An Evaluation of Sex Role Theories: the Clash Between Idealism and Reality

Susan Hesselbart, Florida State University
ABSTRACT - This paper describes how different sex role theories can create new or perpetuate old myths about women and men. Research evidence is used to evaluate how well these myths fit reality.
[ to cite ]:
Susan Hesselbart (1981) ,"An Evaluation of Sex Role Theories: the Clash Between Idealism and Reality", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 570-575.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 570-575


Susan Hesselbart, Florida State University


This paper describes how different sex role theories can create new or perpetuate old myths about women and men. Research evidence is used to evaluate how well these myths fit reality.

Many consequences of contemporary feminism are now part of our daily lives. As with other social changes, theories are devised to explain new realities. This paper explores some new and old theories about gender and society, and the potential these approaches have far gender mythology.

We have discarded old and created new myths about the sexes during the past 15 years. Largely discarded myths include: the dire consequences to the offspring of employed women; that only men enjoy sex; or that sex discrimination vanished years ago. New myths include: the spectre of men as "emotional cripples"; that successful employed women now acquire men's "stress diseases"; or that both sexes are now converging in role demands and behavior.

Social myths serve functions for those who hold and promulgate them. Myths can be used to block or to foster social change. By "mythology" I mean that either: (1) data exist to invalidate the myth; (2) at best biased data support the myth; or (3) the mythological structure is illogical or inconsistent.

I will examine sex role theories along two dimensions: (1) postulating many versus relatively few sex differences; and (2) the attribution of similarities or differences to mainly biology ("nature") or to culture ("nurture"). Although each dimension is a continuum, for simplicity here I will treat each as a dichotomy.


The Extent of Sex Differences

Most past and current sex role theories assume that there are many sex differences in character and social position. These differences correspond to common stereotypes held by laypersons. Men are generally portrayed as dominant, aggressive and stoical while women are viewed as warm, nurturing, cooperative and sensitive. The social positions resulting from these perceived differences assign men to "instrumental" task and leadership roles, taking an active part in major social organizations, e.g., the economic and political. Meanwhile, women play "expressive" roles emphasizing nurturence, e.g., nursing or child care. Some claim that these are universal patterns. Approaches postulating many sex differences include most sociobiologists (e.g., Barash 1977, Goldberg 1974, Wilson 1978); recent work on men's roles (see the collections in Lewis and Pleck 1979 or Pleck and Brannon 1978); functional sociologists (Parsons and Bales 1955); and those advocating "crossover" or convergent sex roles (e.g., Giele 1978).

A theorist could believe that these sex differences are mainly shaped by "nature" or "nurture". Virtually all theorists believe that women's part in reproduction powerfully influences sex roles. Beyond this, theories diverge widely in terms of how much can be attributed to biology and why biology is important.

Far fewer theorists see relatively small sex differences. Those in this category focus generally more on social roles than on personality characteristics. Not surprisingly, most favor "nurture" over "nature". They place the greatest emphasis on how social change--technical, demographic or ideological--influences both sexes (e.g., see Huber 1976).

Nature Versus Nurture

Sociobiologists believe that traits are selected for "evolutionary fitness". Those enabling an organism to survive long enough to reproduce are passed to offspring. Many of these theorists believe that females have more "investment" in offspring than males. Females bear and nurse their young and are certain that a child is theirs, whereas males cannot be certain. This "investment" difference puts males in a "seller's market" competing to be found attractive by females. Economic provision and protection are two assets sales can use to increase their attractiveness. Thus traits such as aggression or mental acuity were "selected for" in men. Since humans have a long, dependent infancy, traits such as nurturance in caregivers increase offspring survival; thus these were "selected for" in women.

Sociobiologists do not explicitly say that "anatomy is destiny". Rather biological sex is a predisposition or potential. Nevertheless, sociobiologists are also those who claim near universality of certain patterns, e.g., men's economic productivity or women as caretakers of children.

"Nature" theorists believe that biology shapes individuals who then shape society. In contrast, "nurture" types see the role of the sexes in reproduction as shaping societal institutions which then shape personality. To survive, any society must keep fertility at least at replacement levels. Societies with high mortality also need high fertility. In labor-intensive societies, children are also an economic asset.

