Gender Roles,Women and the Ethics of Wellness

Abstract: Though specific gender roles had been allocated from the beginning of mankind, ensuring the wellbeing or wellness of the whole family has always been largely the responsibility of women. The idea of wellness indicates the presence of well-being and dignity in the lives of individuals, communities and cultures. Even though being in the role of the main providers of wellness, women are largely sidelined as the receivers of it. Traditional ethical considerations are largely responsible for this, but there are self imposed stigmas by women also, as causative factors. In this paper, the ethical aspects of women and wellness rooted in gender roles are examined based on six interactive dimensions of wellness viz., social wellness, intellectual wellness, emotional wellness, career wellness, physical wellness and emotional wellness.

Keywords: gender roles, emotional wellness, social wellness, intellectual wellness, spiritual wellness, feminist ethics, career wellness, women wellness, gender differentiation, physical wellness

Origin of Gender roles

Gender roles first began in the Mesopotamian region at about the time as civilisation (around 8000 B.C). Originally, in the Paleolithic men and women were treated equally. These nomadic family groups not have any wealth simply because their prey migrated regularly. In women contributed over 70% of daily food. However, in the Neolithic men and women discovered agriculture met could gain wealth over their fellow men (Nagle 2006).

Gender roles in historical times

In these early societies, men took the role as judges, which was a task that was considered ‘an arena of public concern under male control. Women, however, were in charge of the family and household. To help them, women had their children, servants, and slaves (Nagle 2006).

In the Egyptian society, women had a ‘high degree of freedom and were often able to function on much the same level as men.’ Egyptian women could own their own property, keep it during their marriage, and dispose of it. Women also were influential in politics. For example, when a pharaoh died, his wife could take over as pharaoh. Women were also seen in Egyptian religion. Female goddesses were not uncommon.

A Greek woman’s power rested on a number of bases. First, she was one of the matrons of the polis. Second, she was part of two separate in households: her natal household and her household that she formed with her husband. However, her power in her husband’s household depended on her dowry. If she had an unimpressive dowry, her power in the family was less. A Greek woman could divorce her husband without going into poverty. All she had to do was to return to her natal family so that her father could arrange the next marriage (Nagle 2006).

In Roman society, the role of the father was truly unique. If he was the oldest male in the household, his title was the paterfamilias, which meant that he had the ‘power of life and death over his children.’ Meaning that in certain circumstances, he could have his own children executed. The paterfamilias was also the religious head in the household and was the property owner and ruler.

In the beginning, women played key roles in early Christian communities, however, as time passed, they lost their power in religious affairs. Men took over these tasks, like baptising, exorcising demons, and preaching. However, the common view that women were naturally inferior had to be dealt with since the Jewish and Christian beliefs showed that both men and women are equal in the eyes of God. In the Syrian Christian world, ‘great emphasis was placed on the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus’ (Nable 2006).

Every society has a number of gender roles and takes measures to ensure that their children know their place within society and Weir gender. Little boys, for example, are seen with blue blankets and are giving toy guns and tanks to play with. Girls, on the other hand, have pink blankets and their toys usually consist of dolls and plastic cooking items (Stark 2007).

Even with nicknames, tender is obvious. Boys tend to be given names that are harder sounding or containing action-oriented words. Girls have nicknames which sound and mean softer and sweeter. This is just one of the methods that parents use to ensure that their children ‘will be different’. In some societies, men are supposed to be aggressive and dominant, while women arc gentle and submissive. Men go out and earn a living, while women stay at home and take care of the children. In some societies, it is ‘rare for women to have equal political rights and in 60 percent of these societies, women have n o political rights’ (Stark 2007).

