Straightjacketed by Gender Roles?

By Max Dehon, Paul A. Djupe, and Maggie Miller (in alphabetical order)

A cornerstone principle of a liberal arts education is that individuals are encouraged to take ownership of their own success through the freedom to develop and shape their own futures. One might say that this fosters an environment where no individual’s future is straightjacketed by predetermined roles. However, we recently found out how tightly tied gender is to gender role identity – men describe themselves to be masculine and women as feminine. In this post, we dig a bit further to examine just what Denison students mean by masculine and feminine, to understand how they see themselves through the lens of commonly used traits.

Traits traditionally linked to masculinity in Western society include courage, independence, assertiveness, and leadership. Femininity traditionally includes empathy, gentleness, humility, and sensitivity. How do Denison students line up? In order to answer this question, we used March 2019 survey data in which the Denison student body was asked to assess how various traits describe themselves on a 1-7 scale (1 = never or almost never true for you, to 7 = always or almost always true for you). The figure below shows how Denison students identify themselves on the list we used, on average (the bars), as well as how men and women might differ (labeled dots).

It’s almost like the student body has been reading Denison’s marketing materials. Or, and this is a radical notion, maybe the marketing materials accurately describe Denison students. Students most strongly identify as compassionate, independent, risk takers. They identify least as aggressive and dominant, which is surprising given the sporting prowess of varsity athletics. (Ahem, varsity athletes actually are more likely to identify with those two traits, but not more or less of the others.)

The differences between men and women are not large. Half of the traits show a gender gap on traits that are traditionally labeled feminine: compassionate, affectionate, sympathetic, and warm. But women are also more likely to identify as risk takers, which is not traditional at all. In fact, higher risk aversion among women has been attributed as the cause for higher levels of religiosity among women across the world as well as in the US. Interestingly, the only traits where Denison women identified less strongly than men were “aggressive” and “understanding,” though the gaps were not statistically significant.

Denison students are not deeply divided by gender in how they represent themselves, but perhaps it is their gender roles that more closely align with traits. That evidence is shown below. The dots represent the difference between the most masculine versus the most feminine identifiers. On the left side of 0 means that masculine identifiers are less of that trait, while on the right side of 0 means that masculine identifiers are more of that trait compared to feminine identifiers (a gap the size of +/- 1 point means about a 15% difference in the trait scale).

Here we get sharper definitions. Masculinity is more closely associated with dominance and aggression, while femininity is more closely linked to “relationship” traits – sympathy, compassion, affection, warmth, and gentleness. Again, the outlier in that group is risk taking.

Do these traits matter? Yes, they sure do. One thing we care deeply about is exercising leadership. It is not impossible to make a difference in the world without organizing, but it sure is more difficult. We asked a series of questions about leadership-type activities: lead or plan a meeting, speak in public, lead discussions, and put on major events. Most students do something on this list, about 50% do 4 or 5, and 25% do 0 or 1. Some of these traits are linked to exercising leadership. Being more assertive, dominant, understanding, and taking stands are all linked to exercising more leadership skills. Of course, these are also the most traditionally masculine traits, though “taking a stand” shows no gender role split. The others have no relationship with leadership.

The traits are also linked to feelings about important public figures like Jennifer Garner. Denisonians like their famous alumna; she gets a score of 68 on a 0-100 ‘feeling thermometer’ (0=cold, 100=warm). For comparison, only President Weinberg gets a higher score (74), though democracy gets the highest score (77) in the list. Do feelings for Jennifer Garner shift depending on these traits? The following figure shows that 2019 students just don’t understand the Jennifer Garner that Djupe does. He associates Garner with the aggressive, independent figure in “Alias” and students must be thinking about the Garner in “Miracles from Heaven.” Anyway, those who are more affectionate, warm, gentle, and sympathetic feel warmer toward Garner (positive slope = warmer feelings). More aggression, independence, and dominance predict somewhat cooler feelings. Yes, that suggests that women like her more than men, but remember that these traits are not tightly linked to gender.

Denison students share much in common regarding these traits and, on the main, they sound ideal for our college on the hill. Who doesn’t want to associate with independent, compassionate risk takers? Some of these traits show gender differences and stronger associations with gender roles – mostly in the traditional ways. To get back to the title, they don’t seem to be straightjackets, but they are linked to the roles we inhabit in society (e.g., leadership) and the way in which we view public figures. That is, these lightly gendered traits are living, active concepts, stratifying our society and our minds.

Max Dehon is a senior Political Science Major from Kansas City who will be celebrating the Super Bowl all semester. When not writing for 127, he can be found working on his 5-Iron and chasing foul balls at Big Red Field.

Maggie Miller is a senior with mixed feelings about graduation who studies political science and philosophy. She has worked in the First-Year Office and for the Denison Athletic Department. She is excited to spend her last semester studying all things Denison.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who coincidentally has taught social science research methods and political science at Denison for millenia. He started a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action. He’s on Twitter and you should be too.

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