All this implies that in earlier societies women bore and attempted to rear many children. Survival past reproductive ages was rare for both sexes until this century. Average longevity is below age .50 for many nations today. Thus, until recently, women spent most of their adult lives as mothers. Women's productivity was constrained by maternal mobility.

Changes influencing both sexes occurred with the industrial revolution. Productive labor moved from the home to the factory. Given women's maternal constraints, this largely meant that men left the home to take part in an increasingly cash monetary system. Home crafts that formerly had been women's work also moved to the factory. At the same time, improved living conditions led to less mortality. Children were less often seen as economic assets.

These changes have been viewed as leading to the devaluation of women. Productive "women's work" shifted outside the home or (in the case of childbearing) was seen as less valuable. Wage-earners in a cash economy have more power than those with little cash income. Thus, men as a class have been hypothesized to gain power over women as a class.

This view suggests that sex differences respond to the condition of larger society and are mainly the result of socialization. During childhood, the sexes are trained to appropriately fit into adult roles. If men earn their living in an industrialized culture stressing achievement, then boys are trained to be competitive and ambitious. If women remain within the home tending to children and adult men, they need training instead in forms of emotional expressivity (e.g., Hoffman 1977, Huber 1976, Oakley 1974, Parsons and Bales 1955, Stockard and Johnson 1980.)

Many "nurture" theorists are especially interested in adult socialization. For example, Kanter (1977a) stresses how adults are shaped by occupational hierarchies within car-potations. Persons of either sex low in the hierarchy behave in stereotypically "female" ways, for example, stressing sociability on the job or having low aspirations for promotion. If the job is a dead-end one, these may be realistic responses.

Those taking a "nurture" stance also stress how demands made by different institutions shape individual behavior. Role incompatible demands can occur among both sexes, but they are especially pronounced for women--particularly for mothers in the paid labor force. These women face two jobs, one outside the house and one within. This "role overload" means that women have less leisure tine than men. For example, employed married man in 1975 averaged 36 hours a week leisure time compared with 32 hours a week for employed married women (U.S. Department of Commerce 1977, Table 10/1). These types of differential demands may produce "sex differences" rather than biology or personality traits.

Finally, a few theorists perceive relatively small sex differences but attribute these mainly to "nature". The most famous example is Maccoby and Jacklin's The Psychology of Sex Differences (1974, but also contrast Bardwick 1979 with Bardwick 1971). These perceived sex differences mainly center around greater male aggression.


These theoretical approaches have implications for the creation and perpetuation of social science mythology. Such myths extend beyond the academic community. They can shape perceived social reality, and can define whether social change is possible or desirable, the kinds of changes sought and the benefits and costs of change. For example, the distinction that Freud made between vaginal and clitoral orgasm influenced research, therapy and women's self images for decades.

The Case of "Fear of Success"

A more recent case is the "motive to avoid success" (Mas), sometimes called "fear of success" (Horner 1968). Mas was conceptualized as a stable, internalized motive, learned early, held by bright woman who had the greatest chances for success. High Mas women fear the consequences of succeeding in male-typed professions such as medicine. Social rejection is seen as the "reward" for these accomplishments. When high Mas women are placed in a competitive or male-typed achievement situation, they will tend to lower their performance.

"Myth" may seem too strong to assign to "fear of success". However, most data do not replicate the patterns that Horner predicted. Indeed reanalyses of Horner's dissertation data do not support her hypotheses. Tresemer (l976) found that high Mas women in Homer's date had the highest performance scores of all women in five out of six conditions. With more sophisticated research designs, what was categorized as an internal motive among women may turn out to be negative stereotypes about achieving women held by both sexes (e.g., see Levine and Crumrine 1975, Zuckerman and Wheeler 1975).

Let's consider some implications of the "fear of success" example. It implies that women's actual performance is below men's because women are hampered by Mas. In an economy that claims that merit is the most important determinant of reward, this suggests that women's lower rewards (e.g., income) result from their own performance. It should be noted, however, that many studies have found that the identical performance is rated lower when a woman's name is attached rather than a man's.

