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Our society has a set of ideas about how we expect men and women to dress, behave, and present themselves.

What are gender roles?

Gender roles in society means how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex. For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing. Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold.

Every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations, but they can be very different from group to group. They can also change in the same society over time. For example, pink used to be considered a masculine color in the U.S. while blue was considered feminine.

How do gender stereotypes affect people?

A stereotype is a widely accepted judgment or bias about a person or group — even though it’s overly simplified and not always accurate. Stereotypes about gender can cause unequal and unfair treatment because of a person’s gender. This is called sexism.

There are four basic kinds of gender stereotypes:

  • Personality traits — For example, women are often expected to be accommodating and emotional, while men are usually expected to be self-confident and aggressive.

  • Domestic behaviors — For example, some people expect that women will take care of the children, cook, and clean the home, while men take care of finances, work on the car, and do the home repairs.

  • Occupations — Some people are quick to assume that teachers and nurses are women, and that pilots, doctors, and engineers are men.

  • Physical appearance — For example, women are expected to be thin and graceful, while men are expected to be tall and muscular. Men and women are also expected to dress and groom in ways that are stereotypical to their gender (men wearing pants and short hairstyles, women wearing dresses and make-up.

Hyperfemininity is the exaggeration of stereotyped behavior that’s believed to be feminine. Hyperfeminine folks exaggerate the qualities they believe to be feminine. This may include being passive, naive, sexually inexperienced, soft, flirtatious, graceful, nurturing, and accepting.

Hypermasculinity is the exaggeration of stereotyped behavior that’s believed to be masculine. Hypermasculine folks exaggerate the qualities they believe to be masculine. They believe they’re supposed to compete with other men and dominate feminine folks by being aggressive, worldly, sexually experienced, insensitive, physically imposing, ambitious, and demanding.

These exaggerated gender stereotypes can make relationships between people difficult. Hyperfeminine folks are more likely to endure physical and emotional abuse from their partners. Hypermasculine folks are more likely to be physically and emotionally abusive to their partners.

Extreme gender stereotypes are harmful because they don’t allow people to fully express themselves and their emotions.  For example, it’s harmful to masculine folks to feel that they’re not allowed to cry or express sensitive emotions. And it’s harmful to feminine folks to feel that they’re not allowed to be independent, smart or assertive. Breaking down gender stereotypes allows everyone to be their best selves.

How can I fight gender stereotypes?

You probably see gender stereotypes all around you. You might also have seen or experienced sexism, or discrimination based on gender. There are ways to challenge these stereotypes to help everyone — no matter their gender or gender identity — feel equal and valued as people.

  • Point it out — Magazines, TV, film, and the Internet are full of negative gender stereotypes. Sometimes these stereotypes are hard for people to see unless they’re pointed out. Be that person! Talk with friends and family members about the stereotypes you see and help others understand how sexism and gender stereotypes can be hurtful.

  • Be a living example — Be a role model for your friends and family. Respect people regardless of their gender identity. Create a safe space for people to express themselves and their true qualities regardless of what society’s gender stereotypes and expectations are.

  • Speak up — If someone is making sexist jokes and comments, whether online or in person, challenge them.

  • Give it a try — If you want to do something that’s not normally associated with your gender, think about whether you’ll be safe doing it. If you think you will, give it a try. People will learn from your example.

If you’ve been struggling with gender or gender identity and expectations, you’re not alone. It may help you to talk to a trusted parent, friend, family member, teacher, or counselor.

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