The psychology of gender falls within the broader field of gender studies and is a specific scientific approach to gender, conditioned by the methodology and conceptual framework of psychology. (Brannon, 2007, p. xv) Gender itself, as an area of study, has a relationship to biological sex, but has, at once, a paradoxical relationship with the latter. Gender itself is namely not reducible to biological sex (Brannon, 2007, p. xv). As such, the paradox of the relationship of gender to sex lies in that whereas particular concepts of gender may reflect differences in biological sex, these are particular interpretations of biological sex and therefore are socially constructed. Gender roles are particularly socially constructed conceptualizations of biological sex. (Kendall, 2008, p. 322) Accordingly, these concepts take perceived differences from biological sex and then extrapolate them into defined social roles. In other words, there is a certain gap between biological sex and gender roles: the former is interpreted socially and culturally to produce the latter. But this gap at once means that biological sex can be interpreted in many ways. This is empirically borne out by the diverse number of gender roles that exist. Consider, for example, the gender role of the female of the Mother, and the gender role of the martial female Amazons. Accordingly, one of the key features of the psychology of gender is understanding, firstly, that the gender roles are not merely social representations of biological sex, but particular and contingent interpretations of biological sex. Secondly, the psychology of gender understands that even though social representations of biological sex are ultimately interpretations, this does not mean that these social representations do not have clear psychological effects regarding how the individual sees him or herself in society according to their particular gender roles. At the same time, crucial to the psychology of gender is an understanding that whereas biological sex is the foundation for interpretations of gender, this does not necessarily indicate that conceptions of biological sex are themselves entirely objective and not socially determined. This is reflected in the difference between the maximal and minimal interpretations of biological essentialism. The former view entails that there are fundamental differences on the biological level which mark differences between the sexes, whereas the latter view indicates that these differences are minimal. (Bannon, 2007, p. 2) This difference not only demonstrates that biological sex itself remains subject to interpretation, but also yields two different views of how to approach gender. The former view would thus maintain that distinct social gender roles are reflective of the radical difference between sexes on the biological level, whereas the latter would suggest that since these differences are minimal, then any type of gender role concepts are essentially arbitrary and contingent.
Nevertheless, even if one accepts the arbitrary and contingent status of gender roles, the minimalist view does not argue that gender roles do not have an affect on individual psychology in relation to gender. Individuals experience society through gender, and, from the reverse perspective, society as a whole reflects stereotypes regarding gender. Through the media, for example, certain gender roles for the female and the male are promoted, for example, ideal visions of female beauty and stereotyped masculine qualities, such as aggression. Through the family structure, biological difference is repeated in the patterns whereby the daughter is identified with the mother and the son with the masculine traits of the father. (Brannon, 2007, p. 16) The family unit, therefore, in its traditional heterosexual form, reproduces the gender identities and the development of gender identities.
On the other hand, current popular culture also shows the way in which gender discourse has influenced how gender is conceived in culture, for example, with the large presence of homosexual characters on television shows, a phenomenon which had previously been a taboo. The United States on the federal level active promotion of homosexual rights (for example, during President Obama’s 2015 visit to Kenya) demonstrate that traditional concepts of gender roles, largely heterosexual, are no longer part of the dominant discourse of the Western Capitalist countries.
Nevertheless, the pertinence of gender role differentiation is still existent, for example, when considering the differences in specific social institutions such as education and work. With regards to education, the presence of gender roles is clear in the school experience, where implicit or explicit gender norms affect how male and female students are treated by the institution of education. (Brannon, 2007, pp. 278-288) With regards to education, on one level, gender roles are present in employment through the type of occupations that are promoted for specific genders. (Brannon, 2007, p. 307-309) On another level, when male and female perform the same job, the documented difference in, for example, wage differences in favor of males, reflects gender biases in society, which are ultimately patriarchal, in so far as the role of men is socially privileged. (Brannon, 2007, p. 307-309) Another area where the gender role difference is also reflected is that of mental health, which is of clear importance to the psychology of gender. Family roles and the reproduction of gender roles have empirical effects on particular mental health disorders. (Bannon, 2007, p. 364) This is not only how gender roles have had negative effects on mental health, but also from the reverse perspective, namely, how diagnoses of mental disorders have also been affected by gender, with the reservation of the diagnosis of hysteria only for women and the defined treatment of this psychopathology (Brannon, 2007, p. 389). Gender roles are a ubiquitous constitutive element of social and individual life.
- Brannon, L. (2007). Gender Psychological Perspectives (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Kendall, D. (2008). Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials. Boston: Cengage.