The "fear of success" perspective also specifies the remedy: women must change through therapy; "assertiveness workshops"; remedial education; or self-help books teaching one office politics. Finally, hidden in "fear of success" and many other individual differences approaches to gender is the idea that major traits and motives are instilled in childhood and adolescence and are very difficult to change during adulthood. This means we will need to wait many years for a new, strong generation of women to grow up before substantial social change can occur. The generational change remedy contrasts with suggestions by those stressing social structure (e.g., Kanter 1977a 1977b) and the short-term changes that organization changes can produce.

"Fear of success" became popularized during the early 1970s. Ironically, better designed later research which does not support the Mas has remained cloistered in academia. I suspect that a social science approach stressing individual differences is probably more acceptable than a social structure approach to Americans, who are told that it is individual merit that "really counts". A structural approach is also obviously more costly to existing organizations than one stressing individual change. "Fear of success" serves the needs of business and government far better than potential myth stressing massive social change.

The Seeds of Mythology

Different approaches to gender and society have differential susceptibility to mythology. In the preceding example, I pointed out that an approach stressing individual differences will try to locate motives and traits to explain social phenomena such as the lower economic rewards to women than to men. In general, I believe that approaches that either (1) stress relatively large numbers of sex differences or (2) attribute most perceived sex differences to biology have the greatest probabilities of creating or perpetuating mythology. Theories assuming relatively few differences with a nurture approach may be less susceptible to myth creation.

This does not mean that there are no sex differences in reality or that biology plays no role in gender differentiation. For example, cross-cultural work strongly suggests that pregnancy (rather than physical strength or personality traits) has influenced the gender differentiation of labor. Jobs that are predominantly male involve mobility: hunting; fishing; soldiering. Women's productive labor is closer to home: domestic agriculture; infant care. With low birth rates, highly predictable contraception, medically safe abortion and safe substitutions for mother's milk products of the last century, it is not surprising that much of women's roles had centered around the care of young children. Cross-cultural and time series data also imply that greater physical activity (which does not necessarily mean aggression) is more characteristic of males than females (e.g., Boserup 1970, Huber 1976, Maccoby and Jacklin 1974, Oakley 1974, Stephens 1965.

Thus, a theory need not stress that there are no sex differences at all. What I am saying is that approaches that a priori assume large sex differences or that biology strongly influences sex differences in "personality" are more open to social science myth creation. A priori assumptions constrain which topics are studied, how topics are studied, and how results are interpreted. Research using true "null hypotheses" would assume at first that there would not be sex differences. To confirm or reject such hypotheses, we need to ask similar research questions about both sexes. In most cases, this is exactly what has not been dome and our research accordingly has often contributed to mythology.

Consider again "fear of success". Horner a priori emphasized the importance of personality traits over, say, social structure in academic and economic achievement. This meant that effects from, for example, the hierarchical organization of corporations and the roles of each sex within these were not considered. Horner also assumed that the achievement conflicts within women would be reflected in the stories college students told about Thematic Apperception Test cues. Given that TAT responses were assumed to reflect internal conflict (rather than social stereotypes), Horner saw little need to present cross-sex cues. Thus, women responded only to a female referent and men only to a male referent. When later research did use cross-sex cues, men reacted with higher "fear of success" imagery to successful women cues than women did--hardly confirming the Mas as an internal personality motive.

Instrumental and Expressive Role Mythology

In another current myth, many functional sociologists assumed a priori that sex differences result in a certain evolution of social structure. Men's instrumental or task oriented role was to "represent" the family to the outside world. His employment sets the social statue for the entire family. Women play an expressive, socio-emotional role within the home. This efficient division of labor prevented spouses "competing" with each other for status were both to have an engrossing "career'' ( Parsons 1942, Parsons and Bales, 1955). The nearly wholesale buying of this myth continued until the late 1960s.

The "expressive/instrumental" mythology resulted in the neglect of many research questions even though existing data did not support it. For example, Parsons himself (1942) noted that this differentiation was mainly true only of the upper middle class. Working class families usually needed both spouses in the labor market (but see Oppenheimer 1977 on middle and working class data). Even in 1979, only 30 percent of employed men were in professional or technical occupations, i.e., those with the greatest chances to become upper middle class. The majority of men have blue collar jobs which are neither "engrossing careers" nor the route to upper middle class status. Thus, relatively few Americans can afford the "expressive/instrumental" differentiation.

