06/18/2009 - Articles

Seniors, Gender Roles and Androgyny

By: Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD


Times are changing, and the traditional gender roles are 'softening'. This is the topic of Dr Moghaddam's discussion of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny . . .


Changing Gender Roles and Seniors

Before you read the discussion below, rate on a 1 to 7 scale (with 1 = 'Not at All' and 7 = 'To a Great Extent) how you see yourself as having each of the the following characteristics:

Acts as leader Affectionate
Aggressive Cheerful
Analytical Compassionate
Assertive Does not use harsh language
Athletic Eager to sooth hurt feelings
Dominant Gentle
Forceful Gullible
Independent Loyal
Strong Personality Tender
Willing to take risks Warm

"When I was a teenager, back in the 1940s, the differences between girls and boys were more obvious. It was easier for girls and boys to know how they should behave. But now, all those standards have been pushed aside. I feel that it's difficult for me to share my experiences as a woman with my grand-daughter, because she seems to see herself a lot more like men than I did."

In talking with seniors about the roles of men and women, I have consistently come across the view that the relationship between men and women has changed, as in the above example. The perception that gender roles have changed is of course not unique to seniors, but is a common belief among most of the population. This focus on change among the younger generation has served to hide a number of other important trends.

  • First, gender relations among seniors have also changed.
  • Second, change has involved both females and males.
  • Third, in some important ways gender relations have not changed.


In order to better appreciate these trends, it is useful first to review how our thinking about gender roles has been transformed through the concept of androgyny.

Masculinity, Femininity, and Androgyny: What Changes?

There has been a tradition of using the terms 'sex role' and 'gender role' inter-changeably, but this leads to confusion. Sex is the biological category people belong to, whereas gender is the social role ascribed to people who fall in either the male or female sex category. In this discussion, we are focusing on gender roles, which can change relatively quickly.

When we look across time or across cultures, it is obvious that gender roles can and do change dramatically. For example, consider how the role of women has changed over the last century. To take just one example of this change, women were excluded from many institutions of higher education, but now in the United States and many other western societies as many or even more females are gaining entrance to university than males.

Measuring Masculinity and Femininity

Traditionally, gender roles were seen as being opposite each other: a person was seen to be either high on masculinity or high on femininity. For example, it was thought that masculine males must necessarily be low on feminine characteristics. Also, it was assumed the psychological health of an individual would be better if there was a close fit between them and their sex type. Thus, for example, a more feminine female was assumed to be better adjusted psychologically than a less feminine female. These traditional notions of health and gender roles have influenced societal ideals; for example, as reflected in the characteristics of successful female and male movie stars.

But the feminist movement led to a re-thinking of our views on gender roles. It was no longer accepted that masculinity and femininity must be on the opposite poles of a single continuum - in other words, that a person who is high on one must necessarily be low on the other, and vice versa. The new view of gender roles assumed that a person could be low on both masculinity and femininity, or high or medium on both.

The ratings you made at the beginning of this discussion are from the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, a pioneering measure that allowed for independent assessment of masculinity and femininity (for a more complete description and set of questions, see Bem, S. L. 1974. The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology , 42, 155-162). The 'items' or descriptions on the left (i.e., acts as a leader, aggressive, etc.,) measure masculinity, and those on the right (i.e., affectionate, cheerful, etc.,) measure femininity. Add up the total score you achieved for ratings on each side to see how masculine you view yourself as opposed to how feminine. The closer the scores are, the more androgynous you are.

Interestingly, in the new way of viewing gender roles, the androgynous personality is seen as better adjusted than the extreme masculine or feminine types.

Both Males and Females Have Changed

When people talk about changes in gender roles, the focus is usually on women. The assumption is that the real changes have come about only among females, and males have either not changed or changed relatively little.

But the relationship between males and females is highly inter-dependent, and changes in one necessarily involve changes in the other. Males have also changed, in large part in order to adjust to the changes made by females. For example, in western societies more married women are now working outside the home, and this has resulted in husbands to some extent adjusting their own behavior in the home and with children. Husbands are now sharing more of the responsibilities of taking care of the home and the children.

But it is not just young men and women who have changed the way they behave. Senior women and men are also influenced by changing gender roles, so that they too are becoming more androgynous. For example, senior women are becoming more 'athletic', 'forceful', and so on (look back at the list of 'masculine' characteristics, on the left in the Sex Role Inventory at the start of this discussion).

But in Some Ways, Males and Females Have Not Changed

Although gender roles have changed dramatically in many ways, in some ways they haven't changed. Researchers have documented that professional women tend to work a 'second shift' when they return home from working outside. In other words, when women finish their 'day jobs' outside the home, there is a tendency for them to take on a second 'night job' back home. Much of this second shift revolves around the kitchen and children. The kitchen is still seen as a place where 'mother is boss', which can be a good thing in some ways, but bad if it means 'mother does the work'. Children are also still seen as primarily mother's responsibility.

Another way in which men and women have not changed much is in their life expectations: women still live longer than men by around 3-5 years in most western countries, with some estimates suggesting that the gap in life expectancy has been increasing rather than decreasing. In most western countries about 70% of the 85 and older population are women.

Male-female relations have also remained stable with respect to age at marriage: women continue to marry older men. However, the size of the age difference between husbands and wives is decreasing. For example, in the United States in 1900 husbands were about 4½ years older than their wives, but for those born in 1950 the age gap between husbands and wives decreases to about 2½ years.

How Androgynous Are You?

Finally, another quick way for you and your partner is to find out how androgynous you think you are is to answer the following questions. For fun, first complete the questions about yourself, then rate your partner (and your partner can rate you).

To what extend do you see yourself as masculine
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 To a great extent

To what extent do you see yourself as feminine
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 To a great extent

To what extend do you see your partner as masculine
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 To a great extent

To what extent do you see your partner as feminine
Not at all 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 To a great extent

When you have completed the ratings, compare them and see how close are your perceptions of one other.


The Individual and Society: A Cultural Integration by Fathali M. Moghaddam

Created on: 02/11/2003
Reviewed on: 06/18/2009

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