Traditional societal gender expectations for how men and women should act and what they ought to value persist to influence our lives and shape our family relationships. Nonetheless, these societal expectations are in transition, and many people today are striving to define themselves and their family relationships in new, less restrictive ways. They believe that traditional gender expectations often keep them from finding their own individually defined purpose and fulfillment. They are searching for ways to live and love free from the constraints of rigid, gender-based expectations and inequities. Gender is as central to understanding families as is the concept of generation: Gender and generation are the two fundamental, organizing principles of family life. The names of family roles (mother, son, sister, nephew, grandma, uncle) tell us both the gender and generational location of family members. Gender typically indicates as much about the expectations for, and status or power of, a person in a family as does generational location.
As decades past, several theoretical traditions have evolved to better explain the role of gender in people’s lives and relationships like that of Risman (1998). While there have been differences in their conceptualization of gender, contemporary gender theorists like Coltrane (1998) and Risman (1998) agree that whereas sex is based on relatively distinct biological factors, gender is a social construction. Gender is something that we do rather than being what we are. As Coltrane (1998) asserts “we are expected to do gender to exhibit or enact those attributes or actions that are defined as masculine or feminine in a particular cultural context.”
In this socially constructed gender system, the prescriptions for each gender are defined in relation to the other. Maleness and femaleness are cast as dichotomized and polarised categories.