Does the damsel in distress still need her knight in shining armour?

By: Sakura Koner

Editor: Yang Ran Cheng

Chivalry developed as a knight’s code of honour which referred to a set of traditionally male behaviours, as knights were the protectors of society and always men. A part of this code of honour was being respectful of women, which ranged from courtesy to overprotectiveness. Over the years, the connotation associated with chivalry has evolved to a place where we have associated chivalrous behaviours to be misogynistic. The negative implications of chivalry were made blatantly clear as gender roles in society started to evolve such that women are no longer considered the “weaker sex” in society and by extension resented the idea of being protected by men. But what do we mean by evolving gender roles? Have women always had the inferior role in society or was it something that was imposed on women in later eras of history? 

Gender roles entail the way a specific gender is expected to conduct themselves based on their assigned sex. Most gender ideology categories are unidimensional, ranging from traditional and conservative to egalitarian or liberal. Traditional gender roles emphasise the distinctive roles between men and women while egalitarian gender roles focus more on women and men partaking in equal responsibilities. 

There are a multitude of areas, from appearance to professional choices, where gender roles are very apparent, but we see that changing in our modern society. In one new study, the majority of surveyed millennials argued that gender shouldn’t define us the way it has historically, and that individuals shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to traditional gender roles or behaviours. Enforcing norms can even have health risks, including mental health issues, according to another study. Some women’s colleges are now reportedly rethinking their admissions policies to account for gender non-conforming students. Even former President Obama is getting in on the norm-questioning trend: while sorting holiday gifts for kids at a Toys for Tots event in December 2014, the president decided to place sporting equipment in the box for girls. “I’m just trying to break down these gender stereotypes,” he said.

From the day we equated girls with pink and boys with blue, we began endorsing a gender norm that is unnatural. Interestingly, Sara Bobolts, a writer for The Huffington Post, describes how gender stereotypes, such as the colour blue being for boys and pink being for girls, are new concepts. She explains that between the years 1918 and 1940, pink was viewed as a masculine colour, while blue was seen as dainty and soft, making it best suited for females. Bobolts also states that during the Middle Ages in Europe, high-heels were exclusively for men. They were seen as a “sign of masculinity”, depending on the heel height. This shows that the attributes people connect with “traditional” gender categories are constantly evolving based on how society morphs and changes and thus should not only be considered unreliable but unnatural to begin with. Nothing about gender roles can be set in stone. 

Growing up as a boy or girl, we have all heard how we are to conform to personality traits more suited to our gender. Instilling heteronormative gender roles in kids from a young age leads them to develop harmful traits like low self-esteem, even promoting a culture of gender-based violence. Gender roles may also reduce opportunities for them as adults while making career choices. We mainly see it in professional grounds where certain professions are more male-dominated or associated more easily with males as opposed to females. However, this can be easily proved to be an arbitrary connotation as gender roles start to dissipate in professions settings as well as in the household. 

An increasing number of occupations and sectors are diversifying in gender demographics, and the binary gender pay gap is decreasing. In 1980, employers paid women ages 25 to 34 about 33 cents less per hour. As of 2020, that number wasn’t yet zero, but it was much smaller at 7 cents per hour. In a 2017 study, CareerBuilder, a recruitment company, tracked the percentage of new jobs in gender-skewed occupations occupied by members of the opposite sex. The findings were promising, with many male- and female-dominated fields becoming more balanced.

“Women and men are sidestepping preconceived notions and crossing over into roles that historically have been heavily populated by the opposite sex,” said Rosemary Haefner, the Chief Human Resources Officer for CareerBuilder at the time of the study, in a statement. The study found that nearly one-quarter of new jobs in typically male-dominated occupations – such as CEOs, lawyers, surgeons, web developers, chemists and producers – were filled by women between 2009 and 2017. In the same time frame, 23% of all jobs traditionally held by men were held by female workers. In 2021, Catalyst published research showing a similar progression. The study detailed the percentages of women in the workforce in choice sectors, demonstrating that women employed in industries consisting of two-thirds men increased by 5% between 2016 and 2018.

In an interesting study conducted by Kate Mangino where she studied men whom she calls “equal partners” –those who do an equal share of domestic labour–she strived  to unearth some kind of common truth. She was looking for something that would explain why they were relatively unusual as well as something that would help women identify a partner who would be more willing to share household chores. In opposite-sex relationships, women do around 65% of the physical household work. Routine chores–cooking and cleaning, for instance–tend to fall to women, while intermittent chores, such as sorting out finances or mowing the lawn, are more likely to be done by men. Despite changing trends in the workforce and society more generally, household chores continue to remain unequally divided between different-sex couples. 

Gender norms are not a natural part of our being. Setting biological differences aside, men and women should not have different social places or different societal roles. However, gender roles have been a significant part of our society, which have not had positive implications and have also proven to be extremely hard to remove from our society. Fortunately, we have been fighting long and hard, and we continue to do so in an attempt to vanquish gender roles and return freedom to our society.

Image citation: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eklektikos/2360943005

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