How Traditional Gender Role Expectations Can Be Imprisoning for Women

The following is not an exhaustive list, but an overview of gendered expectations for women today. We as a culture have evolved, but certain expectations persist for both genders and some are harmful. The following demonstrates how commonly ascribed expectations can create barriers for women and girls.

◦ Women need men to take care of them 

Ladies, if you have in the past/are currently constantly asked “When are you getting married? Are you dating anyone?  How long has it been since you’ve been on a date?” at weddings, family gatherings, church, or the hair salon raise your hand.

Photo by Federico Nava on

  Women are often implicitly told that they are worth more when accompanied by a man. A single woman in her mid-late 30s is judged by “Hmm wonder what’s wrong with her?”  A single man in his mid-late 30s is praised for his focus on his career and his bachelor life is much more socially accepted. This double standard begins early on in life.  According to Cassano and Zeman (2010), in a study purposed to discover parents’ socialization of sadness, fathers in particular displayed more acceptance of and protection over their daughters’ emotional expression than their sons.  This speaks to the gender role expectation of men to hide emotional expression to appear tough which will be expounded upon in the next blog post. For now, this finding, if pushed beyond its level of effectiveness (father comes to rescue daughter every time she experiences a negative emotion instead of allowing her to struggle with it and learn to cope/grow) teaches her that she does not have the capacity for independence.  She needs a man.  This distorted perception may very well contribute to patterns of codependency (Codependency is an issue many clients today experience and will be discussed in a later post).

Women must appear youthful and sexy

Women are expected to look perfect without looking like they are working for it. This is frequently introduced in how women appear in the media.  It is expected of women to stay youthful, fight aging, and make it look natural and effortless. How many eye wrinkle cream commercials do you see men in versus women?  In fact, it is much more acceptable for men to age because gray hair helps them to appear “distinguished” and powerful. The expectation to remain youthful is an embedded message that many women absorb, but remaining young is not the only impossible standard women are expected to meet.  Women’s bodies are constantly objectified in the media. See pictured below the double standard in objectification. The one exaggerating the male character’s rear is laughable, but the original poster is normalized. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from beer to cars to hamburgers.  Men’s objectification is increasing (also not ok), but still not to the level of women’s. The combination of these messages tell women that their worth and identity revolves around their appearance.

◦ Women (working outside the home or stay at home mothers) are responsible for all household duties and are the main caretakers for children

When expecting company, my mom often says to my dad, “If the house looks messy it reflects badly on me because I am the woman”. 

My mom, along with all other women, have been socialized to understand that it is their responsibility to keep up with household chores and if they don’t they will be judged for their poor performance as a wife/mother. They have been trained to see their value attached to their household duties and their role as a mother and this is reinforced by the media. Last Christmas there was an ad on the radio that stated “You may think that getting your husband a tool for Christmas would be like him getting you a mop and a broom. It’s not! Get him what he really wants!” [insert eyeroll here]. The media is not the only evidence of this gendered expectation. In a study by Iwasaki, MacKay, and Ristock (2004) of individuals in managerial positions it was found that women experienced their lives as integrated (work, home, and their responsibility to/of others like their children), while men found personal/independent life of importance. The imprisoning piece of this expectation is that a woman can become invested in multiple areas without a partner to shoulder the burden. Further, if keeping house and being a mother has evolved into her only identity, important information about who she genuinely is beyond what she is responsible for is dismissed.

Women should be submissive and defer to the men in their lives (often husbands) in decision-making 

Scripture tells wives to submit to their husbands.  This scripture is frequently taken out of context to mean that wives must defer to their husbands as the only decision maker, or even that wives are expected to do exactly as their husbands demand.  It is not valid to assume that the Word commands wives to be under their husband’s thumb. The passage that uses the phrase submission is referring to protection and a covering. Husbands are given the role of a servant leader. Both men and women were given dominion over all living things on the earth.  They were given this dominion/authority at different levels. A husband’s dominion is to protect his wife as Christ protected and served the church by dying on a cross to protect the church from its sins. Wives are commanded to accept this protection and respect their husbands.  

Consider this 2005 study: According to Tichenor’s research, wives who earned more in salary and occupational status continued to perform majority of the domestic tasks, and for half of those participating, this triggered disagreements within the relationship. Further, “Instead of using their unconventional circumstances to alter the conventional balance of marital power, spouses work together to reproduce men’s dominance in a variety of ways” (Tichenor, 2005, p. 197). Wives who earned more than their husbands would lose decision-making power in the relationship, but husbands who earned more than their wives would maintain their power. How is this imprisoning for women? Their voice is hushed. They can perform compliantly only for so long and then contempt and resentment takes its place.

If you enjoyed this post, please read “How Traditional Gender Role Expectations Can Be Imprisoning for Men”

Cassano, M. C., & Zeman, J. L. (2010). Parental socialization of sadness regulation in middle childhood: The role of expectations and gender. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1214-1226. doi:10.1037/a0019851

Iwasaki, Y., MacKay, K. J., & Ristock, J. (2004). Gender-based analyses of stress among professional managers: An exploratory qualitative study. International Journal of Stress Management, 11(1), 56-79. doi:10.1037/1072-5245.11.1.56

Tichenor, V. (2005). Maintaining men’s dominance: Negotiating identity and power when she earns more. Sex Roles, 53(3-4), 191-205. doi:10.1007/s11199-005-5678-2

Counseling Myths 6-10

Myth #6: Counselors main method of responding is “How does that make you feel?”

