Gender Roles Shaped The Attitudes Of The Past, But Will Not Rule The Future

By Natalie Eastwood
The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Several local Pennsylvania women take a look at the changing dynamics of gender and how men and women are starting to break “hard and fast rules” that society has constructed.

The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

It was just the way things were and, sometimes still are, when it comes to the way men and women treat each other.

From gender roles to acceptable conduct in polite society, definitions and boundaries have narrowed across generations.

Inappropriate touching, comments and sexist jokes all fall under the term “sexual harassment,” and women put up with it because that’s how it was during a time when education levels and job-type created disparity between the genders.

Mary Zimmerman, 78, president of the Lewisburg Area League of Women Voters, worked in the 1980s during a time when no one labeled sexual harassment for what it was.

“I never considered wolf-whistling or construction workers yelling at me harassment. It never occurred to me,” Zimmerman said. “But that was just the way things were. An awful lot of women accepted things because that’s the way things were.”

Instead of confronting the offender, women coped, she said.

Zimmerman, who was a women’s history and western civilization history teacher at a community college in Virginia for 25 years, had a male colleague who was constantly touching her and making her feel uncomfortable.

“I knew if I complained, I would be regarded as a troublemaker,” she said. “I didn’t say anything. I rearranged my office hours so I wasn’t there when he was there.”

After she retired, Zimmerman spoke to her former department chairman about the man, and he laughed it off.
“I knew that would be the answer,” she said.

When women first entered the workforce, they accepted sexual harassment as the price to simply be there, said Richelle Dykstra, sociology instructor at Slippery Rock University.

“Earlier on, women had to accept that because they didn’t have a ton of options. Overwhelmingly, their role was in deference to a man, as a secretary,” Dykstra said. “As women became a more powerful force, it really empowered them in their toxic workforce.”

It’s no longer a privilege for women to work, Dykstra said. It’s the norm.

What is perceived as “normal” in society depends on the gender listed on your birth certificate in most cases.

Each gender is socialized differently, and all of those little moments of being molded as a girl or a boy create two different journeys, said Kristenne Robison, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Westminster College.

Children are taught to play with certain toys and adults are pushed into specific careers all based on gender, she said.

“And then you both end up in the workforce. (You) want to get paid the same, be valued the same, but we spent a whole lifetime treating you differently. You can see where the challenge lies in that we’ve created these two people,” Robison said.

The interactions men and women have with one another are dictated by these defined roles that society has created for them, Robison said.

“You’re not just a man. You’re not just a woman. It’s actually a process you have to constantly achieve, every minute of the day throughout the day,” she said. “You can’t just say, “I’ve achieved womanhood or manhood.’ You just always have to be working toward that.”

And messages society sends women and men can lurk anywhere — like in sports stories where men not only outnumber women, but also are presented differently, Robison said.

The woman’s performance is attributed to luck, a man’s to skill. The woman is highlighted as a mother or a daughter, and the man for his athleticism, she said.

“Difference can be OK. It’s when we apply a hierarchy to difference, that’s when it becomes an issue,” Robison said.

Although gender roles certainly exist in today’s culture, they are becoming more malleable, Dykstra said.

People are starting to break these “hard and fast rules” that society has constructed, and that is shifting how men and women perceive themselves, she said.

It’s a tightrope-like ladder that young men and women are traversing, said Ashley Baldesberger, 26, of Portersville, who is studying pre-nursing at Butler County Community College (BCCC).

Roles have changed and rules are murky, especially when it comes to dating and interacting with the opposite sex, she said.

Some men feel threatened that the roles will reverse and women will dominate the work force, Baldesberger said.
“Nobody wants that,” she said. “Women just want to be equal.”

Gender roles differ depending on culture and location, but regardless of how or where they are created, they are constantly evolving, Robison said.

“But we also talk about, even in our own society, how gender roles have changed drastically in the last 100, 150 years, due to industrialization, medicine, women in the workforce,” Robison said. “We’re still adjusting to that change.”

The images of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best,” iconic television shows from the 1950s and 1960s, are false representations of that time period, she said. Yet, even people born in the 1990s and early 2000s associate those black-and-white images with better days, she added.

This era was actually a “little blip in time, and it really wasn’t even the norm. It was just the norm for white, middle class families who experienced the economic boom after World War II.”

Chris Slay, 36, of Butler, is a social work student at BCCC. He said that 20 years ago, men marginalized women in the workplace and at home, but that is shifting.

“Decent men now view women as peers,” Slay said. “That status quo has changed and so have expectations. Twenty years ago, men would lead; women would follow.”

Men still objectify women, he said, but fewer men voice those thoughts. Social media helps to perpetuate this objectification because of the anonymity, he added.

Michael Cashaw, 49, of Prospect, said he thinks changes in today’s culture are because women are making themselves more visible.

Decades ago, women were encouraged to remain in the background, down to how they sat in public. Now, there are more women in higher education and delving into traditionally male-dominated fields, he said.

“(Women) are flexing their collective power.” Cashaw said. “It’s a trickle right now, but it will soon be a flood.”

Additional reporting by Brent Addleman, Nancy Lowry, Debbie Wachter, Lugene Pezzuto and Dan Irwin of the New Castle News; Justin Strawser of the Sunbury Daily Item; and Randy Griffith of the Johnstown Tribune Democrat.

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