Why Gender Roles Start in the Womb

My friends and I prepared a baby shower this summer. Planning the event involved a lot of frantic Facebook messaging and late-night Google Doc editing, as well as coming up with creative game ideas, such as “Pin the Sperm on the Egg.” We also spent a decent amount of time shopping for baby-related things, which led us to several gender-stereotypical items. Encountering these signals from society made me realize that gender roles really do start from within the womb – or at least they begin early enough to affect children from the beginning of their existences.

Clothing from the girls' section: a pink, cute-looking cupcake. Clothing from the boys' section: the words "Future Legend" and baseballs.

Clothing from the girls’ section: a pink, cute-looking cupcake. Clothing from the boys’ section: the words “Future Legend” and baseballs. Anyone discern a difference in tone?

Studies show that children detect gender differences by the age of three: at that age, they already differentiate between “boy” activities and “girl” activities, “boy” clothes and “girl” clothes, and “boy” careers and “girl” careers. Much of this labeling stems from society – with the title of my post I do not intend to imply that biology leads to differences in gender, rather, I suggest that we as individuals inflict humans with gender stereotypes before they even come into existence. In her book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine includes a statistic about how the 18 children’s books that won the Caldecott Medal from 1967 to 1971 featured zero working women, even though 40% of women in that time period held a job. We enforce inaccurate perceptions of gender to make ourselves feel better, even though these standards do us harm.

Gender roles might not come from within the womb, but they do start while babies rest in the womb, due to parents’ desire to know more about their children right away. At first, a baby is nothing more than a bump in its mother’s stomach: we cannot detect its personality, its intelligence, its potential kindness or its quirkiness. This lack of information might intimidate parents, so when they learn their baby’s sex – one of the first nuggets of information they receive about their child – some parents automatically form associations in regard to society’s preconceived ideas of gender, in order to guide themselves and make themselves feel better. Instead of floundering in the dark, parents now have a light to lead them toward understanding their child, even if that light comes from a faulty source.

A powerful quote from the inspiring Laverne Cox.

A powerful quote from the inspiring Laverne Cox.

The use of gender roles reflects our lack of self-understanding. Instead of allowing children to formulate their own self-concepts from the start, parents and other people within society slap labels onto kids based on their sex because it takes so little effort. Stereotyping is easy: it takes just a couple of seconds to think “boys play baseball and girls do ballet” or “girls write well and boys excel at math.” It requires much more time and effort to help children discover who they really are for themselves – it calls for experimentation and imperfection, as well as an eventual acceptance no matter what anyone else thinks.

I do not suggest that I know more about parenting than anyone else. Rather, I feel that all of us, since our time in our mother’s wombs, embark on a journey of self-discovery. Parents or other people might try to use gender roles as an aid to that process of self-understanding, but we should all strive to define ourselves based on our own characteristics, traits, and emotions – not just the ones given to us by other people. As George Bernard Shaw said, we all create ourselves, one authentic piece at a time.

Another example of gender roles at work. Not sure where an implicit appreciation of cars would come from, for either sex.

Another example of gender roles at work. Not sure where an implicit appreciation of cars would come from, for either sex.

What do you guys think? Agree of disagree with my thoughts on gender roles and where they come from? I wrote this post at 1 AM last night and worked on it a little bit more this morning, so I hope my thoughts come across with at least a little coherence. I apologize for my absence as of late; I move back to college on Thursday, so I have been preparing for that and dealing with family and life drama. I intend to write more soon, and in the meantime if you want to check out my thoughts on Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, I Want It That Way by Ann Aguirre, and On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, you can do so here, here, and here respectively. I hope everyone has had a wonderful week!


Filed under Society

15 responses to “Why Gender Roles Start in the Womb

  1. Well, it’s not really about agreement, what you’re saying is verifiable fact. Take society’s strange ideas on cooking. In the case of the early Anglo-Saxons a woman was allowed to bake (bread), but all other cooking was done by men. The word for cook only existed in the masculine form.
    In the French court cooking was also done by men. Meanwhile in 1950’s America cooking was considered feminine.
    Where I come from cooking (or doing housework) isn’t just feminine, it also means lower-class. Growing up I was even asked to stay away from the kitchen. All of it circumstantial constructs.

    • You’re right, it’s interesting how society shapes itself over time and changes – I remember psychiatry used to be dominated by men, but now it’s becoming more of a “female” profession. You write it well by stating that they depend on “circumstantial constructs.” Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. Livvy @The Absent Historian

    I think this is definitely a concept worth time if you ask me. I mean gender is such a concept that is being challenged and played with in modern society, and it still does appear that boys and girls are labelled and pinholed into certain expectations and roles and it is wrong. Although at the same time children whilst they should be given equal access to ballet or football whether they are a boy or girl, I think dressing a boy up in a dress so he can decide for himself is a little far because then the child will likely be subject to bullying and separation from people his own age.

    • I agree that it’s an issue worth acknowledging and giving time to. Your last sentence sparks an interesting debate – it’s a difficult problem because what if someone’s son independently wants to wear a dress? Yes, he might be subject to bullying, but should we deny him his choice and teach him that he needs to acquiesce to society’s standards? Or should we strive to open the eyes of those around him, even if that path might be less probable and a lot harder? Curious about your thoughts as well as the opinions of others.

