The Expectations for Girls and Boys

September 15, 2015

We live in a crazed, image-saturated world of social media and advertising. In an unfiltered way, sexualized images of women and power images of men bombard us daily – every hour. What do these images tell us about the place of women? How are men objectified into certain characteristics? Are we really predetermined to have certain characteristics, behaviors, and thoughts? All of these images collectively create a social construction of gender and gendered stereotypes. And many times we buy into these ideas, even implicitly in subtle ways.

Expectations result in realities. The reality is that rigid gender role expectations limit people from their potential and opportunities.1 In a recent ad campaign, run like a girl, #likeagirl, marketers with Always asked, “When did doing something like a girl become an insult?” The ad challenges the notion and reminds us that society’s influence on girls at puberty lowers self-esteem.2

It’s not only advertisements: we, as parents and community members, choose words that limit people by gender as well. Have you ever overheard something like this: “Why can’t I, Mom?” (young child), “because girls don’t do that…” (parent). Or, for example, when a young boy is emotionally hurt by a classmate and the response is to “man-up” or “boys will be boys.” I wish that these statements weren’t so powerful, but they are. And, even for those of us who had parents that said, “You can be anything you want,” many of us realize that some professions or life goals might be harder than others due to our gender. I can hear someone saying that it might have been true in the past, but not in 2015. Yet, gender inequities still persist today.

The facts are that women earn 77-82 cents for every dollar that men earn. Women hold only 5% of the top positions in Fortune 500 companies (Pew Research Center). Women represent half the population, yet only 19% of the US Congress (Pew Research Center): “In 2015, 104 women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) serve in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) serve in the United States House of Representatives.”3 If our statements didn’t matter, then these statistics wouldn’t be real. We can create personal and structural limitations, or we can create opportunities for boys and girls, men and women. And I, for one, hate glass ceilings.

This social construction of gender doesn’t merely remain in the advertising or public sphere; unfortunately, these gender role expectations permeate into church culture and tradition as well. In my experience, I have observed that the majority of church elders and deacons are men; I have also witnessed the segregation of women to women’s ministry. Recently, in my Facebook scrolling, I read a blog by Sarah Bessey. She challenges us to stop “treating women’s ministry like a safe club for the little ladies to play church.” Why is she (and I) frustrated? Because our socially constructed beliefs about women have entered how we study, pray, and worship God. When women’s ministry is about “cutesy things and crafty bits, safe lady topics, and … modest” and “cute cupcake designs and decorating tips, scrapbooking parties, casserole recipes, and other ways to pass the time,” then our ministry has been influenced by society’s gender role expectations. I work at a Christian college, and this reminded me of a conversation with a campus leader about our discipleship groups that focus on being a “man (or woman) of God.” This leader expressed frustration with these types of materials, asking “Why can’t we just focus on what it means to be a follower of Christ no matter our gender?” I agree.

I wonder what Jesus would make of our gender scripted lives. He came to free us and transform our lived experience. Could we be free of these rigid roles and gendered captivities? One day during church, our pastor was preaching about Luke 8. I couldn’t help but notice a few verses earlier: Luke 8:1 said, “Soon afterward he went on…” My curiosity led me to question, after what? In a previous verse, Jesus has “something to say to you” (Luke 7:40). He challenges the status quo and asks us to “see this woman” in a new light. After he radically challenges the men in the room – in the house of a city leader, no less – he proceeds to allow women to accompany him into his ministry – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna.

Does Jesus have something to say to you about gender and ministry? Might we rethink women’s roles in the church and leadership? In Rachel Held Evans book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master, Evans wittily explores the mixed messages and roles that women have experienced in the life of the historical and current church. She literally tried to live out the commonly-focused on passages that relate to women’s roles. She also challenges the wedded combination of biblical and womanhood, saying the combination has, at times, been employed to solidify gender roles and maintain hierarchy. So, unlike Rachel’s investigative spirit, I’m not willing to perch on my rooftop, address my husband as master, cover my head, and refuse to cut my hair for nine months to understand these realities.4 Yet, I am willing to re-explore what scripture says about our gender scripted lives and how we can live as liberated and free co-heirs to the Kingdom.

What can we do to seek gender equity and empowerment? Speak out. Challenge statements that limit people to particular roles. Get involved in the HeforShe campaign. Let your sons and daughters like books, sports, and dolls without fear of gender identity confusion. Break the status quo of gender stereotypes in our homes, workplaces, and places of worship.

About the Author
  • Valerie Stokes joined Northwestern College's social work department after serving as executive director of The Bridge, a transitional housing agency in Orange City. She previously spent seven years as a therapist at Northwestern, including four as co-director of student counseling services. She also has worked as a program supervisor at the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence and as a social worker at the Crittenton Center in Sioux City. A licensed independent social worker and licensed master social worker, Stokes holds a doctorate in human development and educational psychology.

