Discuss cultural influences on gender role. (8 marks + 16 marks)

The best approach for answering this question is to describe and evaluate relevant studies. These studies should look at whether gender role is affected by cultural or is universal.

One aspect of gender role that appears to be universal is the division of labour. In most cultures, men hunt and otherwise provide resources while women look after children & prepare food. Munroe & Munroe found in a cross-cultural study that every society has some division of labour between genders. This universality suggests that gender roles are biological rather than cultural.

A second aspect of gender roles is differences in aggressiveness. Mead found that in all three cultures she studies in Papua New Guinea, men were more aggressive than women. However, women were still more aggressive in some cultures than in others. This suggests that there is a degree of cultural relativism in gender roles: aggression in men is innate and universal but the degree to which aggression is expressed is relative to each culture.

Sex stereotypes that each culture has affect gender roles. Williams & Best studied gender stereotypes in 30 countries in a study involving 2,800 students as participants. They were given 300 adjectives and asked to decide whether each one was more associated with men or women. In all countries, men were seen as more dominant, aggressive and autonomous, while women were more nurturing, deferent and interested in affiliation. This also suggests that gender roles are biological rather than cultural.

Conformity is also related to culture, as there is a general consensus across cultures that women are more conformist than men. However, this difference varies across cultures: Berry et al. reported that differences in conformity between men and women are highest in tight, sedentary societies. This shows a cultural influence on gender role.

There is an alternative explanation for this finding that division of labour is largely universal: this division may be an indirect outcome of biological differences rather than a direct outcome. Eagly and Wood’s biosocial theory suggests that physical differences (e.g. women bearing children and men generally being physically stronger) lead to social role differences which in turn create psychological differences. This suggests that social and cultural factors explain role division.

Eagly and Wood supported this view by analysing Buss’ data on sex differences in mate preferences (he found that men seek physical attractiveness while women seek resources). Eagly and Wood found that in cultures where women had a higher status, sex differences in mating preferences were less pronounced. This suggests that cultural and social factors are the driving force in gender role, not biological factors.

While labour differences are the same in most cultures, some cultures have more unusual labour divisions. For example, Hargreaves observed that in some parts of the world women are the major agricultural producers, while in others women are prohibited from agricultural work. This suggests that although biological factors are significant in the division of labour, it can vary greatly between cultures.

There is also an alternative explanation for the cultural differences in conformity. In societies where women contribute a lot to food accumulation, women have more freedom and are regarded less as objects for male sexual and reproductive needs. Women thus occupy a higher position within the social group and have more power and less need to conform to the wills of more powerful members of society. This further supports the role of cultural influences.

Some of the research into gender role is also questionable. For example, the study by Mead mentioned earlier has been criticised by Freeman, who himself worked with people in the same cultures who claimed to have simply given Mead the information she wanted to hear. This suggests that her conclusions are not made on valid data. However, Freeman’s version has also been criticised for being inaccurate.

The study by Williams & Best also drew criticism from the wider scientific community. One reason is that the questionnaire featured no ‘neutral’ option when rating the masculinity or femininity of each adjective: participants had to choose either male or female. This could cause the divisions between male and female to be exaggerated. The participants were also all university students who might be exposed to many of the same influences. This indicates low population validity, and this could explain the high level of consensus.

Cultural bias is also a problem for much of the research in this area. For example, the cross-cultural study by Williams and Best used a questionnaire designed by Western researchers containing Western concepts and stereotypes. This is an example of imposed etic, which can render a study invalid. This is because the concepts used in the questionnaire may have different meanings in other cultures, and people may simply respond in terms of Western cultures rather than their own.

This approach is also often seen as being too deterministic, regarding gender role as a purely social construction while ignoring proven biological influences. While the differences in gender role between cultures show that gender is influenced by culture, the universals in gender across cultures suggest that biological factors are also significant. The final conclusion is that there is a complex interaction between cultural and biological factors.


  1. Hey is it supposed to say 'This universality suggests that gender roles are biological rather than cultural' at the end of the first paragraph or is it supposed to be 'cultural rather than biological'. Also I cant find the Munroe and Munroe study does anyone know where I a link please can anyone reply im seriously confused

    1. it is meant to say biological, so it is correct. Gender roles are innate, thats what the first paragraph is trying to say :)

  2. The biosocial theory was created by Money and Erhardt, whereas the the social role theory was created by Eagly and Wood.

  3. Another great essay. I've directed many students to your blog. Many thanks for making my job that little bit easier :-)

  4. You've saved my entire life ! I cannot thank you enough :)