This question represents another stereotype shown in the media.  Feelings are a topic explored in counseling, but they are not the only topic.  Further, this question is an inept way to initiate a conversation about feelings.  Counselors engage in communication with clients in a variety of ways with questions, reflections, clarifications, activities, establishing goals and more.  

Myth #7:  “I’ve (we’ve) been to counseling before and it didn’t work, so it wont work this time”

Counseling is an art as much as it is a science.  What I mean by this is that the counseling process is influenced both by who the counselor is and how the counselor was trained.  It is possible that previous unsuccessful counseling attempts “didn’t work” because the counselor’s personality and style was not a good fit for you.  It is crucial to note that not all counselors are trained the same. For example, going to counseling for addiction issues with a counselor who specializes in grief counseling will not be fully beneficial.  Going to marital counseling with a counselor who is only trained in individual counseling will not be fully beneficial. When choosing a counselor, ask questions about the counselor’s credentials and how they were trained to better ensure a successful counseling experience.  

Myth #8:  The counseling process is problem focus with pain and dark emotions as the primary topic

Although it is important for the entire spectrum of emotions to be freely (and effectively) expressed, counseling is not about becoming more stuck in the presenting issue.  The counseling process is focused on what the client needs to get out of the experience for the purpose of no longer needing to attend counseling. For this reason, client goals, dreams, achievements, strengths, and an awareness, acceptance, and expression of these often become the focus of sessions.  

Myth #9:  Faith based counselors will impose their values on me

If faith is not part of your belief system and you do not want faith to be incorporated into your counseling experience you can make this known to your counselor and she/he will respect this desire.  If faith is apart of your belief system, but you fear counselor values being imposed on you please know that it is our job as counselors to remain as objective as possible. Counselors are people and hold their own opinions and values, but it is ethically and morally corrupt to force value systems onto clients.  

Myth #10:  Counseling is a long and expensive process

Counseling is an emotional and financial investment.  However, if finances are a concern a number of options exist.  These options may include: a shorter session time, less frequency of sessions (not recommended for crisis situations), seeing a provisionally licensed counselor or counseling intern, or referral to a center that uses an income based sliding scale.  It is often said that counseling is the one field whose purpose it is to put itself out of business. Essentially, this means that the purpose of counseling encounters is to launch clients, so that what happens in the counseling room is something they have learned to create for themselves in their world outside of counseling.  Depending on the presenting issue, the client(s) level of investment/ activity, and the timing of intervention, perhaps a limited number of sessions will be required.

This is a continuation of a previous post. Please see “Counseling Myths 1-5”

Counseling Myths 1-5

The following myths can create barriers in seeking counseling. This post is continued in “Counseling Myths 6-10.”

Myth #1: Counseling is only for severe issues, “crazy people”, diagnosed mental illness, or couples on the brink of divorce.

While counseling is beneficial to those facing a crisis or critical issue, these are not requirements to seek out counseling services.  In fact, I often hear clients say they wish they had started counseling much sooner. Counseling is beneficial for a number of reasons beyond a current trial filled season or chronic issue and can be a proactive intervention to prevent potential issues from emerging in the future.  This kind of counseling experience may be described as primary prevention or maintenance. The purpose of maintenance can be any combination of the following: increase self-awareness, develop more effective coping mechanisms, conflict resolution, more effective communication, increase relationship satisfaction, personal growth, and more.    

Myth #2: Prayer and the strength of one’s faith can and should be the only place to seek healing and can effectively replace a counseling experience.

If your faith is a part of your worldview you may have been told in so many words that “More prayer and a stronger faith is all you should need to overcome a particular problem or circumstance.”  If you have heard this message you may feel shame for seeking help outside of the church. However, we know that God is not a God of shame. It’s crucial to debunk this myth and provide hope that a combination of faith and counseling is possible.  Just as Jesus uses the hands of surgeons to heal the body, Jesus speaks through counseling professionals to heal emotional wounds. Prayer is powerful. A counseling experience with a trained, empathetic professional is powerful. Both utilized together can propel one toward healing.  

Myth #3:  Counseling is for the weak

Actually the opposite is true.  Seeking out counseling requires a certain amount of courage to initiate change.  In all effective counseling encounters vulnerability is present. With vulnerability is the presence of bravery and the strength to share one’s truth.

Myth #4:  Counselors are advice givers

Often the purpose of counseling is to facilitate greater awareness of where a solution resides within the client.  Counselors operate as fellow travelers on the journey toward client goals rather than all knowing experts. When clients can independently (with encouragement, guidance, and support) claim victory over an issue, they are more empowered to tackle a future trial.

Myth #5:  Counselors and the counseling experience are accurately depicted in the media

Films and television shows frequently display counselors as inappropriately involved with clients outside of a professional relationship. Counselors are bound to ethical and legal codes of conduct. Unfortunately, violations to these codes do exist, but not to the exaggerated degree shown in the media. The counseling experience is often shown with an individual laying on a couch while a counselor passively engages with the individual and authoritatively writes on a notepad. In true counseling experiences, most environments are warm and welcoming with an actively present counselor. Clients are free to make themselves comfortable (I’ve had a client take shoes off before starting a session), but laying down on a couch is not required or expected.

Thank you for reading! I hope these were helpful. Please see continued post for myths 6-10.