The functionalists' division of roles assumes that a man's top priority is has work and a woman's is her family. This is particularly mythical when applied to men. While the largest allotment of time for married men may be to their job, whenever the question has been asked, men rank their families as their highest priority and greatest source of satisfaction. Survey data have been consistent on this since at least the l940s, and such results have been obtained from all strata of men (see a review in Hesselbart 1978 and also Pleck and Ling 1978). Because of the functionalist approach, we have largely ignored men's family roles and treated women's employment as a "social problem" (Feldberg and Glenn 1979, Lewis and Peck 1979).

Perhaps because social science has rarely explored the family for both sexes with parallel questions, functionalist though has precisely reversed the roles of each sex within the family. A correlated myth is that full-time housewives do not "work". Housework was hardly examined until the middle 1970s, and it is made clear that the major role women play within the home is instrumental (Berk 1980. Glazer 1976, Oakley 1974 U.S. Department of Commerce 1977, Table 10/1). It is hard to define the average 44 hour housework week for fulltime housewives and the 25 hour housework week for wives in paid employment as "expressivity". It is also usually the wife who represents the family to institutions other than paid employment, e.g., churches, PTA meetings, kin contact, or tradespersons. In contrast, husbands enjoy more expressive family relations, such as playing with (rather than routine care for) children or recreation. In comparison with wives, married employed men spent only 10 hours a week in family care in 1975.

"Nature" and Myth Perpetuation

Those who postulate many sex differences due to biology often end up either apologists or strident defenders of the status quo. Many sociologists argue that most sex differences in social structure and social institutions are inevitable universals. Male dominance in politics, culture or the economy are proposed as true of virtually all societies. Man's greater physical strength and logical character cause male dominance (e.g., Barash 1977, Goldberg 1974, Wilson 1978).

In proclaiming these universals sociobiologists exaggerate cross-cultural similarities. These are used to justify the relative lack of change in Western gender stratification. Even if large changes were possible, they would be so costly, change would not be worth it. Sex differences appearing dysfunctional now (e .g., norms encouraging women to have large families) were adapted in "99 percent" of our evolutionary history and would take generations to change. These assertions ignore the great variability in women's contributions to society, especially in economic productivity (e.g., Aronoff and Crano 1975, Boserup 1970, Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974).

Sex differences treated as biological or universal can also betray a curious sense of history. For example, women's greater longevity is a phenomenon of the twentieth century and may be due more to living habits (e .g., lower accident rates) than to biology (Harrison 1978). Such "universal" assertions are also contradicted by research that finds that sex differences appearing in early childhood during the 1950s or 1960s now do not emerge until adolescence during the 1970s (e.g., male superiority in math skills, Maccoby and Jacklin 1974). Even the most determined sociobiologists do not argue for spontaneous mutation and evolution over a 20 year period.

Nurture, the "Feminine Principle" and "Role Crossover"

Those subscribing to many sex differences instilled by culture can fall prey to other mythologies. In particular, they are susceptible to the mythology of the "feminine principle". Women's lives and "women's traits" are seen as healthier, more flexible and more useful to modern society than traditionally "male traits". These theorists argue for and perceive a society in which both sexes are becoming more alike or are "crossing over" into roles or traits that embody the "best" of both gender stereotypes. Thus, women gain more interests in paid employment or politics while men become more familial oriented. The healthiest persons are those showing the strengths of both sexes: "masculine" competence and "feminine" nurturance (e.g., Bem 1975 or Giele 1978).

Derivations from the "feminine principle" caution women against becoming "too masculine". "Executive stress" diseases once confined to men now strike the women entering "men's professions" or managerial roles. Related to "executive stress" is the belief that men suffer because they are not allowed women's emotional expressivity. A theme of "how my life as a man has been crippled because I am not allowed to cry" repeatedly appears in those theorizing about male roles. Yet another spin-off is the role of "society's housekeeper" a myth that is the societal analogue to women's Victorian housekeeper role. Once women share power sore equally with men, women will clean up the "messes" that men, like little boys, leave behind; war; ecological waste; inflexible life timetables; and hierarchical organizations (e.g., Bardwick 1979, Giele 1978, Kenzer 1978, Lewis 1978).

