Gender polarization

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Masculine traits Feminine traits
Rational Emotional
Aggressive Passive
Dominant Submissive
Reasonable Sensitive
Individualistic Nurturing
Source: Christine Monnier
in Global Sociology[1]
Boys are encouraged to play with toy trucks...
...and girls with dolls.

Gender polarization is a concept in sociology by American psychologist Sandra Bem which states that societies tend to define femininity and masculinity as polar opposite genders, such that male-acceptable behaviors and attitudes are not seen as appropriate for women, and vice versa.[1][2] The theory is an extension of the sex and gender distinction in sociology in which sex refers to the biological differences between men and women, while gender refers to the cultural differences between them, such that gender describes the "socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women".[3] According to Bem, gender polarization begins when natural sex differences are exaggerated in culture; for example, women have less hair than men,[4] and men have more muscles than women, but these physical differences are exaggerated culturally when women remove hair from their faces and legs and armpits, and when men engage in body building exercises to emphasize their muscle mass.[5] She explained that gender polarization goes further, when cultures construct "differences from scratch to make the sexes even more different from one another than they would otherwise be", perhaps by dictating specific hair styles for men and women, which are noticeably distinct, or separate clothing styles for men and women.[5] When genders become polarized, according to the theory, there is no overlap, no shared behaviors or attitudes between men and women; rather, they are distinctly opposite.[1] She argued that these distinctions become so "all-encompassing" that they "pervade virtually every aspect of human existence", not just hairstyles and clothing but how men and women express emotion and experience sexual desire.[6] She argued that male-female differences are "superimposed on so many aspects of the social world that a cultural connection is thereby forged between sex and virtually every other aspect of human experience".[7]

Bem saw gender polarization as an organizing principle upon which many of the basic institutions of a society are built.[8] For example, rules based on gender polarization have been codified into law.[8] In western society in the fairly recent past, such rules have prevented women from voting, holding political office, going to school, owning property, serving in the armed forces, entering certain professions, or playing specific sports.[8] For example, the first modern Olympics was a male-only sporting event from which women were excluded, and this has been identified as a prime example of gender polarization.[8] In addition, the term has been applied to literary criticism.[9]

According to Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams, gender polarization begins early in childhood when girls are encouraged to prefer pink over blue, and when boys are encouraged to prefer toy trucks over dolls, and the male-female distinction is communicated to children in countless ways.[10] Children learn by observing others and by direct tutelage what they "can and cannot do in terms of gendered behavior", according to Elizabeth Lindsey and Walter Zakahi.[11] Bem argued that gender polarization defines mutually exclusive scripts for being male and female.[8] The scripts can have a powerful influence on how a person develops; for example, if a person is a male, then he will likely grow to develop specific ways of looking at the world, with certain behaviors seen as 'masculine', and learn to dress, walk, talk, and even think in a socially-approved way for men. Further, any deviation from these scripts was seen as problematic, possibly defined as "immoral acts" which flout religious customs, or seen as "psychologically pathological".[8][12] Bem argued that because of past polarization, women were often restricted to family-oriented roles in the private sphere, while men were seen as professional representatives in the public sphere.[13] Cultures vary substantially by what is considered to be appropriate for masculine and feminine roles, and by how emotions are expressed.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Christine Monnier, 2011, Global Sociology, Gendered Society – Basic Concepts, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, "... Another aspect of such a list of gender traits is that there is no overlap ... societies and cultures create polarized version of gender where one is the opposite of the other...Popular culture is indeed a major conveyor ... "
  2. ^ Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration, Robyn Ryle, Pine Forge Press, 2012, [1], Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, Chapter 4 page 135, "..Gender polarization ... describes the way in which behaviors and attitudes that are viewed as appropriate for men are seen as inappropriate for women and vice versa...."
  3. ^ What do we mean by "sex" and "gender"? (World Health Organization (WHO > Programmes and Projects > Gender, Women and Health)), as accessed Aug. 24, 2010 (no author or date & boldfacing omitted).
  4. ^ 5 October 2013, BBC, Why can men grow facial hair but women cannot, Retrieved May 24, 2016, "...Androgens are present in both sexes ... Men have more androgens than women..."
  5. ^ a b Sandra Lipsitz Bem, A Nation Divided: Diversity, Inequality, and Community in American Society, edited by Phyllis Moen, Donna Dempster-McClain, Henry A. Walker, Cornell University Press, 1999, Gender, Sexuality and Inequality: When Many Become One, Who is the One and What Happens to the Others?, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (page 78) "...Gender polarization at the simplest level is just the cultural exaggeration of whatever sex differences exist naturally ..."
  6. ^ 1993, Yale University, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality, Sandra L. Bem, Gender polarization, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (see chapter 4 page 80:) "...gender polarization,...Social life is so linked to this distinction that the all-encompassing division between male and female would still pervade virtually every aspect of human existence..."
  7. ^ Greenbaum, Vicky. “Seeing through the Lenses of Gender: Beyond Male/Female Polarization.” English Journal 88.3 (January 1999): 96–99, Seeing through the Lenses of Gender: Beyond Male/Female Polarization, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (Bem) "...gender polarization: ... superimposed on so many aspects of the social world that a cultural connection is thereby forged between sex and virtually every other aspect of human experience..."
  8. ^ a b c d e f Polygendered and Ponytailed: The Dilemma of Femininity and the Female Athlete, 2009, Women's Press, Dayna B. Daniels, Gender polarization, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (see page 29) "...Gender polarization can be defined as the organizing principle upon which many cultures and their social institutions have been created...
  9. ^ Shakespeare: A Wayward Journey, Susan Snyder, Rosemont Publishing, 2002, Mamillius and Gender Polarization in the Winter's Tale page 210+
  10. ^ Gender and Families, Scott Coltrane, Michele Adams, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008, Engendering Children (chapter), Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (page 183+) "...Gender polarization organizes the daily lives of children from the moment they are born: pink vs. blue to dolls vs. trucks...."
  11. ^ Sex Differences and Similarities in Communication, edited by Kathryn Dindia, Daniel J. Canary, chapter by A. Elizabeth Lindsey and Walter R. Zakahi, Perceptions of Men and Women Departing from the Conventional Sex-Role, Retrieved Aug. 22, 2014, (see page 273+) "...Initiation to gender polarization begins early in life. ..."
  12. ^ Bem, S. (1993). Gender polarization. The lenses of gender: transforming the debate on sexual inequality, (p. 80-82). Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press.
  13. ^ Bem, S. (1995). Dismantling Gender Polarization and Compulsory Heterosexuality: Should We Turn the Volume Down or Up?. Journal of Sex Research, 32(4), 329-334.
  14. ^ Forden, C., Hunter, A.E., & Birns, B. (1999). The longest war: gender and culture. Readings in the psychology of women. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.