Gender Role Incongruency and Memorable Gift Exchange Experiences

ABSTRACT - Men are typically thought to dislike being involved in gift giving. The results of this study, however, show that men’s involvement in gift exchange is sometimes incongruent with society’s gender role expectations. Using written narratives of memorable gift exchange experiences, we find that men are far more likely than women to recall gift giving experiences and that men with feminine gender identities are more person-focused than object-focused in their gift giving orientation. Based on the results, directions for future research are discussed.


Kay M. Palan, Charles S. Areni, and Pamela Kiecker (2001) ,"Gender Role Incongruency and Memorable Gift Exchange Experiences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 51-57.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 51-57


Kay M. Palan, Iowa State University

Charles S. Areni, James Cook University

Pamela Kiecker, Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy


Men are typically thought to dislike being involved in gift giving. The results of this study, however, show that men’s involvement in gift exchange is sometimes incongruent with society’s gender role expectations. Using written narratives of memorable gift exchange experiences, we find that men are far more likely than women to recall gift giving experiences and that men with feminine gender identities are more person-focused than object-focused in their gift giving orientation. Based on the results, directions for future research are discussed.

Gift exchange is an activity familiar to both men and womenCas both gift givers and gift recipients. In fact, the ritual of gift exchange suggests that individuals are compelled to give, to receive, and to reciprocate (Gouldner 1960). Yet, most studies show that women, relative to men, are the primary gift givers (Cheal 1987; Fischer and Arnold 1990). Two possible arguments have been used to explain this finding. First, women are socialized to be shoppers to a much greater extent than are men (Scanzoni 1977) and, thus, may accept gift shopping as work women do, whereas men, who have not been socialized to shop, do not think of gift shopping as part of their household responsibiliies. Second, the giving of a gift often communicates love and affection (Belk 1979), and women are more concerned than men with showing love (Cheal 1987).

Femininity, typically associated with being female, is defined as focusing on relational personality traits such as caring, considerateness, and sensitivity (Cross and Markus 1993). In contrast, masculinity, typically connected with being male, is associated with separating the self from others (Gill, Stockard, Johnson, and Williams 1987) and characterized by independence, assertiveness, instrumentality, and competitiveness (Cross and Markus 1993). Consequently, biological sex significantly impacts socialization processes and is, therefore, an important indicator of the kinds of consumer activities a person will engage in.

However, with respect to gift exchange, men’s behaviors have not always been congruent with the socially expected masculine gender role. Fischer and Arnold (1990) reported that men who held egalitarian role attitudes were more involved in Christmas gift shopping than were men with traditional role attitudes; to a lesser extent, men with feminine gender identities were also more involved in gift shopping. Recent studies report that gay men were more involved in gift giving activities relative to heterosexual men (Newman and Nelson 1996; Rucker, Freitas, and Huidor 1996). Gender identity theory asserts that men and women learn to be masculine or feminine through socialization (Bem 1981), and, moreover, that an individual’s gender identityChow s/he identifies with gendered personality traitsCis not always congruent with his/her biological sex. This incongruency may be more apparent as cultural representations of masculinity and femininity are transformed (Craig 1992). Together, these findings suggest that how a man identifies with femininity and masculinity may result in gift giving behaviors incongruent with gender role expectations.

Consequently, the purpose of this study is to examine a possible influence of gender identity in gift exchange. Specifically, gender identity is examined for its effect on the relationships among biological sex and gift exchange roles and gift exchange focus. These gift exchange variables are important for what they reveal about the task of gift giving and gift receiving (roles) and gift exchange involvement (focus). Since the concepts of masculinity and femininity are directly related to biological sex and form the basis of gender identity conceptualization and measurement, these concepts are discussed first.


Social scientists have noted for many years that men are more oriented toward impersonal or individualistic goals than women, while women are more oriented to social integration than men (Gill et al. 1987). Masculinity, an instrumental orientation, is defined as "concern with the attainment of goals external to the interaction process" (Gill et al. 1987, p. 379). Involving the manipulation of objects, the environment, and people to accomplish tasks, a masculine orientation often uses formal authority and technical control; it is centered toward objective ends and supported by impersonal attitudes such as approval, esteem, and respect. A feminine orientation, also referred to as an expressive orientation, however, "gives primacy to facilitating the interaction process itself" (Gill et al. 1987, p. 380). A feminine orientation involves understanding and dealing with emotions in self and others, although it is not "being emotional"; rather, it concerns being actively interdependent and relational. Thus, expressiveness, in contrast to instrumentality, is often rewarded with more personal attitudes like love and friendship. The assumption is frequently made that males endorse a masculine orientation and females endorse a feminine orientation.

