The Social Construction of Gender
Theories have been established to explain social construction especially the social construction of gender. However research has shown that many people do not know what it means for gender to be a social construct and what are the factors that determine its existence together with the implications of social construction theory of gender. In order to distinguish how social construction takes place in our societies, we need to know difference between sex and gender and how they influence our social lives.
It should be noted that a social construct is something that does not exist on its own but is developed by the society for its own good and varies with time and from one society to another. Social construction is developed by cultural practices of the people together with their values and norms. Therefore social construction of gender refers to things practices; behavior, responsibilities and other societal happenings that are termed to be for one gender or another (Freud, 1999).
There is great difference between sex and gender that we need to identify in order to understand the social construction of gender. Generally, sex refers to the fact of being either male or female and no more. On the other hand, gender refers to social practices of either being a male or female or being a feminine and masculine. Many people believe that sex differences are the cause of unequal treatment between men and women (Kane & Parks, 1992). However, it should be noted that men and women have more equal traits in terms of sex than differences and therefore sex cannot be the a core contributor to inequality between men and women witnessed in our societies.
According to researchers, there is another difference known as ‘gender difference,’ that is constructed by people depending on their culture, behavior and beliefs. Unlike sex difference which is static, gender difference is dynamic and is the one responsible for the prevailing inequality between females and males in terms of power, labor and domestic responsibilities. This paper highlights on the history of social construction of gender, its development and contemporary theories that explain its occurrence and impacts to members of the society (Kane & Parks, 1992).
According to social construction theorists, there is no important character that is generally accepted for male or females. Sex differences are not adequate enough to determine responsibilities of women and men in the society. However, people have been exaggerating sex differences in order to cover for unfair treatment of women in most parts of the world. This behavior is common in men who are normally favored by most cultural practices in our societies. They blame and associate their privileges with the fact that they are men and their female counterparts are women (Groce & Cooper, 1990). However, research has shown that these are baseless arguments that are cultivated by male chauvinists in order to justify and continue their dominance over women or females in general.
However, what normally happens is that biological differences are magnified to gender difference, determined by man practices and beliefs, which shape societal behavior in favor of him. The power of the ideologies of gender differences is normally manifested in their ability to influence social construction of gender and the facts that these constructs are different in different historical times justifies the theory that social construction of gender is dynamic. According to the latest theories on gender constructs, it is these gender ideologies that shape our behavior in terms of what we do, what is expected of us and what we cannot do (Groce & Cooper, 1990). Gender difference ideologies are therefore responsible for the most of the inequalities witnessed in our societies especially in construction of identity, relationships between men and women and roles of different members of the society.
This can be witnessed in our own families whereby there are specific responsibilities that are done by fathers and others by mothers, and they did not occur naturally or due to their sex differences. However, this does not disapprove biological facts like those that approve the responsibility of women to give birth. Since this paper is about social constructs and biological facts are not socially influenced, we are going to concentrate only on gender based constructs and how they determine the degree of discrimination, disadvantage and advantage among men and women (Williams, 1989).
Theorists argue that differences in the behavior of these two genders is brought about by factors such as religion, sexual preference, age, body shape, class, cultural practices and beliefs, ability and locality among others. When it comes to construction of gender, theorists explain that both sexes (men and women or boys and girls), are the ones who actively construct their own gendered personalities. However they argue that there are no systematic methods for men and women to use while choosing these gender personalities. There are situations where by they choose contradicting femininities and masculinities characteristics (Amadiume, 1996). For instance, a man may identify himself with characteristics that are believed to be feminine and vice versa.
According to social theorist such as Allard and Cooper, gender construction is dynamic process that keeps on changing with time depending on characteristics that individual and society choose to either adapt or reject in their view of gender. Therefore, contradiction in social relationships on the basis of gender and sex, need to be evaluated in order to understand what roles they play in our lives. Research has shown that many societies have established gender constructs that favor males at the expense of females. This is normally common to conservative societies such as those from African and Asian countries.
For instance, the issue of power is associated with masculinity and basically this is character for men. Most of our social constructs emphasize masculine desires, accommodating male desires; his technical competence, aggression; heterosexuality and other culturally determine gender constructs that are in favor of men. However, these biased constructs are not only unfair to women but also lead men to engage in bad behaviors such a drinking alcohol, smoking and even involvement in criminal activities simply because of the fact that they are males and they can do what they desire.
