Tipultech logo

Social role theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Social role theory recognizes the historical division in labor between women, who often assumed responsibilities at home, and men, who often assumed responsibilities outside the home (Eagly, 1987). As a consequence of the concomitant sex differences in social behavior, the expectancies of men and women began to diverge (Eagly, 1987). These expectancies are transmitted to future generations and, in turn, impinge on the social behavior of each gender (Eagly, 1987, 1997 & Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000) and repressent sexual stereotypes (Williams & Best, 1982). Accordingly, the behavior of men and women is governed by the stereotypes of their social roles.

For example, to conform to these expectations, males developed traits that manifest agency. Agency relates to traits such as the inclination to be independent, assertive, and competent (Eagly & Wood, 1991). Boys, for example, learn to be more aggressive, which aligns with their more instrumental role.

In contrast, females develop traits that manifest communal or expressive behavior, which inhibits their aggression. Communal traits entails the tendency to be friendly, unselfish, and expressive (Eagly & Wood, 1991).

Two processes underpin the connection between expectancies and behavior. First, through socialization processes, each gender learns different skills or acquires disparate qualities through socialization processes. That is, authority figures, such as teachers and parents, encourage individuals to develop the skills and qualities that will faciliate their social roles. Second, gender roles might more directly affect the courses of action that individuals choose in a specific setting.

The impact of other roles

This theory does imply, however, that gender differences are flexible, because they are dependent on the immediate social role of individuals. For example, individuals occupy many roles simultaneously, all of which impinge on their behavior. Work roles, such as leaderhip positions for instance, might override their gender roles and reduce gender differences (Eagly & Johnson, 1990).

Likewise, social role theory implies that parenting role, and not only gender, will affect judgments of mothers and fathers. In a study conducted by Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, & Deaux (2004), for example, showed that parents were judged to be less agentic than were other employees. Nevertheless, this judgment was not as harsh for fathers.

Implications of social role theory

Social role theory implies that individuals might question the capacity of women in particular positions, such as leadership roles. That is, men--who are regarded as agentic--often occupy leadership roles. As a consequence, individuals often assume that leadership demands these manifestations of an assertive, agentic personality. Hence, the leadership role is assumed to align the male temperament (see Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, 1995 & Peters, Kinsey, & Malloy, 2004).

Gender differences in power are perceived to be eroding. As women gain more access to positions typically associated with power, their social role seems to be changing (see Diekman, Goodfriend, & Goodwin, 2004).

Perhaps the most telling implication of social role theory, however, is that individuals who violate gender stereotypes are often perceived unfavorably (e.g., Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004). That is, gender stereotypes are regarded as prescriptive not only descriptive (e.g., Rudman & Glick, 2001), delineating how males and females should behave. For example, women who show agentic traits are often regarded as less appealing (Rudman, 1998). Likewise, competence in women-an agentic trait-increases the likelihood they are perceived as cold (Wiley & Eskilson, 1985). Both men and women demonstrate these biases against females who violate social stereotypes (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004).

Promotion of women

Because women are often perceived as caregivers at home, managers often assume that female employees are more likely to experience a conflict between their work and family lives. Because of this assumption, managers assume these women do not align to the organization or perform well. Consequently, women are not as likely to be promoted.

Hoobler, Wayne, and Lemmon (2009) collected some data that vindicate this argument. That is, managers rated the extent to which their employees experience this conflict between their work and family lives. Typical items included "The time he/she spends on family responsibilities often interferes with his/her work responsibilities". They also rated the extent to which these individuals align to the values of this organization, called person-organization fit, have developed the skills that are needed to complete the job, called person-job sit, and will be nominated for a promotion in the near future.

Women were not as likely to be nominated for a promotion than men, and this relationship was mediated by perceived conflict between their work and family lives. Furthermore, the association between this conflict and promotions was mediated by fit with the organization and job. Interestingly, these relationships were observed even after number of children and dependents were controlled.

