in day to day life. One example Bradley gives is that men cannot usually choose to wear dresses.
There is always the capacity for individuals to break away from gender norms (gendering is an active process after all), but we tend to see this most in people with power who are removed from the ordinary duties of daily life. Pop stars, for example, are among those most likely to break with traditional gender norms, because they have more freedom to experiment with diverse identities than ordinary people who have to hold down a regular job and look after their children.
This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity option which forms part of the first year A-level Sociology course (AQA specification)
Sources/ fiND OUT MORE
Anne Oakley (1974) The Sociology of Housework
Harriet Bradley (2007) Gender.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.