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Introduction

Gender roles are sets of behaviour and characteristics associated with men and women. Gender is a social construct, a term that has been invented to explain a social and biological distinction between men and women.

The Industrial Revolution changed gender roles which stereotyped men as 'bread winners' and women as home makers. The gender roles established during the Industrial Revolution came to dominate the perceptions of men and women's abilities for the next 200 years. It was not until the mid-20th century that these gender roles were challenged.

Gender roles during the Industrial Revolution

Before the Industrial Revolution, men, women and children worked together in cottage industries. Businesses were run from the home. There was little distinction between work and home, and public life and private life.

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During the Industrial Revolution, every member of the family continued to have a role to play. Men, women and children worked in factories or mills. Women and children were just as valuable to a factory owner as men. The work was difficult, exhausting and, at time, dangerous.

Gradually, a sharp distinction between work and home emerged. Working hours were long and there was little time for family interaction. As awareness of poor working conditions was raised, government legislation placed restrictions on women and children in industry. Working hours for women were decreased and children were required to attend schools.

It was necessary for someone to care for the children before and after school. Women were paid less than men. Outside the factories, employment opportunities for women were limited. A combination of these factors saw an increasing number of women leave the workforce and take on the role of homemaker and child carer. Men were paid higher wages and had fewer employment restrictions. Men became the 'bread winners' of the family.

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Women were confined to the domestic sphere, caring for children and looking after the house. There were few occupations for women outside the home, and few women were able to receive higher education. 'Women's work' consisted of domestic services, clothing and textile manufacturing. A minority of women were engaged in commerce and education.

Gender roles after the Industrial Revolution

A change in gender roles began to take place after World War I and World War II. These two wars relied upon industrial production. With the majority of men serving in the armed forces, governments of industrial countries around the world called upon women to fill jobs in industry. Women were encouraged to take on roles outside the home.

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Women played an important role in industries, in munitions factories, offices, and manufacturing or repairing weapons and vehicles. Many women experienced life on the front line where they served as nurses. War nurses were often subject to the same dangers as soldiers. Other women joined defensive militias and prepared to assist the soldiers overseas.

By World War II, some countries had allowed women to join special branches of the military. Women assisted in a range of activities, including map reading, signalling, driving and vehicle repair. Some work during the wars was associated with 'women's work' and involved knitting clothing or preparing food hampers and performing domestic services.

Women's participation in the two world wars challenged women's traditional gender roles. The realms of 'women's work' were expanded. Women made significant contributions to the war efforts and confidence was boosted. Although many women returned to their traditional roles after the war, some women took advantage of the opportunities which emerged after the war, seeking employment and careers.

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Women began to play active roles in the workforce, taking advantage of economic independence. More women sought higher education and work, although most women were paid less than men in the same industries.

Despite these advances, there were few political and legal rights to reinforce women's independence. The idea of women's work and women's traditional gender roles in the home remained influential for the majority of women.

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In the mid-20th century, feminist and women's liberation groups campaigned for political and legal rights for women. The history of women's rights is different for each country. The main issues women addressed were women's suffrage (the right to vote in elections), equal opportunities and equal rights. There has been great resistance to these issues, but over time women's liberation groups won many victories.

Today, women from many industrial, democratic countries are able to vote in local and national elections. Women's identities are no longer based upon family and homemaking, and many women focus on career and financial success. Women undertake higher education and are employed in almost every area of industry. Discrepancies in pay between men and women are not as great as in previous times.

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The traditional gender roles, however, continue to be an issue in many areas of women's lives.

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Many women continue to face discrimination. Sexism is discrimination based on gender, and the idea of traditional gender roles. Women often face the 'glass ceiling', a situation where women are not promoted to the higher offices in business, despite being qualified and experienced.

The pressure for women to have both a family and a career remains a major factor. It is difficult for women to balance family and career commitments. Women often leave the workforce to start a family, and then return later in life.


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