Initialisation of gender roles

A child’s earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents (Lauer & Lauer 1994; Santrock 1994; Kaplan 1991). From the time their children arc babies, parents treat sons and daughters differently, dressing infants in gender specific colours, giving gender ‘ differentiated toys, and expecting different behaviour from boys and girls(Thorne 1993). Children internalize parental messages regarding gender I an early- age, with awareness of adult sex role differences being found two-year-old children (Weinraub et al 1984). One study found that children at two and a half years of age use gender stereotypes in negotiating their world and are likely to generalize gender stereotypes to variety or activities, objects, and occupations (Fagot et al 1992). Children n deny the reality of what they are seeing when it doesn’t conform to their gender expectations (Sheldon 1990).

Thus, the softer role of caretaking in all its dimensions has been the hallmark of women, from time immemorial. In the modern society, with the fast life and changing definitions of roles, this aspect, that ensuring wellbeing or wellness of the whole family, still remains largely the women.

The ethics of wellness

Wellness is much more than merely the absence of disease illness. It is a multidimensional or holistic approach to living. Wellness includes more than just physical health. It also includes the emotional, intellectual, social, occupational and spiritual aspects of living. Because wellness involves a ‘whole person’ perspective, it follows that a lack health or well being in one area of a person’s life affects other aspects the person’s life and overall sense of well being. The Wellness Concept is really a frame of reference from which to think about choices and behaviour and how they contribute to one’s overall positive growth and development. Achieving wellness is a dynamic process in which you are responsible for and in charge of your life and well being. It involves process of moving toward optional health. It is the process of making proactive choices and engaging in behaviours which allow one to achieve a balance in one’s life regarding one’s physical, emotional, social, occupational, intellectual and spiritual needs.

Moving toward a state of optimal health or wellness is achieved by making positive changes in lifestyle. It is not a static process but one in which the individual makes conscious, informed choices, takes action, moves and grows – an approach which returns the concept of ‘health’ to its root meaning, that of wholeness and balance, and puts the power and responsibility in the hands of the individual, not the healthcare system. Each of us can improve our state of wellness by becoming aware and knowledgeable, developing positive lifestyle patterns, which include being actively involved in and committed to our own physical, intellectual, emotional, social, occupational and spiritual growth and development.

The ethics behind wellness is that the individual has to get into a pact with himself regarding his choices in life. He has to agree to himself to take his wellbeing into account and treat his mind, body and spirit with love and respect. At the same time it is also a fact to live honestly with respect to every living being, especially the Earth. The holistic healing achieved through wellness is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological attention. It promotes spirituality to build positive thought and a great mental attitude but is in no way fatalistic, discriminative or diminutive or above all, promoting any particular line of religious thought.

Any wellness initiative should be for developing the self-esteem, self- control, and determination as a sense of direction of the individual.

Some ethical questions should be raised in the issue of gender and wellness. Are women, who take it as their prime duty to ensure wellness of the family, sidelined in receiving wellness? Is the moral experience of women considered while thinking about career wellness and spiritual wellness? Should there be gender differentiation in wellness?

The social lookout

The key elements to the social aspect of wellness are relationship and environment. It relates to how satisfying your relationships are with your family, your friends and associates. Social wellness also indicates whether you are active in community affairs, whether you contribute to protecting the environment by conserving and recycling and in general whether you are a socially visible person.

Women have always played an important role in bringing about social wellness. In a series of surveys conducted by the Washington post in 1998, in which more than 4000 men and women participated, it was found women are more likely than men to be religious and to value close friendships (Anon 1998). Maternity, the natural biological role of women, has traditionally been regarded as their major social role as well. The resulting stereotype that “a woman’s place is in the home’ has largely determined the ways in which women have expressed themselves. Today, contraception and, in some areas, legalised abortion have given women a greater control over the number of children they will bear. Although these developments have freed women for roles other than motherhood, the cultural pressure on women to become wives and mothers still prevents many talented women from finishing college or pursuing careers (Compton’s Encyclopedia 1994).

Women are caregivers in all societies and, at the same time, are relatively deprived and powerless. Therefore, women should not be ceptualised as passive recipients of welfare services, but as valuable social capital for health and welfare development (Kar 2001). A look into contribution of women towards the Gross Domestic Product for the home and household maintenance will substantiate this.