There is a common core to these myths, Researchers creating and perpetuating them hold highly stereotyped views about the sexes. Men really are much more aggressive, repressed and hierarchical than women; women really are much more nurturant, emotional and cooperative than men. The problem is that men and women neither describe themselves so differently nor behave so differently to support such myths (Maccoby and Jacklin 1974). What are sometimes called "sex differences" by those unfamiliar with research on social structure may result from playing superior and subordinate social roles (e .g,, Henley 1977, Kanter 1977a). Unfortunately, occupying a subordinate social position does not imply greater mental health or flexibility but instead a possible legacy of self-doubt, anxiety or depression (Deaux 1976, Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend 1976 Pearlin and Johnson 1977). Finally, women's roles are changing more than those of men suggesting that "role crossover" is quite a way into the future.

How well are these recent myths supported? Let's first look at "executive stress". Relatively few women are employed as managers--six percent in 1979 (14 percent of employed men). Most, of course, are not at the upper echelons where ulcers and heart disease reputedly strike. Comparisons of health rates over time fail to suggest that women were starting to suffer from "executive stress" more during the late l970s. Age-adjusted death rates on cause of death showed lower not higher ratios in 1976 then in 1970 for women heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. These ratios were slightly higher for women in 1976 than in 1970 on respiratory diseases, homicide and ulcers--but women's rates were under half of men's. Life expectancy tables favoring women's longevity increased by & tenth of a year between 1970 and 1977. Death rates for heart diseases among young adults fell steeply for both sexes between 1950 and 1977. Five percent fewer women in the early l970s said they had had or were near a "nervous breakdown" then in the early 1960s (men's comments fell by less than one percent). Age adjusted rates of acute illness dropped on respiratory illness very slightly for both sexes and rates of digestive illness and injuries rose for both sexes between 1970 and 1977. Rates of increase were nearly identical for both sexes (U.S. Department of Commerce 1977: Tables 5/8 5/39, U.S. Department of Commerce 1979: Tables 2/12/3, U.S. Department of Commerce 1980: Tables 100 112)..

What is apparent is that more young women are smoking cigarettes. In 1974 among 17 and 18 year olds, 31 percent of boys and 26 percent of girls smoked cigarettes, The rates were identical far boys in 1968 but only 19 percent of girls smoked then (U.S. Department of commerce 1977 Table 5/27). This is taking its toll in converging rates of respiratory illness. Of course, the inferential leap from increased smoking among teenage girls to the dire prophecies of "executive stress" is large and other data here do not support this leap.

There is little systematic research examining how social reactions to emotional expression differ across subgroups or situations. However, it is interesting that so many recent theorists on men's roles seem to believe that women's crying receives social approval. Women's supposed greater emotionality is frequently cited as a reason to exclude women from political office or executive suites--hardly a sign of social approval. Further, men may be allowed to express anger more frequently then woman. Some psychologists (e.g., Chesler 1972) believe that anger turned inward instead of out can result in depression, and it is the case that women in the United States generally show a higher incidence of depression then men (e.g., Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend 1976).

The role of "society's housekeeper" is actually a partial resurrection of the "female purity" myth used in the early 1900s when women sought the right to vote. Women are portrayed as more humane, opposed to war or to the sufferings of poverty then men. In public opinion polls there is some substance to this myth, but sex differences are relative rather than polarized. For exhale, if 53 percent of women and 66 percent of men support a military draft (Gallup Poll February 1980), just how humane could we expect a government of women to be? Both sexes are usually on the same sides of the issue even when sex differences in public opinion occur (see "The Polls" in the Public Opinion Quarterly or the Gallup Opinion Index for more examples).

Despite stereotypes among both managers and laypersons, women do not seen to bring unique humane contributions to business either. Women and men in similar jobs have similar values and personalities (Kanter 1977a, Reif, et. al. 1975) whether through self-selection or adult socialization. It is possible that with more women in management larger sex differences might appear, but this is really conjecture at this time.

If sociobiologists and functionalists seem to serve the status quo, -any of those arguing that large sex differences occur because of culture hold out a beacon of social change to benefit everyone. If androgyny becomes more prevalent, both sexes will gain. However, evidence supporting the "feminine principle" myths does not seem any more compelling then those supporting "gender universals".

