(with Rosemary Conover)


For the past ten years a female anthropologist (with expertise in physiology and linguistics) and a male sociologist (with a background in psychology and philosophy) have team-taught an interdisciplinary course entitled "Sex Roles: Past, Present, and Future." Two highly useful organizing models pertaining to factors shaping sex roles evolved from this teaching experience. Combining these models with the assumptions underlying the original format led to significant theoretical and pedagogical insights into the topic of sex roles, stimulating a reformulation of the course. This presentation provides a summary of this experience, together with examples.

Anthropology/Sociology 3201
Sex Roles: Past, Present, Future (3 hours)
Overview of the differences and similarities in sex roles cross-culturally and over time, with special emphasis on the influences of biology, socialization, and ecology in their origin, perpetuation, and change.

Over the past decade the authors have taught a survey course called "Sex Roles: Past, Present, Future" as an upper division elective, cross-listed in both Anthropology and Sociology. The course is team-taught and interdisciplinary; the two instructors happen to be one of each sex: a sociologist with a substantial background in psychology and philosophy and an anthropologist with specialization in human physiology and linguistics. Both instructors have been equally involved in the design and delivery of the course over the past ten years.

These aspects of the course facilitate the exploration of diverse aspects of sex roles and the complexity of gender issues and insure the inclusion of different personal as well as theoretical perspectives. Whether class sessions are organized as joint or individual presentations, both instructors attend every class and are free to interject comments of elaboration or difference at any time, creating a degree of informality and modeling open discussion.

The course is designed to provide students with an adequate background in the following areas: the physiology and biology of sex differences; the primary social and cultural influences on gender roles (with special emphasis on socialization and institutionalization); cross-cultural comparisons, largely between Western and non-Western societies; significant gender role developments across time, from prehistory to the present; and an examination of current gender role issues for both females and males (with some speculation on the future).

Various pairs of textbooks - one sociological, one anthropological - were tried over the first several years of the course, but the texts tended to be focused primarily on females, or were implicitly biased or polemical in one way or another, or were somewhat circumscribed in perspective. To counter these shortcomings the authors constructed their own anthology of materials (Conover and Toth 1989) which parallels the content and sequence of the course. This anthology offers a diverse collection of articles culled from both popular and scholarly sources, includes several entries written specifically for the course by the instructors, and is periodically updated.2

The major topics listed in the table of contents provides the basic outline of the course:

Biology vs. Culture
The Anthropological Past
The Industrial Revolution
Cross-Cultural Comparisons
Socialization, Stereotyping, and Institutionalization
Contemporary Issues
The Future

Both instructors believe that an introductory survey course such as this should be apolitical. Although popular beliefs and scientific research regarding sex roles are often controversial, the intent of this course is to explore the best contemporary information available in as objective a manner as possible. The instructors avoid polemics: they do not automatically condemn prevailing male cultural biases nor do they present feminist points of view as requisite countervailing arguments, although these dimensions of current controversies are addressed. Deliberate care is taken not to focus disproportionately on one sex more than the other or on a single set of gender issues.

Over the life of the course, a number of "techniques" have been introduced to facilitate student learning. One consistent assignment is a local fieldwork ethnography on a student-generated topic or hypothesis of personal interest. This moves students away from book-based learning to a more active, direct experience with the influence of sex roles and the presence of gender issues in their lives at home, work, and in the larger social environment. Students have studied hiring practices and gender assignment and distribution in their work settings; the activities and games of their children and of immediate friends; the division of labor in their own families or between themselves and a significant member of the opposite sex; the gender bias of greeting cards and of the children's books tucked away in their own closets. They have observed gender related social patterns in such activities as movie-going, ice-skating, mall-shopping, and church attendance.

In conjunction with a campus-wide program of writing-across-the-curriculum, a writing journal became an integral part of the course. This provides o context for specific, twice-weekly entry assignments, increasing the frequency of student writing and focusing student attention on selected aspects of course content, group discussions, and readings.

Various media have been utilized in class, including movies, which are especially useful for cross-cultural comparisons, and videotapes, which provide a rich source of contemporary material. Several of these have proven especially effective; for example, a film called "Kipseli" shows a clear cut, gender-based division of time, space, and objects in a traditional Greek village that is startlingly suggestive of our contemporary American society; a video called "Soldier Girls" (made in the cinema-verite fashion by Frederick Weismann) follows a group of female army recruits through boot camp and provokes an awareness of differential sex-role expectations in relation to the military and to institutionalized expressions of violence.