Violation of social roles and sexual harassment

According to social role theory, men are expected to assume roles that demand agency and dominance, whereas women are expected to assume roles that demand cooperation and submissiveness. When women violate these social roles, they are more likely to be the targets of sexual harassment. That is, female supervisors, especially if they manage many rather than few employees, are more likely to be victims of such harassment.

This possibility was demonstrated by McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone (2013). In this study, individuals reported whether or not they supervise as well as answered questions that gauge the degree to which they were subjected to behaviors that constitute sexual harassment as well as whether or not they feel they were the victims of sexual harassment. These questions assessed both objective indices of sexual harassment--that is, actual behaviors--as well as subjective harassment--that is, whether or not the person conceptualized these behaviors as harassment. Finally, many demographic and work variables were assessed and included as control variables, such as sex, race, level of masculinity or femininity, percentage of females in the industry, job satisfaction, job security, education, number of children, income, and work hours.

The analyses showed that female supervisors were more likely to be the victims of sexual harassment, as gauged by both more objectives and subjective indices, than female non-supervisors. Presumably, these women violate their social roles. In response, some men may attempt to compensate by reasserting their power, culminating in sexual harassment.

Alternatively, because they violate their social roles, female supervisors may often be socially isolated& once socially isolated, they are more likely to be objectified and harassed. Indeed, consistent with this possibility, qualitative interviews revealed that social isolation was a theme that many of these women broached. Regardless of the precise mechanism, these findings emphasize that victims are not always the most vulnerable people in society.

Empirical evidence

Leadership style

In laboratory experiments, males and females do indeed demonstrate different leadership styles. Males certainly endorse a more assertive approach (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). Similarly, these differences are also observed when individuals who do not assume leadership roles report their likely leadership styles.

Nevertheless, in the organizational context, the difference in leadership style between males and females diminishes (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). Presumably, consistent with social role theory, their roles in the organization also dictate their behavior. Hence, behavior in female leaders, for example, is governed by their multiple roles as "female" and "leader", which tempers gender differences.

Franke, Crown, and Spake (1997) also uncovered evidence that supports these contentions. Gender differences in ethical decision making declined as the work experience of participants increased.


Feingold (1994) also uncovered findings that comply with social role theory, showing that men do indeed demonstrate agentic traits and women demonstrate communal traits. For example, in this study, men were moreassertive but not as trusting or anxious.

Similarly, Rubin (1985) showed that women are indeed more expressive about their emotions, which represents a communal quality. Men, for example, did not form friendships in which they could disclose their emotions (see also Wright, 1988).

Factors that amplify or inhibit alliance to social roles

Feelings of exclusion or rejection

When women feel excluded, they become more likely to embrace traditional feminine values, prioritizing family over work. That is, after these individuals are excluded or rejected, their sense of meaning dissipates transiently. Consequently, they seek other sources of meaning (see also meaning maintenance model). For women, these other sources of meaning often revolve around relationships, especially family. They will, therefore, often direct their attention to family.

Aydin, Graupmann, Fischer, Frey, and Fischer (2011) conducted some research that corroborates this possibility. In the first study, female participants reflected upon either a time in which they felt excluded or included. In addition, they read an article that maintains that many educated women, over recent years, have decided to prioritize family over work. Finally, they were asked questions that gauge their attitudes towards this trend. If these participants had reflected upon a time in which they felt excluded, they were subsequently more likely to endorse the trend of valuing family over work.

The second study was similar, apart from two key amendments. First, a more subtle measure was utilized to assess these traditional values. Participants completed a word completion task. A series of words was presented, each with some letters missing. The task of participants was to identify the words, some of which related to family, such as "mother". Second, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they are seeking meaning in life. If participants had reflected upon a time in which they felt excluded, they were especially likely to recognize words that correspond to family. Furthermore, the search for meaning mediated this association between social exclusion and recognition of words that relate to family.

The final study was similar, except the participants were men. In men, social exclusion did not seem to evoke an inclination towards family in lieu of work.

