Hesperian Health Guides

Sex and Gender Roles

This content is from
pages 182 to 183 of Where Women Have No Doctor

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Each person is born with either a girl’s body or a boy’s body. These physical differences determine a person’s sex.

A person’s gender role refers to the way a community defines what it is to be a woman or a man. Each community expects women and men to look, think, feel, and act in certain ways, simply because they are women or men. In most communities, for example, women are expected to prepare food, gather water and fuel, and care for their children and partner. Men, however, are often expected to work outside the home to provide for their families and parents in old age, and to defend their families from harm.

Unlike the physical differences between men and women, gender roles are created by the community. Some activities, like washing and ironing clothing, are considered ‘women’s work’ in many communities. But others vary from place to place—depending on a community’s traditions, laws, and religions. Gender roles can even vary within communities, based on how much education a person has, her social status, or her age. For example, in some communities women of a certain class are expected to do domestic work, while other women have more choice about the work they do.

a man working with a hammer and nails In most communities, women and men are expected to dress differently, and to do different work. This is part of their gender role. a woman preparing food while wearing a scarf that covers her head and face

How gender roles are learned

Gender roles are passed down from adults to children. From the time children are very young, parents and others treat girls and boys differently—sometimes without realizing they do so. Children watch their elders closely, noticing how they behave, how they treat each other, and what their roles are in the community.

As children grow up, they accept these roles because they want to please their parents and other respected adults, and because these people have more authority in the community. These roles also help children know who they are and what is expected of them.

As the world changes, gender roles also change. Many young people want to live differently from their parents or grandparents. It can be difficult to change, but as women and men struggle to redefine their gender roles, they can also improve their sexual health.

This page was updated:01 Feb 2021