The title of the course ("Sex Roles: Past, Present, Future") reflects the temporal sequence of the major topics covered: the past - primarily biological and anthropological; the present--primarily sociological and cross-cultural; and the future--primarily speculative extrapolations from current issues. This format both provides a sense of continuity across a vast range of information and highlights the evolutionary or adaptive nature of sex roles. Starting the course with a section devoted to biological characteristics supplies the background for a later emphasis on various inter-relationships--between biology and culture, between the individual and society, and between males and females, men and women. (It is worth noting that this sequence is itself a useful paradigm.)

As the course developed over time, two distinct conceptual frameworks began to emerge.  They were eventually combined to form the Sex Role Asymmetries Paradigm, which has since served to guide further development.  Searching for a term which would not appear evaluative, we decided to call the first paradigm "sex role asymmetries." The term "asymmetries" was chosen to connote differing configurational patterns without implying any sort of inequality. This paradigm now serves to anchor the course conceptually.  The course is taught toward the paradigm as a heuristic that emerges through the content; once the paradigm is completely articulated, the instructors reference back to it at appropriate times. The paradigm points out the multiple dimensions that must be taken into account in any full understanding of sex roles and gender issues. Especially in regard to controversial contemporary gender issues, the paradigm encourages students to think in terms of analytical categories that stand above the polemics and emotions of a given moment.

Paraphrasing our printed course material, the following is a description of the basic paradigm:
     Sex role asymmetry describes the ways in which the sexes and their gender expressions differ. These asymmetries divide neatly (if somewhat artificially) into three categories: the biological, the instrumental, and the symbolic. These three asymmetries catalogue a number of observations about the human sexes which are necessary to understanding the development of sex roles and gender issues across the span of human evolution and history.
     Biological Asymmetry: In all human populations there are consistent morphological, physiological, and demographic differences between the sexes. Many of these are related to bisexual reproductive specialization, and include differences in chromosomes, hormones, reproductive physiology, anatomy and musculature, neurological functioning, patterns of growth and development, and rates of natality, morbidity, and mortality.
     Instrumental Asymmetry: All human societies recognize, assign, and institutionalize different behaviors in regard to each of the two sexes in the form of sex or gender roles. These roles regulate activities and tasks as well as same-sex and cross-sex relationships. These differences appear in every institutional sphere in society including child rearing, kinship, subsistence, warfare, politics, religion, education, recreation, language, and social display. These assignments are not required by biological asymmetry so much as they take advantage of it. As societies build upon these divisions of labor these sex/gender role differences penetrate and color entire cultures.
     Symbolic Asymmetry: Almost all societies evaluate the two sexes differently. Of those that do, males are always more highly valued within the public sphere than females and are super-ordinate to them. The extent of this differential valuation may vary but its tendency is always to grant males greater public power, privilege, and prestige. This asymmetry builds upon and influences the other two: As male instrumental activities become more highly valued, males become more highly valued, and vice versa; the reverse process tends to hold true for females. Access to these different activities is then restricted on the basis of sex. It is important to bear in mind that symbolic asymmetry refers to the extensive political practices of human groups in evaluating the two sexes, and not to any necessary scientific "truthfulness" of such evaluations.

In the sequence described above, the asymmetries are increasingly "artifactual"; that is, even though they are socially factual, they are artificially constructed. While biological asymmetry is largely given by nature out of an evolutionary inheritance, instrumental asymmetry, although paying attention to this biology, is designated and amplified by society, and symbolic asymmetry is largely a cultural contrivance.

This part of the Sex Role Asymmetries Paradigm organizes and consolidates three major ideas regarding human sex roles: First, that sex roles exhibit different configurations of physiology and biology; second, that these roles express different socially assigned and/or preferred tasks; third, that the cultural evaluations attached to these roles differ markedly. Although these asymmetries interact upon each other in multiple ways, they are presented in this developmental order. (These three asymmetries unknowingly shaped the structure of the course from its inception; only after they became identified and labeled were we able to utilize them in a deliberate manner.)

Constellated around these three core features is another set of dimensions. These dimensions (which emerged later in the history of the course) capture the inter-connectedness of six key external factors which determine the configuration of sex roles and the gender issues which result.