Associations with people of the opposite sex

As the proportion of women in a team increases, female stereotypes are increasingly likely to be applied to the men as well. For example, in one study, conducted by West, Heilman, Gullett, Moss-Racusin, and Magee (2012), participants constructed models with Lego pieces in teams of five. They also rated the contributions of one another as well as the degree to which the team was cohesive. As the proportion of women in these teams increased, members were more likely to rate the contributions of all their teammates unfavorably and perceive the team as ineffective. Even the men were more likely to be rated unfavorably. Yet, the actual performance of teams on this task did not depend on the proportion of women.

According to West, Heilman, Gullett, Moss-Racusin, and Magee (2012), as the number of women in teams increase, men are more likely to develop close associations with one or more women. Negative stereotypes of women, such as the preconception that females are deficient on spatial tasks, then tend to be extended to men who associate with women as well. Alternatively, as the number of women in teams increase, the entire collective is more likely to be perceived as feminine and, therefore, is susceptible to female stereotypes.


When women become mothers, they are especially likely to be perceived as feminine rather than masculine. That is, motherhood exemplifies the feminine role. Mothers, therefore, are assumed to be particularly caring and nurturing but not powerful, effective, or independent.

Consequently, as Heilman and Okimoto (2008) showed, female professionals or managers who are not parents are perceived as more competent, effective, and productive than female professionals or managers who are parents. Mothers, therefore, are often excluded unfairly from senior roles. In contrast, relative to other men, fathers are not perceived as incompetent or ineffective.

Limitations of social role theory

Contrary to social role theory, gender differences in personality, self construal, values, and emotions is more pronounced in North American or European nations relative to Asian and African countries (Guimond, 2008).

Furthermore, social role theory cannot explain all gender differences, especially in relation to mate choice and sexual jealousy. For example, unlike men, women tend to prefer mates who demonstrate the potential to earn an considerable money (Wiederman & Allgeier, 1992). Social role theory might predict that women who assume a low status role might exhibit this preference, perhaps to overcome her own limitations in power. However this preference persists even when the women themselves earn hefty wages (Wiederman & Allgeier, 1992).

Instead, some of these findings are more aligned with sexual selection theory (e.g., Trivers, 1972). That is, women need to be more discriminating with partners because of the limited number of potential offspring she can raise (for a review, see Archer, 1996).

Furthermore, Sczesny and Kuhnen (2004) showed that social stereotypes do not always affect the decisions and behavior of individuals. For example, when recruiters and managers consider their decision carefully and methodically, they become more inclined to correct or adjust these stereotypes. In other words, cautious, systematic recruiters and managers do not perceive males as more suitable leaders than females.


Archer, J. (1996). Sex differences in social behavior: Are the social role and evolutionary explanations compatible? American Psychologist, 51, 909-917.

Aydin, N., Graupmann, V., Fischer, J., Frey, D., & Fischer, P. (2011). My role is my castle--The appeal of family roles after experiencing social exclusion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 981-986. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.03.020

Diekman, A. B., & Eagly, A. H. (2000). Stereotypes as dynamic constructs: Women and men of the past, present, and future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1171-1188.

Diekman, A. B., & Eagly, A. H. (in press). Of men, women, and motivation: A role congruity account. In J. Shah & W. L. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivational science. New York: Guilford.

Diekman, A. B., Goodfriend, W., & Goodwin, S. (2004). Dynamic stereotypes of power: Perceived change and stability in gender hierarchies. Sex Roles, 50, 201-215.

Eagly, A. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social role interpretation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Eagly, A. H. (1995). The science and politics of comparing women and men. American Psychologist, 50, 145-158.

Eagly, A. H. (1997). Sex differences in social behavior: Comparing social role theory and evolutionary psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 1380-1383.

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (1981). Sex of researchers and sex-typed communications as determinants of sex differences in influenceability: A meta-analysis of social influence studies. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 1-20.

Eagly, A. H., & Johnson, B. T. (1990). Gender and leadership style: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 233-256.

Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. (1991). Gender and the emergence of leaders: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 685-710.