      • Livvy @The Absent Historian

        I think if the son wants to wear a dress, then it is his right, as much as it is a girls right to wear trousers and dungarees and shorts; things in modern day she isn’t mocked for. It might be difficult and upsetting, but I guess if the son asks to wear a dress then I think society should be prepared to adapt. I think people are afraid of change and different things, which is why they react by shunning them and being mean, especially children who have not quite grasped ‘social etiquette’ as adults would say.

  3. I do believe that gender roles are socially constructed, initially for pragmatic reasons, to understand society. Then somewhere along the way, gender roles became skewed by groups with power and turned into a hegemonic force that now compartmentalizes individuals.

    Imagine that you’ve encountered a newborn without knowing the baby’s sex. Did it make you feel uncomfortable because you didn’t know what appropriate language to use (e.g. “a handsome boy” or “a pretty girl”)? How much did you offend the parents when you misattributed their baby boy with feminine qualities? These are a couple of mediocre examples that show how deep gender roles run, and how those that deviate are instantly stigmatized, and sometimes, castigated.

    Like yourself, I would love to see a society where children develop their own ideas of self-concept apart from societal influences. But how can this be achieved without parents (and even children) being stigmatized for not staying within the gender binary? My solution is a bit Marxian, which demands a restructuring of the way gender is perceived. I wish I saw more practical solutions. What do you think?

    • I agree with you Elayna, it’s difficult to imagine a world without gender roles, so I feel like a lot of individual change would be necessary at first to hopefully facilitate a greater overall outcome. The stigma and castigation is so ubiqitious in certain areas, though hopefully with time people will grow more accepting. Perhaps education about the harmful effects of gender roles would lead people to open their eyes – I doubt that gender roles will ever be completely done away with, but at least some of their more harsh consequences can be mitigated with effort.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, and I’d love to hear more of your opinion in another comment or in one of your own blog posts if you have time! The first paragraph of your comment really resonates with me.

  4. The Howling Fantogs

    Whilst I agree with what you say, I don’t really think there is any way around it. This is the way society is, and to start dressing boys in pink cup cake dresses may have more of an effect than not doing so. I don’t think it really matters though. I think however you are dressed as a child, people will always find their own identity as they grow up regardless.

    • I appreciate your input a lot (as always), though I disagree with you. I think it might be difficult, but there are ways around it, at least on an individual level – not every person has to conform to the gender roles ascribed to society, even if there’s no way to completely avoid them or live in a world without them. I also feel that while maybe the way someone “[dresses] as a child” will not prohibit them from finding their true selves, not everyone discovers their true identity until it’s too late. This impairment of self-discovery manifests in the heteronormative structure of society too; several gay men end up marrying wives and having kids and then later realizing that they were homosexual all along. Those men just repressed it due to society’s standards.

      Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting! It’s always intriguing to hear people’s differing thoughts on gender roles and how they relate to other issues in society.

  5. I think the current attitudes towards gender roles are largely western constructs. I think a lot of them stem for colonialism and while we can’t seem to get away from them, I do think societies are trying to bring back their ways of thinking when it comes to gender. Like for example, my mom isn’t a believer in a baby showers at all. For her it’s largely a Western construct. I personally don’t have an opinion about them. But I think it’s important to let children grow up how they want to be, not how we want them to be. Yes we can offer them guidance and support, but at the end of the day they are not anybody’s property. They’re allowed to lead a life they want. I hope that made sense!

    • Yes your comment definitely makes sense, and I agree that we should offer guidance and support instead of absolutism and authoritarianism. It’s great that you know how you feel about things, even if that means not really having an opinion – perhaps sometimes feel that they need to have an extreme for/against stance to appear knowledgeable, when in reality it takes time to make up one’s mind and to formulate a solid opinion. Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting as always!

  6. Would you please explain further what you mean when you say that parents “automatically form associations in regard to…preconceived ideas of gender in order to guide themselves?”

  7. This is such an interesting, and very tangled topic. I’m always getting into arguments over it with a friend who definitely buys into the gender constructs – she’s very fond of the “girls are manipulative” and “guys are straightforward”, as well as the mythical ~gap~ between males and females which apparently obstructs perfect communication. It’s maddening, I tell you. But, of course, it is social conditioning, and she can’t help it, and just because I saw the light doesn’t mean I can expect others to, either.

    It’s definitely something that should be discussed more openly and widely, though, especially with such horrendous acts being directed towards trans men/women – which all stem from this ignorance. I think you’ve hit the nail though, when you say that parents feel they have to find something to grasp on that daunting journey of parenthood – it links to Laverne Cox’s quote about how the unknown scares people, which is why they react with such vitriolic hatred towards transsexualism. Lack of information can lead to all sorts of results. Education and discussion are paramount, but the thing with education after school is that it’s optional, and a lot of people opt for ignorance that allows them to validate their hatred 😦

    For happier things – re your latest post: I hope your new semester goes well! Good luck on your goals, I’m sure you’ll accomplish them. Also that QaF poster reminded me that I found the /entire/ first season of it in my uni library! I had to stifle a squeal. I hope it works on my laptop though.

  8. Pingback: Confidence is not empowerment, so why do libfems believe it is? – Scream It, Rikki!

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