Sex Roles and the Family

Individual and family problems often go hand in hand. The stressed-out family member is likely to act out his or her tensions in the family setting, putting additional pressure on others in the family. Many parents, for example, react to their stressful situation by becoming more rigid and dogmatic in their communication style, barking responses such as, "Don't do as I do, do as I say," and "Just follow orders!"

Women are particularly vulnerable, as they try to juggle their various roles. Traditionally, when a problem arose at home, responsibility for dealing with it was assumed by the non-working mother. Today, the economic demands placed on any family are substantial, particularly given our tendency to live beyond our means (the over- utilized credit card). One result is that both parents usually work, and family problem solving is at least in theory shared by both parents, However, while many men give lip service to the ideal of being an equal partner in the area of housework and child rearing, few really practice what they preach. In reality, most women in two-career households still end up carrying the bulk of the load when it comes to running the home and family. This "superwoman" role is loaded with stress and frustration. The woman who has difficulty coping with the numerous demands on her may begin to experience difficulties in relationships with mates, children and co-workers.

According to an American Psychological Association task force on women and depression, females are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression. Among the task force's findings were that:

One in every four women will suffer clinical depression in her lifetime. But as many as half of all cases may never be diagnosed or may be misdiagnosed.

  • Females account for 58 percent of all visits to doctors, and take 13 percent of all mood-altering (psychotropic) medications. This proportional increases to 90 percent when the prescribing physician is not a psychiatrist.
  • " The suicide rate among professional women is rising, with the rate now being as high for females as it is for males.

There are many reasons why women are so prone to depression, including:

Males and females use and experience love relationships quite differently, with females being more sensitive to the ups and downs in interpersonal relationships than men.

  • Financial difficulties, victimization, perceived lack of control over one's life and repressed anger are all associated with depression.
  • Marital problems were reported as the most common cause of depression among women in therapy. While marriage tends to reduce a man's risk of depression, women in unhappy marriages are far more likely than men to be depressed.
  • Mothers of young children are especially vulnerable to depression. The more children in the home, the more likely the mother is to be depressed.
  • The rate of sexual and physical abuse of females is much higher than previously suspected, and as many as one in three women may be victims of abuse by age 21. Poverty is a "pathway to depression" for women, and women and children comprise 75 percent of the American population living in poverty.
  • Cognitive and personality styles such as avoidance, passivity, dependence, pessimism, negativity and focusing on depressed feelings make depression more likely.

One of the more painful facts uncovered by the APA task force is that depression in women can be remarkably persistent over half of all women with depression reported that they still had symptoms nine years later. There is hope, however, that the illness, characterized by a debilitating sense of hopelessness and sadness, can be successfully treated in 80 percent to 90 percent of cases using a combination of drugs and personal therapy.

Cultural Mythology and Men's Stress

There is a deeply ingrained myth in our culture that men are supposed to act, feel and express themselves in a certain way. Men are conditioned from early childhood not to express their feelings, to act aggressively and to never show vulnerability or fear. These unrealistic societal expectations ultimately take a significant toll, both physically and psychologically.

The pressures on contemporary men are intense, as evidenced in a recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services that highlighted the various ways that American men are dying. For example, the death rate for men front heart disease was 229.6 for every 100,000 men, as compared to a rate of only 121.7 per 100,000 among women. Similar differentials exist for cirrhosis of the liver and deaths from violence.

The pressures are felt significantly by men from ages 25 to 34 years. Accidents, suicides and homicides were the most frequent causes of death for both men and women in this age group. The percentage of deaths attributed to suicide was higher for males (13 percent) than females (eight percent), and this was also true for deaths caused by homicides (12 percent for males versus nine percent for females).

Perhaps most at risk are men between the ages of 35 and 44 years. Their cumulative death rate of 318.2 per 100,000 is more than twice the rate of 150.6 for females in the same age group!

It seems that our culture pushes men towards death-defying behavior as a way of proving their manhood. Men push themselves to their limits mentally and physically, embracing death- defying behaviors with gusto. But that's not really death-defying at all; it's death inviting.