  1. From a research perspective, Jean Kilbourne’s research of how media portrays images of men and women, boys and girls in Still Killing Us Softly has offered more than a decade of compiled documentation. 

  2. Watch Always’ “like a girl” commercial here

  3. Center for American Women and Politics (2015). Women in the US Congress 2015. Eagleton Institute of Politics, New Brunswick, NJ. 

  4. You may think, “Oh, she is just one of those feminist radicals.” Well, yes, and thank you. I am a wife. I am the mother of one biological son and two young men who we have taken into our home as family. I have good male friends. I am a strong supporter of men. I love the men in my life. 

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  1. An interesting article. Does this mean there are no differences between men and women? Scripture teaches that both women and men are created in God’s image. Together we bear God’s image and reflect His glory. A little girl may want to play with a truck, and one day she will own one. Not all boys want to play football. Does this mean gender differences are a mere social construct? What if God the Creator built these differences into our very being while at the same time creating women and men fully in His image? If God created both women and men, can we refuse to recognize the splendor and distinction in His handiwork? Women as well as men did accompany Jesus in His earthly ministry, but can we ignore the fact that He did not include women in the list of “The Twelve” who became His apostles. Does this make women of less value? What if Jesus Himself recognized and called Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna to a task distinct from the Apostles that reflects His sacrifice on the cross? Is it possible that the reason churches do not appoint women to the offices of pastor and elder and deacon is that they recognize these distinctions? In our egalitarian culture, we tend to assume differences represent something less and something more. But does this reflect Scripture’s teaching? Ephesians 5:22-33 does recognize distinctions between husbands and wives, yet both in their relationship with each other portray the gospel. The headship of the husband and the submission (yes, that word is used!) of the wife in beautiful harmony reflect the astounding grace of the cross portrayed in Jesus’ own ministry. He is the Head of His church, but He submits to the Father. This does not authorize a husband to put down his wife or to view her as of less worth. In fact he is to cherish her and lay down His life for her just as Christ loved the church and laid down His life for her (v. 25). Paul, writing the God-breathed Word of instruction about how the church as the pillar and ground of the truth is to conduct itself does not envision women as elders and deacons and actually declares that he does not permit a women to rule or have authority over a man (I Timothy 3:15; 2:11-15). To recognize the equality of men and women and to promote the high esteem of both and of the many callings shared by them does not remove the need to recognize distinctions too. Distinctions of role in both the home and the church call us to understand “biblical” manhood and womanhood. Contrary to the popular stereotype, biblical complementarians do not promote what might be scorned as a 19th century tyranny in home and church. Nor does it require that women only make cupcakes. After all Jesus did commend Mary for sitting at his feet to learn from Him (Luke 10:42). Women who participate in a robust study of theology can share in the priesthood of all believers which is the foundation for all the church offices – and could it be of even greater significance? So what would Jesus make of our gender scripted lives? How would we know unless we hear what He says in Scripture? Our egalitarian culture sings a loud song that would obliterate gender (and sex?) as a mere social construct. But then if we merely repeat what the culture proclaims, whose voice are we hearing? Are we listening to the culture, or will we hear the voice of Christ who is pre-eminent in all things?

    1. The author is not discussing gender differences. She is saying we should not apply our ideas about what is proper to men and women in rigid, uncritical ways. We should not expect or accept lower status and less pay for women, for example, because this is the definition of inequity. Applied to churches or marriages, prohibiting women from any particular role or task on the basis of their gender would be similarly unjust. This egalitarian view does not imply anything about gender or differences between men and women. It does not imply, require, or logically lead to the idea that gender differences are entirely a product of culture. I think it’s simply being argued on the basis of equality and fairness that “different but equally valued,” like “separate but equal,” is an unjust way of relating to others.

  2. “Applied to churches or marriages, prohibiting women from any particular role or task on the basis of their gender would be similarly unjust. ” So, God, speaking through Paul in I Timothy, is being unjust, eh, Gerry? That is a grave charge. One must not attempt to be wiser than God!

  3. My degrees and research will not impress you; however, I hold a degree in motherhood. God certified me four times. Before my children could walk, they amazed me with their sense of gender: my sons vrooming trucks across the floor and my daughters cuddling and caring for their dolls. They communicated from their earliest months something that confuses adults today: male and female were created differently.

    As for pay discrepancies between genders? Don’t worry. God is faithful to provide all we need.

  4. The “Gender Pay Gap” is a myth. If a man and a woman do the same job with the same amount of quality, they will be paid the same. The reason for the gap is because that study took all of the income from each gender and compared them and compared that women’s was 80% of men. This study didn’t take into effect the free choices of jobs each gender chose. The majority of school teachers are women, the majority of engineers are men. The free market values these skill sets differently and as a result they get paid differently. There is no CEO out there demanding their HR Dept. to pay all women in the company 80% of men. The majority of HR dept. are women by the way. Women often choose jobs that require less time away from home so they can take care of the kids and as a result they take a pass on more demanding jobs like that which usually make more money.