Gendered social constructs are the one responsible for classification of responsibilities that is witnessed in our societies. Initially, it was believed that the behavior of a person in a society was solely determined by sex, either being a male or female. However, study has shown that gender determines how people behave and their responsibilities. For instance, cooking, taking care of the children, doing other domestic chores and beauty are attributed to the feminine gender in some communities (Williams, 1989). On the other hand, characteristics such as power, aggressiveness, violence, ability are believed to be for masculine gender. However, these gendered social constructs differ from time to time and from one society to another. For instance, it is not a big deal for western men to cook or take care of the kids but in most of the African and Asian countries, these responsibilities are meant for women. On the other hand, western women involve themselves in practices such as politics, working in army forces but in Eastern countries these practices are only for men (Kane & Parks, 1992).
Anti feminism theorists
These believe that there are characteristics that are meant for men and others for women. They argue that allocation of social responsibilities on the basis of gender differences is not a violation of women rights or a discrimination of women but on the contrary, it is doing what is socially accepted. These theorists were very influential in the middle 20th century, a situation that resulted to creation of women movements to fight of their rights (Williams, 1989). Although the arguments by these theorists are unclear and even contradicting, researchers have agreed on the strong influence that excessive concentration on equality of women and men can have on boys and education issues.
They argue that violating what is created by our culture in order to create new provision for women has reduced concentration on the male child which means he will be the future endangered group. However, feminist theorists have publicly challenged these arguments and call for male counterparts to create awareness for boy child other than criticizing their efforts to fight for their own group (Amadiume, 1996). Thy advocated for more male role models for who should promote empowerment of a boy child in order to reduce drawbacks of social construction of gender other than playing blame games.
Essentialism, biological theory
According to those who advocate this theory, biological differences are responsible for behavioral diversities that are witnessed between men and women. Essentialism is a biological theory that explains the role of some biological differences in body structures such as brain structures, competitiveness, aggressiveness and other masculine and feminine characteristics that are not influenced by our social lives. Just like their anti feminism counterparts, these theorist argue that there are characteristics and behavior among people that are determine by their sex and should not be changed since they are natural (Williams, 1989).
According to these theorists, these chemicals differ between boys and girls and therefore they cannot behave the same nor have the same responsibilities in the society no matter how much we may try to promote gender equality. However, the theory is not sufficient since it fails to explain why there is diversity in members of the same gender.
Sex Role Theory
This is another theory that tries to explain social construction of gender. According to the theorist of this model, males and females tend to acquire traits from their elder groups who act as role models. These traits are passed from one member group to another through socialization that takes in institutions such as families, camps, schools and other social institutions. Their behavior and resuming of different responsibilities in the society are believed to be products of socialization (Amadiume, 1996). However the theory is not sufficient in explaining social construction of gender since it has strong links with biological theory that is not effective too. The theory also ignores the efforts of individuals to choose behaviors and responsibilities without being influenced by their senior members of the same hence making it less effective.
Considering all the theories that try to explain social construction of gender, it clear that theories that try to relate gender constructs with sex, being a male or female are not sufficient and they hold no water at all. The fact the one is a male or female brings difference in biological processes such as giving birth or breastfeeding which are not which do not influence social lives of individuals or society at large (Ridgeway, 2000). It is evident that the way we behave and things that we do are influenced by our social lives. It is our culture, believes, norms and values that exist in our society that shape our behavior since they determine what is acceptable for every gender or not. However, these gender based ideologies have resulted to substantial negative impacts to women such as lack of access to certain resources in the society, discrimination in leadership and job allocation among other privileges that have been left only for the masculine gender (Groce & Cooper, 1990).
The situation is gradually changing and women have made tremendous achievement in fighting for their rights. However, this has created gender conflicts as men and women compete for limited resources and overcome gendered social constructs that impose challenges to the organization and cohesion of the entire society. Though the strategies that women are using to negotiate for their rights vary depending on the ability and capacity to risk changes, the most common strategy is through formation of movements that fight for their rights in the society. They are also trying to cope with the current situation by accepting their fate, adaption and even resisting what they fill unfit to them (Reskin, 1988).Though these actions are increasing their conflict with their male counterparts, they should understand that social change has to come with some sacrifices and it is the obligation of women to claim for what is rightfully theirs in the society.
Social construction of gender has been there for long time since the history of man. Behavior and allocation of responsibilities as been done on the basis of gender ideologies that are determined by cultural practices that vary from one society to another. It is evident that most of the gendered social constructs favor the male gender making man to remain dominant over the woman. The fact that social gender constructs are dynamic is evidence enough that elimination of discriminating social constructs cannot cause any harm to the social system like it is argued by some theorists ( Ortner, 1993), Therefore, women and men should rise and reject social gender constructs that make them unequal with their male counterparts. It is the high time for men in the society to accept women in positions that were initially preserved for men only. Men should understand that the question of who does something or who is accepted to do it, what and when to do it do not matter in the social context as long as the action is for the good of the entire society.