Figure 1. Gender contribution to GDP and household maintenance (Nepal)

Source: Acharya 2000

Thinkers like Mary Daly insist that when it comes to women, she whom the patriarch calls ‘evil,’ is in fact good, whereas she whom the patriarch calls ‘good’ is in fact bad. If a woman is to escape the traps men leave laid for her — if she is to assert her power, to be all that she can — she must realize that it is not good for her to sacrifice, deny, and deprive herself for the sake of the men and children in her life. What is actually good for women, observes Daly, is precisely what patriarchy identifies as evil; namely, becoming her own person (Daly 1978). This will be an awakening for her, an awakening into her owm wellness, which should lead to a better family and social wellness.

Gender differentiation of emotions and wellness

The emotionally well person is one who is able to recognize and accept one’s feelings, strengths, and limitations. It is accepting responsibility for yourself and your actions and not expecting somebody else to take care of your needs. Achieving emotional wellness allows you to experience life’s ups and downs with enthusiasm and grace and maintain satisfying relationships with others.

Traditional medical systems, such as Indian Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and Islamic medicine have always recognised the importance of emotional health. It was understood that the health of the mind, body, and soul were intricately related, and that an imbalance or disease in either component can adversely affect the entire being. The modern era has largely lost this consciousness, though a tremendous volume of cutting-edge research in the field of ‘mind-body medicine is corroborating ancient wisdom (Ali 2000).

Women, as nurturers sow the first seeds of emotional wellness in children by making them feel emotionally secure. The role of a woman in the family as a harmonizer is unparalleled. Even in her neighbourhood, women act as harmonizers, bringing about a sense of togetherness, and cooperation, because it is mostly women who take the upper hand in festivals, rituals and traditional ceremonies. These are the platforms wherein a person feels bound to his family and society as a whole.

A person developing a woman oriented approach to ethics could argue that he is simply doing what Aristotle, Mill, and Kant should have one in the first place — namely, paying as much attention to women’s oral experience as men’s. In the same way that historians have ignored stresses, strains, and struggles of the private world of children, church, and kitchen to focus on the economic revolutions, political upheavals, military conquests of the public world, traditional ethicists have used on men’s moral interests, issues, and values, failing to notice jus t how significant and interesting women’s moral issues and values are. Therefore, when a proponent of feminist ethics insists on highlighting men’s morality,’ she may be doing little more than some corrective surgery — adding women’s moral experiences to a male-biased ethical tradition sorely in need of them.

Carol Gilligan, whose 1982 book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s development, seemed to demonstrate empirically that oral development of women was significantly different from that of men. Claiming that females tend to fear separation or abandonment while men, by contrast, tend to perceive closeness as dangerous, Gilligan reported that girls and women often construe moral dilemmas as conflicts of responsibilities rather than of rights and seek to resolve those dilemmas that will repair and strengthen webs of relationship. Furthermore, Gilligan described females as less likely than males to make or justify moral decisions by the application of abstract moral rules; instead, she claimed that girls and women were more likely to act on their feelings love and compassion for particular individuals. Gilligan concluded that, whereas men typically adhere to a morality of justice, whose primary values are fairness and equality, women often adhere to a morality care, whose primary values are inclusion and protection from harm.

So it is postulated that women generally do the role of the emotional harmonizers while hearing a tremendous burden in the traditional system That of supressing their own emotional individuality and promoting the traditional ethics of emotional wellness in those concerned with her and around her.

Spiritual wellness and gender role ethics

Spiritual wellness means you have an appreciation for the meaning of life and the expanse of nature. A spiritually well person is at peace with their place in the universe. Spiritual wellness also involves developing a strong sense of personal values and ethics.