Eagly, A. H., Karau, S., & Makhijani, M. (1995). Gender and the effectiveness of leaders: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117, 125-145.

Eagly, A. H., Makhijani, M. G., & Klonsky, B. G. (1992). Gender and the evaluation of leaders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 3-22.

Eagly, A., & Steffen, V. J. (1986). Gender and aggressive behavior: A meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 309-330.

Eagly, A. H., Wood, W., & Diekman, A. B. (2000). Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: A current appraisal. In T. Eckes & H. M. Trautner (Eds.), The developmental social psychology of gender (pp. 123-174). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429-456.

Franke, G. R., Crown, D. F., & Spake, D. F. (1997). Gender differences in ethical perceptions of business practices: A social role theory perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 920-934.

Fuegen, K., Biernat, M., Haines, E., & Deaux, K. (2004). Mothers and fathers in the workplace: How gender and parental status influence judgments of job-related competence. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 737-754.

Guimond, S. (2008). Psychological similarities and differences between women and men across cultures. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 494-510.

Heilman, M. E. (1983). Sex bias in work settings: The lack of fit model. In B. Staw & L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior, Vol. V (pp. 269-298). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Heilman, M. E. (1995). Sex stereotypes and their effects in the workplace: What we know and what we don't know. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 3-26.

Heilman, M. E. (2001). Description and prescription: How gender stereotypes prevent women's ascent up the organizational ladder. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 657-674.

Heilman, M. E., Block, C. J., & Martell, R. (1995). Sex stereotypes: Do they influence perceptions of managers? Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 237-252.

Heilman, M. E., Block, C., Martell, R., & Simon, M. (1989). Has anything changed?: Current characterizations of men, women, and managers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 935-942

Heilman, M. E., & Okimoto, T. G. (2008). Motherhood: A potential source of bias in employment decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 189-198.

Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D. & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 416-427.

Hoobler, J. M., Wayne, S. J., & Lemmon, G. (2009). Bosses' perceptions of family-work conflict and women's promotability: Glass ceiling effects. Academy of Management Journal, 52, 939-957.

McLaughlin, H., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2013). Sexual harassment, workplace authority, and the paradox of power. American Sociological Review, 77, 625-647. doi: 10.1177/0003122412451728

Nguyen, N. T., Basuray, M. T., Smith, W. P., Kopka, D., & McCulloh, D. (1990). Moral issues and gender differences in ethical judgment using Reidenbach and Robin's (1990) Multidimensional Ethics Scale: Implications in teaching of business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 77, 417-430.

Peters, S., Kinsey, P., & Malloy, T. E. (2004). Gender and leadership perceptions among African Americans. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 26, 93-101.

Rubin, L. (1985). Just friends: The role of friendship in our lives. New York: Harper & Row.

Rudman, L. A. (1998). Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 629-645.

Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 743-762.

Sczesny, S., & Kuhnen, U. (2004). Meta-cognition about biological sex and gender-stereotypic physical appearance: Consequences for the assessment of leadership competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 13-21.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man (pp. 136-179). Aldine: Chicago.

West, T. V., Heilman, M. E., Gullett, L., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Magee, J. C. (2012). Building blocks of bias: Gender composition predicts male and female group members' evaluations of each other and the group. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1209-1212. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.04.012

Wiederman, M. W., & Allgeier, E. R. (1992). Gender differences in mate selection criteria: Sociobiological or socioeconomic explanation? Ethology and Sociobiology, 13, 115-124.

Wiley, M. G., & Eskilson, A. (1985). Speech style, gender stereotypes, and corporate success: What if women talk more like men? Sex Roles, 12, 993-1007.

Williams, J. E., & Best, D. L. (1982). Measuring sex stereotypes: A thirty-nation study. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Wright, P. H. (1988). Interpreting research on gender differences in friendship: A case for moderation and a plea for caution. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 5, 367-373.

Academic Scholar?
Join our team of writers.
Write a new opinion article,
a new Psyhclopedia article review
or update a current article.
Get recognition for it.

Last Update: 5/27/2016