The term “sex roles” broadly refers to the various social functions that are ascribed to individuals based on their physical sex. Sex roles are one category of roles among other social roles that are developed in societies to regulate human behavior and relationships.
One major aspect of human existence that contributes to the formation of sex roles is a person’s reproductive potential, which is directly related to his or her physical sex. In all societies, it is women who give birth to children and in many societies, it is women who exclusively feed them for the first few years of their lives because of their capacity for breastfeeding. Men’s major contribution to the reproductive process is to inseminate women. Societies vary with respect to a biological father’s implication in childrearing.
Sex roles in a society are also highly related to its subsistence pattern, or the means whereby food is obtained or produced. Depending on subsistence activities, there is a different sexual division of labor, or pattern whereby women and men divide subsistence tasks. Women tend to engage in tasks that are compatible with breastfeeding and other childcare activities whereas men tend to be assigned tasks that require travel further from the household. As with other human tendencies, however, there are exceptions to this pattern and there is wide variation with respect to which tasks are appropriate for men and women.
One common example of sex roles connected to the sexual division of labor is found among many foraging societies: men hunt large game and women and children gather wild plant foods and small game. In many cases, such as among the Ju’Hoansi of Africa, women contribute a large portion of the diet, but men provide most of the highly prized meat. In a few societies, women contribute to the acquisition of meat either by hunting on their own, as is the case with the Agta of the Philippines, or by participating in communal hunts with men and children, as is the case with the Mbuti of Africa.
Agricultural societies, where subsistence depends on intensive cultivation, also vary with respect to the sexual division of labor. The tasks of women in these societies can range from processing harvested crops and tending farm animals, both of which can be performed close to the homestead, to active participation in plowing fields and other physically demanding tasks.
Superimposed on the division of labor in any given society are cultural beliefs about the relative importance of tasks assigned to men and women, the relative value of what is produced by these tasks, and the relative status of men and women. In some cases, men’s work may be more highly valued because of the scarcity of that which is obtained, such as meat. This is often connected to higher social status for men. However, while higher status may entail a greater control over resources and their distribution, it may or may not entail greater power over women and their activities. Indeed, there is a wide range of variation with respect to power relations between women and men.
Sex roles are therefore also connected to political roles. Societies vary in the extent to which women participate in community decision-making processes. Societies that are egalitarian in nature tend to include women in decision-making processes, whereas more hierarchical societies tend to place most of the power in the hands of men.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, most Western societies subscribed to a model whereby women’s roles were limited to bearing and rearing children and to household tasks. There was, therefore, an assumption that it was natural for men to be the primary breadwinners and decision makers. However, the anthropological record shows us that there is a great deal of variation in the way men and women contribute to the survival of their families and societies and in the way social control is exercised.
- Bonvillain, N. (1998). Women and men: Cultural constructs of gender. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (1993). Gender in cross-cultural perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Friedl, E. (1978, April). Society and sex roles. Human Nature, 68-75.