Growing up, I was quite an athletic kid. One of the sports I enjoyed the most was cricket. So, when I learnt that our school was finally getting a cricket team, I grabbed my gear and reached the grounds for the tryouts. Soon, my turn came, and all eyes turned towards me, but the ones glaring at me were the coach’s. He rudely demanded that I get off the grounds, and when I asked why, he told me it’s because I was a girl, and that cricket was a manly sport. It broke my heart to hear that and walk away from something I loved so much. That was the first time I felt affected by them — gender roles.
What are gender roles?
Gender roles are a set of ideas and expectations regarding what men and women are supposed to do in society. These roles define everything for the genders, from what they’re supposed to wear and how they’re supposed to behave, to what they’re supposed to like.
For example: women are expected to be more empathetic and nurturing, whereas men are expected to be more tough and independent.
At first glance, gender roles might seem harmless. But what we must understand is that they are limiting. Genders do not define who you are and what kind of life you want to lead, it’s you who decides that. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that gender roles are still very much a part of our society and are harmful in several ways. We need to identify where they come from and cut them from the roots.
So, what influences gender roles?
For centuries, men and women have been conditioned to behave in a certain manner. This belief system has been passed down through generations, and so it cannot just disappear. But the sources of this influence can be traced back to the following.
1. Parenting & family dynamics: Children learn what they are taught, and mostly, parents place certain expectations on their kids. Boys are expected to be good at sports and other physical activities early on in their lives, whereas girls are expected to play with dolls or play house. Even such small activities set examples for children about what is right for their gender. Family dynamics too play a huge role. Kids observe what their mothers and fathers do and how their roles are different from one another. In traditional families, women take care of the house while men go out to earn. This influences children to do the same when they grow up.
2. School: Most schools do not do a great job in creating an equal environment for both the genders. The simplest example is the school uniforms. Boys wear pants whereas girls wear skirts. This limits girls from participating in more physical activities, gets them conscious about their body hair as they hit puberty, gives them body image issues etc. If something as basic as uniforms were gender neutral, a lot of the stereotypes would be easier to break. All these practices set unhealthy and unequal dynamics between girls and boys.
3. Social Media: Social media has changed the world for growing children. They learn almost everything from the internet, social media etc. There are so many movies out there that influence their thinking about gender roles, music that stereotypes their place in society, and social media that often establishes an image on how different genders should behave.
4. Society: In a research study regarding gender roles, it was noted that most people, even when complimenting children, used different words for boys and girls. Girls were mostly called pretty and boys were mostly called smart. This behaviour influences children to focus on a certain part of themselves. Girls think they’re supposed to be more into their looks. Boys think they’re supposed to be more into their minds. Many such day-to-day things lead to kids learning patterns and the effects can be seen in their behaviour when they grow up.
Some common examples of stereotypes associated with gender are:
• Emotionally, women are expected to be sensitive, expressive and adjusting, while men are expected to be self-confident, emotionally distant and firm. This is such a harmful stereotype, as it creates a sense of pressure on men to always seem put together and unemotional, and for women to always adjust and tolerate no matter how toxic or abusive the situation becomes. It leads to repressed emotions and other mental health issues.
• Professionally, people often assume that jobs like nursing and teaching are meant for women, and jobs like pilots, doctors, and engineers are meant for men. Women are not taken seriously in leadership positions, and are often doubted on their skills.
• Physically, women are expected to look thin and delicate while men are expected to look tall and muscular. Anything other than this is frowned upon. Even clothing is gender-based — skirts and dresses for women, and shirts and pants for men.
• Domestically, women are supposed to take the role of the homemaker, do jobs like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. Men are supposed to go out and do office work, fix things in the house, drive cars, earn money etc.
• Sexually, women are expected to be shy, inexperienced, and quiet about their sexual pleasures and desires, whereas men are praised when they are sexually experienced and dominant. If a woman is open about her sexual desires or a man is shy about it, both are shamed for it.
Stereotypes are evident in all walks of life and careers. Let’s check the ones evident in sports.
Stereotypes associated with gender in sports
It is clear that our society discourages girls from going into sports from a very young age. And what is more visible is how men are pushed to get into sports, build their muscles and become more tough and aggressive. Some people think that there are even masculine and feminine sports. If any girl is trying to play a masculine sport, she has to work twice as hard to prove herself and to be considered a good player. In fact, the whole toxic phrase of “you throw/hit like a girl” is extremely popular, and is still used by many people. If a boy is trying to play a feminine sport, extreme bullying and mocking follows. This tells us how gender stereotypes are harmful and restricting.
Thankfully, some people are starting to understand the repercussions of these stereotypes and are doing a lot to bring a change in these areas. There are organisations that support women’s sports teams, more scholarships are now available for women athletes, social media and influencers have helped in spreading awareness about the topic. But nothing makes a bigger change than an athlete himself challenging gender roles. One such incident took place in the Tokyo Olympics 2021.
Tom Daley, the British diver who has won hearts and several medals in the Olympics since he was 14, recently won a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics 2021 with his diving partner, Matty Lee. Later on, while cheering for the divers at the women’s 3-meter springboard final, he was spotted in his seat knitting a cardigan. Yes, knitting! It was unexpected for a lot of people to witness a male athlete knitting, as knitting is traditionally considered a woman’s activity. But Daley was proudly and passionately enjoying his therapeutic activity, as he calls it. This incident went viral and he gained huge support from people. He even created an Instagram page for his knitting, which soon became a sensation.
By being so open about his passions, Daley ended up breaking several gender stereotypes. Male athletes are supposed to be aggressive, but the whole world watched as gold medalist Daley sat and delicately knitted his cardigan with just as much grace as he put into his sport.
How is it significant in bringing a change?
This incident might seem small but is actually extremely significant in bringing a change. It bursts the stereotype that male athletes are always tough and unfeeling. Because of this, boys all over the world have come one step closer to accepting their own interests towards supposed “feminine” activities. We thank Tom Daley with all our hearts for bringing the world a step closer to becoming a better place by simply being himself.
The world is already a difficult place to live in. We make it much harder for the young generation by imposing such impossible expectations on boys and girls to be different. By now, it has been proven by a lot of us that we are alike in more ways than we are different. There’s nothing that boys can do that girls can’t, and vice versa. Then, why are we trying so hard to separate them? Let’s stop putting them into boxes and let them decide who they want to be. They are very much capable of doing that.