These six factors are:
1) techno-economic - level and degree of technology, and patterns of economic production, distribution, and consumption;
2) environmental - natural, social, political, and inter-cultural environments;
3) biological - human features, both morphological and physiological;
4) populational - various demographic dimensions (size, density, mobility, etc.);
5) sociocultural - structural levels, ideologies, social organization, socialization and institutionalization practices;
6) psychological - personality development and identity, unique human traits, e.g., sharing, emotional bonding, cognitive strategies, etc.

The two sets of dimensions logically nest together (as illustrated below) and provide an expanded paradigm that serves as both an effective unifying model and a guide to integrating material into the course. The paradigm has both general and specific applications: it aids in comprehending the overall social logic of sex roles in general, it describes and explains culture-specific sex roles, and it accounts for individual features and experiences of these roles Most especially, the paradigm provides a basis for identifying central gender issues in relation to the temporal changes and cultural variations of sex roles.



The Sex Role Asymmetries Paradigm

The paradigm is put "into motion" by assigning causal weight to the techno-economic factor; this initiates an inter-relational dynamic among all the factors, which is then discussed and evaluated. Once the paradigm is set in motion, all of the factors - the internal three and the external six - quickly are seen to affect and influence each other, as in any complex system

An example of the utility of the paradigm is in describing the emergence of an instrumental asymmetry that is especially characteristic of humans - the extensive sexual division of labor in subsistence activities. Among early hunting-gathering populations, the hunting of larger animals was assigned to males, the gathering of plants and capturing of smaller animals to females. This widespread pattern is considered a major step in human evolution. Dividing labor in this way represented a techno-economic answer to the ecological problems of surviving in a particular environment. It provided an efficient way of exploiting varying food sources in terms of human resources of energy and time and the social costs of learning and specialization in order to yield a particular and advantaged diet.

This development was, in part, a function of human biology, which includes such specific characteristics as bi-pedalism, an "oversized" brain, omnivorousness, manual dexterity, and a reproductive pattern of single births and long-term dependency. This adaptation also took place because a particular human population of a particular size, density, and composition shared a set of socio-cultural patterns (such as tool making, social dependency, sharing, communication, and decision making) which reinforced such a division of labor. Finally, individuals with the specific psychological attributes necessary to achieve success (e.g., spatial perception, emotional bonding, and patience) would have been selected for and trained in the various needed behaviors.

By assigning large animal hunting to those members of the group who, on the basis of biological categorization, would be more likely to run faster, develop greater upper body strength, be less tied to gestation and lactation, have a greater vital capacity, be more expendable, and be more physically aggressive, this sex-based division of labor was heavily influenced by biological asymmetry. Members of a group with an opposite set of traits would be categorically assigned to food gathering (small animals and plants), for comparably compelling reasons. This initial division of labor would have given formation to an instrumental asymmetry, and even promoted its further elaboration, e.g. in assigning the two sexes to specific roles in regard to such things as tool making and using, house building, domestic tasks, residence patterns, descent patterns, public power, etc. The sex-related lifestyle differences that emerged would then have influenced the symbolic asymmetry of the group in many ways, fostering the evaluation of individuals by the esteem associated with their activities and the development of myths that explained, rationalized, and justified this particular division of labor.

Bringing the analysis historically closer, the same factors can be utilized to describe why, in the secondary phases of the industrial revolution, women were pulled back into a largely domestic role while men remained to labor in the public sector, and why this pattern was again modified in the United States and Europe during and after World Wars I and II.

Again, the complex inter-dependency reflected by the paradigm is well exemplified in the differential effects of same-sex and cross-sex socialization. This illustration begins with bisexual reproduction, which is biologically determined. Other physiological characteristics of the female, some inherently related to reproduction (lactation and nursing) and others more incidental but still physiological (the additional weight and growing burden of carrying the fetus as it increases in size during gestation) tend to curtail the mobility of pregnant women. Putting this together with the presence of young children who need to be protected, nurtured, and instructed, females become the "logically" most appropriate persons to be assigned the task of early child care. Thus both female and male infants and young girls and boys receive much if not most of their early socialization from their mothers. As adults, however, they will be expected to identify with and take on the general sex role characteristics of members of their own sex. This means that early socialization is a very different experience for girls than it is for boys. Girls are largely socialized by someone with whom, as adults, they will be expected to identify; boys are largely socialized by someone from whom, as adults, they will be expected to differentiate. This example portrays the complex interplay of many elements, all of which must be taken into account. But it is important to remember that the dynamic starts off at an evolutionary, biological level.

