Gender Differences: How Society Shapes Our Gender Roles from the Earliest Age

June 11, 2024
Photo: Shutterstock

From the moment we are born, aside from biological differences based on sex, there are virtually no other disparities. Babies, regardless of their sex, are equally demanding – they need to be fed at specific times, they need to sleep, and they equally challenge their parents – some wake up frequently, have colic, cry a lot, and like to be held and rocked to sleep. However, from the earliest age, society begins to create differences between boys and girls and molds us into “suitable” roles, laying the foundations for our opportunities in adulthood.

Gender stereotypes are introduced through everyday comments and behaviours. How many times have we heard phrases like, "look at how beautiful she is – daddy will have to protect her from boys" or "look at him, such a loud boy – he'll be a tough guy"? Such statements instil different expectations for boys and girls from a young age. Girls are often told, "don't act like a boy, be careful not to scrape your knees," while boys are told, "don't cry like a girl." All these early messages fundamentally suggest that girls/women are powerless, while boys/men are all-powerful.

Let's consider the most famous superheroes – we know that Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, and others are tasked with saving the world. But what role models do girls have? Today, it is still acceptable to refer to women as the weaker or more delicate sex and men as the stronger sex. Every toy store website has the sections – toys for boys, toys for girls – through play we are already practicing and learning to assume the roles society has designated for us. Rarely will a parent dare to buy a boy a baby doll or kitchen set, or a girl a bulldozer, helmet, or hammer.

I deeply believe that parents do this completely unconsciously and out of fear for their children – because those who cross social norms risk being ridiculed, hurt, and punished. It feels safer to stick to well-trodden paths and not stand out. But these norms can take their toll and negatively impact growing up and adulthood, affecting both men and women, creating inequities that manifest in various domains.

Gender-Based Segregation in Education and the Labor Market

Gender segregation becomes evident in education and continues later in the labour market. Inequities are present in earnings, as women have lower incomes compared to men, with some groups of women being at a higher risk of poverty. Inequities in time use show how much time and work women invest in household and family care and unpaid domestic chores.

Segregation in education becomes prominent at high school level, where girls enrol in secondary schools specialized in fields traditionally considered "more suitable for women." In higher education, more women enrol and successfully complete their studies, with 59% of enrolled students and 61% of graduates.[1] Women make up the majority of graduates in the fields of education, health and social protection, arts and humanities, social sciences, journalism, and information, while men dominate in the fields of information and communication technologies (66%) and engineering, manufacturing, and construction (55%). [2] This gap in the ICT field is concerning given the rapid growth of the ICT industry in Serbia and market demand for skills compatible with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Women make up 45% of employed persons in Serbia and less than 10% of those with the highest salaries, despite having higher levels of education. Segregation in education and expectations based on traditional gender roles affect labour market participation. Women have lower activity rates (48.6%) and employment rates (43.8%) compared to men (activity rate 62.7%, employment rate 57%). [3]

Gender differences in labour market participation are present across all age groups, with the most pronounced differences between young women and men aged 20 to 35 and men and women aged 55 to 59. "Caring for children or dependent household members" is the main reason women cite for not participating in the labour market (93.7%). Among entrepreneurs, there are twice as many men as women. [4]

Economic and Social Impacts of Gender Norms

Lesser participation in the labour market, with more frequent unemployment among women, indicates a gender gap and the existence of gender inequities, thus, paid work is more often perceived as the primary responsibility of men, while household duties and childcare are seen as the primary responsibility of women. Regardless of their employment status, women spend twice as much time as men on domestic chores, while spending half as much time on paid work. For employed women, domestic work effectively represents a second full work shift. [5]

The Price of Motherhood

There is a significant reduction in the time mothers have for work and personal development. Women notice that they can no longer work overtime and no longer have time to enhance their knowledge or keep up with career demands with the same energy. Parenthood is still perceived as a woman's task. Seventy percent of men manage to advance their careers while their children are young, compared to only 30% of women, which is often referred to as the "price of motherhood." [6] According to data from the Ministry of Family Welfare and Demography, only 373 fathers took parental leave in 2022. [7] While 99% of mothers participate in one or two household activities with their children (such as preparing food or cleaning a room), only 20% of fathers do the same. This is similar for activities that support children's learning, such as reading books or looking at picture books, telling stories, singing songs, spending time with children outside of the house, and playing with them. Not only is the share of mothers involved in learning support activities higher (91%), but they are also involved in more activities on average compared to fathers (40%). While fathers are involved in an average of 2.9 activities, mothers are involved in an average of 5.3 activities. [8]

Consequences of Gender Roles

The consequences of gender roles for individuals and society are numerous:

Framing individuals into certain professions, limiting their ability to showcase talent and full potential in areas that may not fit their societal roles. Who knows what achievements and better solutions we could have as a society if these limitations didn't exist. Let's remember how Tesla spoke with excitement about his mother, who developed various household inventions. Had she had the opportunity, humanity might have been richer with additional scientific achievements. Although a lot of time has passed since then, there must still be many women with untapped potential.

Economic consequences stemming from the notion that women's role is to care for children, family, and household: The reasoning that workforce inactivity is more profitable and useful than paid employment has its economic cost. Workforce inactivity affects economic growth, increases the dependency ratio, generates higher public expenditures, loss of human capital, reduces purchasing power, and increases inequity, vulnerability, and discrimination.

Lack of qualified workforce: With migration and a shortage of a qualified workforce, the economy cannot afford to discard the potential of half the population and be guided by prejudices – that some professions are not for women, that they might become pregnant, be absent due to children's illnesses, or not be able to keep up with technological advancements. By disregarding this potential, we disregard talent, opportunities for increased productivity, growth, and development of the economy.

Women as victims of violence: With lower or no income, burdened with multiple responsibilities, raised to "suffer in silence", women are more often victims of violence – 28 women were killed last year, [9] and over 20,000 incidents of domestic violence are reported to institutions annually. Lack of support, economic uncertainty, and fear of whether they will be able to support their children are some of the factors that prevent women from leaving abusive relationships.

Consequences for men: The perception of men as omnipotent, who should not show any weakness, but be the family providers, be successful, etc., also has repercussions for them. Men have shorter life expectancies and are more prone to diseases related to a stressful lifestyle. Economic reasons, job loss, the inability to meet expected social roles are triggers that often lead to alcoholism, violent behaviour, and mental health issues. In 2022, 770 suicides were committed, and 77% of victims were men. [10]


Gender norms and stereotypes are deeply entrenched in our society, from early childhood to adulthood. They shape our opportunities, constrain potentials, and impose roles that often do not align with our real abilities and interests. To achieve true equality, we need to reconsider and change these norms, providing every individual the chance to realize their full potential, regardless of their gender. Only then can we build a fairer and more successful society for all. 



1] Women and Men in the Republic of Serbia, Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, 2024,

[2] Ibid

[3] Labour Force Survey, 2023, Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, 2024,

[4] Women and Men in the Republic of Serbia, Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, 2024,

[5] Ibid



[8] Gender aspects of the life course seen through MISC6 data, UNICEF, 2022,

[9] Autonomous Women’s Centre,

[10] Deaths by violent death, by origin of violent death, sex and age, Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, 2022,