Women are good spiritual aspirants because of the qualities that are innate to them: sacrifice, unconditional love and tolerance. These qualities make them ideal nurturers and teachers to their children. Women bring these qualities to the workplace as well. Most researchers have highlighted women’s work ethic, their qualities of compassion and sacrifice, and their contribution to the smooth running of the household. This does not eliminate the role of women as caregivers! The ancient Indian texts tell us that women’s role is to radiate these values, so that society, whether it is in the context of the home or the office, is spiritually uplifted and thereby transformed (Pulavarthi 2002).

Gilligan mused the third phase of women’s moral development as based on non-violence and universal caring which ‘articulates an ethic of responsibility that focuses on the actual consequences of choice . . . the criterion of adequacy or moral Principles changes from objective truth to “best fit”, and can only be established within the context of the dilemma itself.’ Thus women, by nature promote a universal spirituality, based on care and tolerance even though in the expression of spirituality, her voice is mostly the less heard.

Career and ethical differences

Enjoying your job, occupation, or career choice is the key element of career wellness. Job satisfaction, performance, and the acknowledgment of your personal contribution to social wellness. This includes integrating your academic commitment into a lifestyle that is regarding and expressive of your goals, values, and achievements.

In India, women reported as non workers in the Census were found to be spending up to four hours a day in activities such as groundnut picking and sowing the fields or spending time grazing cattle and cutting grass, threshing and parboiling, or working as domestic servants for as many as 8-10 hours per day (Jain and Chand 1982). The Shramshakti Report refers to several studies that show that women work for longer hours and contribute more than men in terms of total labour energy spent by household members. The Report observes that the average hours of unpaid work done by married women outside the home vary from 6.13 to 7.53 hours per day, with some women working more than 10 hours each day. Apart from domestic duties, women engaged in agricultural operations work on average 12 hours a day doing farm work and taking care of cattle.

Some of the psychologists argue that it is impossible for any oppressed person, especially a female one, to prosper personally and professionally in a class society . The main cause of female subordination is a set of informal rules and formal laws that block women’s entrance and /or success in the public world. Female oriented approach to ethics asks questions about power —that is, about domination and subordination— even before it asks questions about good and evil, care and justice, or maternal and paternal thinking. And it establishes that this power is highly imbalanced between men and women which make women the advantaged group at the workplace in many respects.

A group of thinkers like Catherine Beecher believed that even though women’s place is in the home, women’s work is important. Women’s work —the creating and maintenance of homes in which moral virtue thrives — is absolutely essential for society’s well-being. She reasoned that men would lose their raison d’être for working if they lacked loving families and well-ordered homes. They stressed that women’s work requires much intelligence and skill; that is not easy to manage a household properly. So working in a public situation or not, women’s work counts but is mostly unaccounted for and the special adjustments she makes have been only started to be realised.

Wellness and the physique

The physical aspect of wellness encompasses the body. Nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle are the keys to physical wellbeing. As caregivers of the family, women always had the prime if not the sole role in ascertaining the family’s physical wellness. It has been always her domain to provide well-balanced, healthy meals with a range of choices to her clan, even when the means for it always are not there. In this process, the average woman generally placed herself as the lowest priority, and in India has been well documented how the woman of the family is left with hardly anything nutritious to eat, or sometimes nothing.

In a study based on National Family Health Survey 1999, it was found that majority of the women load a body mass index below 18.5 indicating a high prevalence of nutritional deficiency. Nutritional problems were particularly serious among rural and illiterate women, and among women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Ubaidullah 2002).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton valued women’s self-denying benevolence; she believed there was a higher virtue for women to develop: namely, self-development. In the course of interpreting a biblical passage in which Jesus praises a poor widow for her charitable actions, Stanton observed that an oppressed person cannot always afford to be so giving — not without destroying herself. Agreeing that the poor widow’s charitable actions were indeed laudable, Stanton nonetheless cautioned women that women’s self-sacrifice may effectively perpetuate women’s second- class status. Although the duty of self-sacrifice is morally required in the abstract, it should not fall upon women as an ‘ought’ responsibility in the concrete. Because few women in a patriarchal society have the political and economic means to practice benevolence without men taking advantage of them, they cannot always afford to be other-directed; sometimes they have to be self-centered.