Themes linking males to masculinity and females to femininity have emerged in gift exchange research. Fo example, Goodwin, Smith, and Spiggle (1990) found that females were more likely to mention the needs of the receiver when discussing gift giving (expressiveness), compared to males who tended to list guiding principles (instrumentality). While both men and women are gift givers, women have been described as the primary gift givers in American culture (Otnes, Ruth, and Milbourne 1994). Otnes and McGrath (1994) also found gift buying/exchange to be a feminine activity among their sample of informants as young as three years of age, suggesting an early gender socialization process related to gift exchange. These studies are supported by McGrath (1995) who found that females were more likely to discuss gift giving across a variety of recipients, whereas males were more likely to link gift giving with romantic relationships. Moreover, while women are accustomed to receiving gifts, males appear to have less experience as receivers. Thus, the literature suggests that women are more involved than men in gift exchange, and, in particular, in gift giving.

H1: Females are more likely to recall gift giving experiences than are men.

Related to the distinction between instrumentality and expressiveness is whether males and females devote more attention to the gift itself (i.e., object-focus) or to the other person involved (i.e., person-focus) when describing gift exchangesCin other words, the focus of an individual’s involvement in the gift exchange process. Consistent with the theoretical definitions of femininity and masculinity, a significant body of evidence suggests that females are likely to adopt a person-focus, whereas males are likely to adopt an object-focus. As week-old infants, females exhibit a greater propensity to attend to the people around them; by contrast, male infants are just as likely to attend to objects as to people (McGuiness 1985). Other researchers observing the play patterns of preschool children have noted that boys’ play tends to involve the manipulation of toys (e.g., building blocks, toy vehicles, etc.), whereas girls engage in games involving role playing, often in mock family settings (Harris 1981). Within the context of gift exchange, Fischer and Arnold (1990) described male Christmas shoppers as children looking for the most popular toys, an object-focus. For women, on the other hand, gifts serve to establish, maintain, or even repair personal relationships (Otnes, Lowrey, and Kim 1993), an indication that they are person-focused in gift exchange. These findings suggest the following hypothesis:

H2: Females are more likely than males to be person-focused in descriptions of gift exchange, whereas males are more likely than females to be object-focused in descriptions of gift exchange.


Whereas the previous discussion implies that men are masculine and women are feminine, there is considerable evidence that an individual’s gender identity, i.e., the degree to which an individual endorses masculinity or femininity, is not necessarily consistent with one’s biological sex (see, e.g., Bem 1974). In fact, researchers do not consider masculinity and femininity as opposites; rather, they are conceptualized as two separate, orthogonal dimensions, coexisting in varying degrees within an individual (Gill et al. 1987). Consequently, an individual is sex-typed when his/her gender identity matches his/her biological sex; cross-sex-typed when his/her gender identity is opposite to biological sex; androgynous when s/he endorses both masculinity and feininity to a high degree; and undifferentiated when s/he endorses both masculinity and femininity to a low degree (Bem, Martyna, and Watson 1976).

Since biological sex and gender identity are not necessarily congruent, gender identity has often been used to explain within-sex differences with respect to consumer behaviors. For example, response to the contemporary representations of women in ads are more favorable for females who endorse masculinity than for females who endorse femininity (Jaffe 1991). In another advertising study, Gentry and Haley (1984) reported that masculine females recalled and sequenced ads for masculine products more easily than did feminine females. Within the gift exchange literature, gender identity has explained differences among males. For example, males have been reported to have higher involvement in gift giving when scoring high on femininity relative to masculinity (Fischer and Arnold 1990, 1994).

This discussion suggests that gender identity moderates the effect of biological sex on the gift exchange variables examined in this study.

H3: Feminine individuals are more likely to recall gift giving experiences than will masculine individuals.

H4: Feminine individuals are more likely to be person-focused than are masculine individuals, whereas masculine individuals are more likely to be object-focused than are feminine individuals in descriptions of gift exchange.


To examine the relationships between biological sex, gender identity, and the gift exchange variables, a critical incident method was adopted (Mick and DeMoss 1990). In the study, 115 college students (51 female and 64 male) from a major, state-funded university in the Southwest were asked to describe in writing a particularly memorable occasion when they were either the giver or the receiver of a special gift. They were encouraged to provide detailed information regarding the occasion for the gift exchange (including their age at the time), their relationship with the giver or receiver, and the gift itself. After the narrative was completed, informants completed the Bem Sex Role Inventory (Bem 1974) and provided answers to demographic questions.