In short, men today are faced with substantial challenges in balancing their family and professional roles. Even if the man is committed to equality with his spouse, businesses are often reluctant to allow the father to act as a parent. Men hesitate to ask for time off to deal with a family problem, knowing that their bosses assume that to be the mother's role. ("Let your wife take the time off work, Harry. We need you!")

Challenges for America's Youth

The rapidly shifting social environment has also led to massive changes in the perceptions and attitudes held by today's youth. According to one recent survey, nearly 75 percent of teenagers (both male and female) thought it would be difficult or impossible for them to have a successful marriage. An astounding 85 percent also felt that members of their generation, compared to their parents, would be more likely to divorce.

Today's youth also have a much different perspective about having families of their own. Most respondents to the survey felt that having children would come much later in marriage, primarily after a viable career had been established. Many of today's younger generation perceive the Baby Roomers now in their 40s and early 50s as being primarily motivated by career and the need to make money. In contrast, they worry more about having a happy marriage and raising well-adjusted children. In essence, they seem to be saying: "The generation before us lost itself in materialism. We don't want to repeat their mistakes!"

At the same time, American youth are also threatened by the constant stress and pressure generated by our society. In fact, according to a recently released report by the Centers for Disease Control, over a quarter of American high school students have, at some point, thought seriously about killing themselves! This startling statistic gives us a clue that all is not right with American youth.

Sex Roles In the Workplace

America's business communities continue to trail behind other segments of society in recognizing the need to abandon old sex-role stereotypes within the workplace.

It is true that there has been an extraordinary growth in the representation of women in a wide variety of managerial occupations. Women now constitute 40 percent of workers in executive, administrative and managerial occupations, compared to 20 percent in 1972 and 30 percent in 1980.

However, many critics have also observed that women's progress has been largely in less-desirable and less-compensated occupations those with less status attached. Median weekly wages for female full-time workers reached 71 percent of wages received by males in comparable positions in the third quarter of 1990, the highest they have ever been. This blatantly unequal compensation remains a primary source of stress and frustration for today's working female.

Additionally, women employees are expected to cheerfully and professionally carry out support or "grunt" work. Even women who work their way up to the executive suite tend to buy into the stereotype that the menial work of the office should be performed by other females. Women seeking role models or mentors from the population of women who have "made it" may be frustrated by an "every woman for herself" attitude that exists at the top of many organizations, in that many successful female executives are obsessed with protecting their positions at all costs.

The image of "supermom" is well known the working woman who somehow manages to hold down a full-time job to help pay the mortgage and provide security, be a wonderful mother and an adoring wife, become involved with worthy causes and still find time for herself without coming apart at the seams. Juggling these multiple and challenging responsibilities has come to be accepted as the norm, even for the single mother who is the sole provider for her children.

Men are also under constant pressure to produce, to be creative, to improve the organization's bottom line, and to show the boss "what they're made of." At the same time, men are not machines, and must also juggle their occupational roles with their family responsibilities. As an ever-increasing proportion of American women work outside the home, fathers are increasingly pressured by their wives to assume more responsibility for the household and the children. Divorced fathers may have sole custody or shared responsibility for their children. These fathers face the conflicting demands of career and the role of "Mr. Mom."

Few employers, however, recognize the implications of these broad social changes. They maintain that mothers should handle family problems, while fathers should give top priority to their jobs. There have even been recent debates and lawsuits about granting men paternity leave. Female employees are frequently stereotyped by employers as being less stable and more likely to get pregnant, marry and leave the job. (Labor turnover statistics do tend to support this, indicating that the primary cause for women leaving their jobs is to fulfill child-care demands. )

Over 80 percent of parents would like to see employers offer working parents more flexible work schedules and opportunities to do more of their work at home. Recently, a major utility company spokesperson stated, "The replacement of rigidity with flexibility has served the employees well. This premise now is that there is life before and after office hours." This is a step in the right direction!


Recommended book:

sex roles and the family"The Practical Encyclopedia Of Sex And Health; From Aphrodisiacs And Hormones To Potency, Stress, Vasectomy, And Yeast Infection" 

by Stefan Bechtel (editor of Prevention Magazine).

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