Such illustrations suggest the Sex Role Asymmetry Paradigm is both useful and effective in its explanatory capability. In particular, it helps demonstrate how complex sex roles are and why simple, mono-causal explanations tend to be inadequate.

For the ten years that we have taught this course we have been involved in an ongoing dialogue about what it should include and how it should be taught; these discussions, in turn, have affected our own thinking about sex and gender. The result has been a great deal of learning for the two instructors.

Some of our learning has been about our students and, by implication, about the public at large. Given the age and experience of our students (typically a bit older than the average, the majority of them female, as many as half either married or divorced, a number of them parents, and many single heads of households), they have seemed somewhat naive. They generally lacked accurate information. As the old song has it, they "don't know much about biology." In general, their attitudes, stereotypes, and perceptions regarding sex and gender were often misinformed and emotionally based, but strongly held.

Both instructors have moved toward an increased recognition of the significance of biology and physiology in any complete understanding of sex and gender roles, reflecting an emerging pattern in the social sciences as a whole. Against this background, we have an increased awareness of the prima facie plausibility and explanatory power of at least some socio-biological arguments .

With the growing recognition that sex and gender operate as universal organizing principles for many aspects of most societies, we have gained a sense of a "bigger picture", both temporal and cross-cultural. We have also been reaffirmed in a recognition of the power of evolutionary models of explanation at both the physical and the cultural levels; indeed, we have come to see cultures as ironically displaying a sort of inherent organic wisdom -  what Hegel called "the cunning of Reason." A good illustration of this is provided by the organizational consultant Russell Ackoff who points out that although the 1957 birth rate in India (4.6 children per family) appeared to be terribly high, there was a wisdom to it.

The average Indian male could expect a number of years of unemployment when he got older. India had no social security program and the typical worker did not earn enough to save for these unemployed years. His only hope, then, was to be provided for by his children. It took an average of 1.1 wage earners to support one unemployed adult at the minimal subsistence level, but, because it takes two to produce a child, each family needed at least 2.2 wage-earning children. Because half the children born were female, and females were essentially unemployable in India at that time, 4.4 children were required. To cover infant and child mortality, this number had to be adjusted upward to 4.6 children.3

Clearly, nobody had explicitly worked all this out; yet a blind social wisdom appeared to be expressing itself. (It seems to us not coincidental that this example also demonstrates the relevance of our "six-pointed" paradigm.)

And finally, we have gained an increased awareness of this complex and intricate dynamic among biology, culture, psychology, and social structure, a dynamic that has been observed by authors as diverse as Slater (1970) and Chodorow (1978).4 This dynamic is at least partly captured in the Sex Role Asymmetries Paradigm. It is within this complex inter-dependency that we have come to see the biological and techno-economic factors assuming a certain primacy.

Given the comprehensive nature of the course and its unique point of entry into the investigation and understanding of human behavior, we are now envisioning the possibility of a sex and gender roles course which would serve as a general introduction to the social sciences, making even greater use of movies, television programs, and popular fiction as a means of connecting the subject matter to the everyday lives of our students.

For both instructors, a decade of "Sex Roles - Past, Present, Future" has been a challenging, provocative, and revitalizing professional experience. From that experience, we continue to harvest insight, enthusiasm, and new ideas. The Sex Roles Asymmetry Paradigm has been part of that harvest.

* Originally read at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Social Science Conference, Portland, Oregon, February 1988 and subsequently published in Social Science Perspectives Journal: Proceedings of the 1988 NSSA Portland Conference, 1988

1 This is the course description from the 1987 Weber State College Catalog.

2 Rosemary Conover and Michael A. Toth, Sex Roles: Past, Present, Future: A Collected Book of Readings, 1987.

3 Described in a brief chapter (#34) titled "Who's Irrational?" in Management in Small Doses, New York: John Wiley & Sons, pp.133-134.

4 This dynamic has been commented upon by many students of human behavior.  Here, we are reflecting the work of Philip Slater (The Pursuit of Loneliness, Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) and Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).