Consistent with the techniques employed by Mick and DeMoss (1990) with similar qualitative data, multiple judges blind to the purpose of the study classified each narrative using formal definitions provided to them in the instructions; the formal definitions of object-/person-focus were furnished. Each narrative was coded as being primarily person-focused (0) or object-focused (1). The writer of each narrative was coded as either the gift giver (0) or gift receiver (1). Disagreements in coding were resolved during a coder debriefing session. Overall interrater reliability was .87, exceeding the threshold of .85 for content analyses (Kassarjian 1977).

Bem Sex Role Inventory

The Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) was used to measure gender identity in this study. The BSRI incorporates the multidimensional conceptualization of gender identity, i.e., that masculinity and femininity coexist in varying degrees within an individual (Bem 1974). The original development of the BSRI was based on college students’ assessments of stereotypically desirable masculine and feminine personality traits. Thus, Bem classified 20 traits as reflecting masculinity since they were judged as significantly more desirable for a man than for a woman; the Bem masculinity scale includes traits such as "aggressive," "self-sufficient," and "willing to take risks." In a similar classification manner, 20 traits were chosen to reflect femininity, including "cheerful," "flatterable," and "gulible." Bem (1981) purports that the masculinity and femininity scales on the BSRI are diagnostic and predictive of broad gender-related constructs, including gender role identity and gender schema. Consequently, an individual’s classification on the BSRI should be linked to a wide range of gender-related attitudes, attributes, and behaviors.

Both long and short forms of the BSRI have been used in research. The long (and original) form of the BSRI (Bem 1974) consists of twenty masculine and twenty feminine characteristics; in addition, twenty neutral characteristics considered neither masculine nor feminine are included. After researchers began reporting factor solutions containing more than three factors (e.g., Feather 1978), Bem (1979) developed a short version of the BSRI consisting of ten masculine and ten feminine items, all of which were considered more desirable for a given sex. Based on their own factor analysis, Stern, Barak, and Gould (1987) developed another short version of the BSRI, consisting of ten masculine and ten feminine items. A two-factor solution with Bem’s short BSRI has been reported (Martin and Ramanaiah 1988). However, in another study using both short versions, Bem’s (1979) version produced a four-factor solution while the Stern et al. (1987) version produced a two-factor solution (Palan 1994). Based on these results, the short version of the BSRI developed by Stern et al. (1987) was used in this study.

In this study, informants indicated how well each of the 10 masculine and 10 feminine characteristics described them, with 1 indicating "never or almost never true" and 7 indicating "always or almost always true." Responses to the masculine and feminine items were summed and averaged, separately, to determine the masculinity and femininity scores. Factor analysis (principal components with varimax rotation) of the twenty items resulted in a three-factor solutionCnine feminine traits loaded on the first factor, ten masculine traits on the second factor, and one feminine trait (loyal) on the third factor. Elimination of the feminine trait, loyalty, resulted in a two-factor solution; the femininity scale thus consisted of nine traits and the masculinity scale consisted of 10 traits. Coefficient alphas for the masculinity scale were .90 and .89, with alphas reported separately for males and females, respectively. Likewise, coefficient alphas were .94 and .88 for the femininity scale.



Consistent with previous use of the BSRI, median splits of the masculine and feminine scales were calculated using the total sample; informants were categorized according to Bem’s original four-way classification. Thus, those informants scoring high on the masculine scale and low on the feminine scale were classified as "masculine" (26 males and 10 females); informants scoring high on the feminine scale and low on the masculine scale were classified as "feminine" (12 males and 22 females; informants scoring above the medians of both the masculine and feminine scales were classified as "androgynous" (10 males and 12 females); and informants scoring below the medians of both the masculine and feminine scales were classified as "undifferentiated" (16 males and 7 females). Since the moderation hypotheses state expectations only with respect to masculine and feminine gender identities, only these two classifications are included in the analyses. The scale items and their factor loadings are listed in Table 1.

Biological Sex

An independent variable, biological sex is a dichotomous variable coded "0" for male informants and "1" for female informants.


Hypothesis tests were examined by constructing a 2 x 2 frequency table and using the Pearson chi-square statistic.

Gift Giving

Given a choice between recalling a gift giving vs. a gift reception experience, HI posited that more women than men would recall gift giving experiences. The results, in Table 2, show that biological sex (X21=19.48, p<001) was a significant predictor of the gift giving role, although the result was counter to expectations-men were more likely than women to recall gift giving experiences (45% of men versus 8% of women).