Samantha Brennan analyses one kind of women’s experiences as that of being in families. Although, of course, men and boys are part of families, she regrets that we have ‘an ethics for the market place or public sphere and no ethics for the family’. Men’s experiences allegedly pertain to ‘public’ life, so their main concern is with the moral issues there, in business and government, to the neglect of ‘private’ or ‘domestic’ issues. Jaggar claims, in fact, that this neglect perhaps has even resulted in, among other bad consequences, ‘the abuse of women and children, especially girls, [being] ignored’.

Intellectual dimension and ethics

Intellectual wellness encompasses a person’s creativity, knowledge, and skill. An intellectual well person uses available resources to expand knowledge, improve skills, and increase the potential for sharing with others. It is evidenced by self-directed behaviour, which includes continuous acquisition, development, creative application, and articulation of critical thinking and expressive intuitive skills and abilities focused on the achievement of a more satisfying existence. Intellectual wellness is also evidenced by a demonstrated commitment to life-long learning.

During the formative years of children, it is the woman of the household who oversees this important element of wellness in them. The values children get come from both parents, but subtler aspects like their expressive skills and commitment to learning, mostly the women look after, for the simple reason that women are more discerning by nature as far as a child’s development is concerned.

Because children are reared almost exclusively by women, boys and girls are psychosocialised in radically different ways. Boys grow up ting to separate themselves from others and from the values culturally linked to their mothers and sisters. In contrast, girls grow up copying their mothers’ behaviour and wanting to remain connected to them and others. Moreover, because of the patriarchal cues they receive both in and outside the home, boys, and girls come to think that such ‘masculine’ values as justice and conscientiousness, which they associate with culture and the public world, are more fully human than such ‘feminine’ values as caring and kindness, which they associate with nature and the private world.

With this enrooted stigma ruling their psyche mostly, women have to strive much harder for their own intellectual wellness, or rather discovering their own intellectual selves and coming to terms with it. Only a limited number of women do really succeed in it.


There are many ethical challenges in the case of women and wellness. Most of them are raised by the ingrained gender role bias prevalent in every social system. The ethics of wellness embraces universality. But this universality doesn’t seem to touch the vast majority of the women in the world, spread over many uncompromising social situations. Woman’s moral experiences and her moral faculties are more or less the same everywhere, and the ethics of care is her stronghold. But her gender role stereotype almost smothers, even at a subconscious level any attempt to discover, assert and diverge to an alternative moral experience and forces her to finally revert to complacency. An ethical renaissance is essential for this, which is truly egalitarian in essence.

Ethicists have long been dealing with the dilemma of moral realism, which holds that good and evil do not exist outside our beliefs about them. There are answers to moral questions because there are moral facts; and those facts are applicable to all humanity (Kraut 2007). We need a morality that is suited by the way it works to our democratic, gender- sensitive, pluralist, freedom-loving, scientific and technological age, in which each person has equal legal and ethical status. The old moralities worked in a strongly top-down way, generally in the form of commands requiring obedience, most of them spoken by men. A democratic world does not work that way. In fact, it finds such a procedure seriously at odds, if not immoral, with its commitment to equality for all, because it treats adults as unequal, dependent beings, especially if they are women.

Nothing less than a global ethic must be sought. It must welcome and respect cultural and individual differences where these involve no harm to others and the environment. It means making a free, informed and active commitment to the wellbeing of others at least as much as to one’s own. It also means being committed to the moral values that go logically with this basis value, as the rich and good way to live.

The only realistic way of achieving the very wellness we all want, namely the richest and most durable wellness, is to resist the superficial attraction of living selfishly and instead live lives of active concern for both our own interests and, at least equally, those of others. For this to happen, ethics must use the strongest positive features of human nature, those powerful drives and realities of which history, the social sciences and the life sciences give clear evidence, confirmed by own experience. They are freedom, rationality, and the best knowledge (Prozesky, 1999).


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