I suspect that the "feminine principle" is a lure to sweeten the problems of social change. Shifts in gender and society influence us all, especially if these shifts involve a rebalancing of social power. Scanzoni (1979) suggests that women's negotiations to change men's roles in marriage may involve self-interest and/or altruism to effect greater role sharing. For example, it can be argued that a wife's employment (which seems to give her more power in marriage) makes her "more attractive" or a "better companion" then if she is not employed. A similar phenomenon of a "self-interest sell" may be occurring among social scientists who want more gender equality.

Socio-technical Models and Social Change

Socio-technical and structural models of gender have been left until last because I believe these models offer the least fertile ground for myth creation. Most theories of gender, these included, are "middle range". A larger theory should be grounded in tentative assumptions about both sexes that allow the greatest possible comparisons about sex differences and similarities over time and space. Socio-technical and structural models at this time come closest to this goal but systematic research using "null hypotheses" is just beginning.

We must begin to study the roles of men as parents, spouses, friends or lovers and women's labor whether cash compensated or not. "The family- seems to be a high priority for both sexes but we don't yet know how or whether the familial concept differs for women and men (the data on housework and men's expressivity do give some clues here). Survey data do not suggest that men's interest in the family is a recent one. Changes that we see now, such as child custody in divorce may reflect old values activated by the recent women's movement. The connections between women's and men's value priorities and chants in social structure need a good deal more research.

Socio-technical theories appear to better explain the dramatic shifts that have occurred in women's labor force participation and the implications of these shifts for other institutions. The rise of married women in the labor market and rising divorce rates preceded rather than followed contemporary feminism. A combination of low birth rates in the 1930s, high birth rates in the 1950s and an economy increasing in the service sector drew married women into the job market. By 1979, 49 percent of all women, 57 percent of the married mothers of school age children and 42 percent of the married mothers of preschool children were in the labor force. Accordingly, changes occurred in attitudes toward the acceptability of employed wives.

With more permanence in the labor market and with legal chants against discrimination, women's academic aspirations have changed. In 1977, women received 46 percent of bachelor's degrees, 47 percent of master's degrees and 25 percent of doctorates compared with 42 percent, 40 percent and only 14 percent respectively in 1971. In 1977, 12 percent of women receiving bachelor's degrees majored in business, engineering or physical science, double the 1971 percentage. Nearly 20 percent of new physicians were women in 1977 and 23 percent of new lawyers compared with eight and five percent in 1971 (Digest of Educational Statistics 1972: Table 114 U.S. Department of Commerce 1980: Tables 281 282 283).

With greater chances for self support (even with 59 percent of a man's income), more women seem to be electing to stay single. In 1978, 48 percent of women in their early 20s and 18 percent of those in their late 20s had never married, compared with 28 and 11 percent in 1960. Live birth rates plummeted from 118 per thousand women aged 15 to 44 in 1960 to 68 in 1977. Of ever married women, 25 percent were still childless in their late 20s in 1978 compared with 13 percent in 1960 (U.S. Department of Commerce 1980: Tables 54 83 91). Thus, the demographic and socio-technical factors which helped bring married women into paid employment in the 1950s and 1960s have probably "spilled over" indirectly into other forces of social life.

These sociocultural issues have not been postulated to cause large changes in men's roles, and, indeed men's lives seem not to have changed as much as women's over the last 20 years. Husbands do not generally do more housework when wives are employed, although they may now be spending a little more time in the 1970s then 15 years earlier (Pleck 1979). While women opted for more "masculine" college majors in the 1970s, men did not "cross-over" into fields such as nursing or childcare (see Hesselbart and Bayer 1978). At least one recent study (Margolis 1979) suggests that the "corporation man" is still wedded to his company with its attendant geographical mobility. Possibly it is the changes in women's work roles juxtaposed with the lack of changes in men's family roles that have led young women and men to marry and have children less frequently.

Even changes in the roles of one sex, women, have brought about substantial debate, legal change and scholarly research. Perhaps it is a measure of the anxiety caused by changes in basic roles that has laid the ground for new social science mythology on gender and the revival of old myths. It seems time to stop creating mythology and to do basic, unbiased research that is decades overdue.


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