Although gender identity significantly moderated the relationship between biological sex and gift giving (H3) (X21=5.64, p<.025), the results were opposite than predicted. That is, masculine individuals were more likely than feminine individuals to recall gift giving experiences (36% vs. 12%). Moreover, the results of H3, in Table 3, are fully attributed to males, since there were no feminine or masculine females who described gift giving experiences.

Gift Focus

Women were significantly more person-focused and men more object-focused, as predicted in H2 (X21=6.10, p<.05). As can be seen in Table 4,47% of women were person-focused, compared to only 25% of men. In contrast, 75% of men were object-focused versus just 53% of women. Gender identity was found to significantly moderate the relationship between biological sex and gift exchange focus (H4). The results, in Table 5, show that more feminine individuals (41%) than masculine individuals (19%) were person-focused, while more masculine (81%) than feminine (59%) individuals were object-focused (X21=3.93, p<.05). An examination of males separate from females reveals results in the predicted direction for both groups, though significance was not reached. Specifically, feminine females were more likely than masculine females to be person-focused (45% vs. 20%), whereas masculine females were more likely to be object-focused than were feminine females (80% vs. 55%) (Fisher's Exact Test, p=0.16). [Low cell frequencies occurred when males and females were examined separately. Consequently, because the chi-square statistic may not be valid when cell frequencies are low, Fisher's exact test was used, since this test is appropriate with small cell sizes and when n<40 (Cochran 1952).] Similarly, feminine males were more likely to be person-focused than were masculine males (33% vs. 19%), and masculine males were more likely than feminine females to be object-focused (81% vs. 67%) (Fisher's Exact Test, p=0.29).










Using narrative descriptions of memorable gift exchange experiences, this study reports findings that challenge commonly held assumptions about the participation of men in gift exchange. First, despite the commonly reported finding that women are more likely to be gift-givers than are men, the men in this study were far more likely to recall gift-giving memories than were the women. Furthermore, masculine males were more likely to recall gift giving experiences than were feminine males. These findings, incongruent with male role expectations, suggest that while it may not be "masculine" to give gifts, it may be very "masculine" to talk about a single experience of gift giving, memorable perhaps because considerable time and effort were involved. This interpretation is consistent with the argument that men take a reciprocal approach to gift giving-that is, they give in order to receive something in return (Gilligan 1982). Thus, it might not be surprising that masculine men are more likely to vividly recall gift-giving experiences than feminine males.

Second, whereas men have traditionally been expected to be very goal-oriented in their gift-giving activities, in this study, men with feminine gender identities were very person-oriented in their gift giving. In other words, they seemed to take a relational approach to gift giving, in which the concern centers on communicating and expressing affection for others-an approach to gift giving expected of females (Gilligan 1982). The clear message is that many men behave similarly to women when it comes to gift giving-they give gifts throughout the year, to a variety of recipients, for a variety of reasons. The fact that men with feminine gender identities focus more on the recipient than the gift in gift exchange implies that these men will be very involved in the gift giving process; they will invest a lot of time searching for a gift that they know will especially please the recipient. This defies the notion that men just buy gifts because they "have to."

Limitations of this study point to opportunities in future research. For example, a potential limitation of this study is the fact that males and females have different communication styles (Gilligan 1982), and informants communicated gift exchange memories in a narrative format. At issue is whether or not the data reflect differences in communication styles rather than differences in gift exchange behaviors. However, two aspects of this study lead us to conclude that male and female communication styles did not bias our results. First, as education increases, communication differences between males and females are expected to decrease (Gilligan 1982); because the sample in this study was well-educated (college juniors and seniors), the emergence of communication style differences is unlikely. Second, one indication of communication style differences is narrative length; mates are expected to write shorter narratives since their goal is to succinctly complete the task rather than to elaborate on the task. Yet, the average length of male and female narratives was equally long (1.8 and 1.6 pages, respectively) despite the fact that informants were not instructed on page expectations. Consequently, it seems likely that the data were a reflection of differences in gift exchange behavior.

Other possible limitations are related to the nature of the data collection method. For example, instructing informants to recall "memorable" gift exchange experiences may have created a demand effect, resulting in so few females recalling gift giving experiences. Indeed, the lopsided nature of reported gift giving experiences from males and females suggests that the results should be cautiously interpreted and that steps should be taken in future research to control for this effect. Other avenues for future research include examining person- vs. object-focus in a variety of gift exchange situations and examining gift exchange as a transactional/relational continuum in relation to "masculine" and "feminine" gift giving in men and women. Future research should also include more variation in the sample with respect to age, education, and location. An interesting avenue of study would be to examine the research questions across cultural contexts.


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Kay M. Palan, Iowa State University
Charles S. Areni, James Cook University
Pamela Kiecker, Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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