Deconstructing Motherhood, Traditional Masculinity, and Internalized Sexism


In contemporary society, a commonly heard notion is that the growing presence of women in the workplace indicates that concerns about gender equality are no longer relevant. The visibility and rights of women in the public sphere has certainly changed greatly since the beginnings of the global Women’s Rights Movement in 1848, but in the grand scheme of things, women have only achieved a shift towards equal legal and social treatment for less than two centuries. While acknowledging that progress has been made, this article aims to investigate whether gender equality has genuinely been realized. With this central question in focus, the paper argues that the subtle manifestations of gender roles such as the idealization of motherhood, perpetuation of traditional masculinity norms among men and internalized sexism experienced by women contribute to the continuation of global gender inequality, reinforcing gender differences between men and women. By delving into these intricacies, the paper aims to underscore the ongoing necessity for comprehensive efforts in dismantling barriers to true gender equality.


Cultural Values of Glorifying Conventional Gender Roles 

In the face of globalization, where women are becoming more aware of themselves as equal citizens and their capabilities, the romanticization of motherhood has manifested to subtly keep the status quo of women in traditional gender-oriented roles. According to well-known sociologist Peter Berger (1966), social constructions are the construction of values created by society to define specific roles. Among different social constructions that aim to enforce how a woman should behave or look, motherhood has been one of the most subtle forms of generating this social value into a seemingly-desirable one, often portraying motherhood as the ideal woman’s role. Glorifying motherhood is likely to make the reinforcement of gender roles less visible when the subordination that comes with motherhood often goes unnoticed. In the book, The Second Sex, De Beauvoir denotes that the notion of motherhood as goddess does not mean being equal to men (Neyer & Bernardi, 2011). She points out that motherhood can make women see themselves as ‘others’ by putting themselves in the box beyond their ‘self.’ 

While motherhood is not an absolute negative notion, women are often made to see motherhood as the essence of their life, which reinforces gender expectations (Beauvoir, 1953). The social norms of motherhood presume a mother’s inherent responsibility to take primary care of children and to be devoted to the tasks of motherhood. Research studies demonstrate that mothers are affected by social penalties for failing to meet the demands of motherhood (Henderson et al., 2010). In fulfilling the role of perfect mothers, recognizing self-worth has been one of the most pressing challenges for mothers, especially working mothers (Van Laar, 2018). The term ‘working mothers’ already prescribes the need for a woman to continuously strike a balance between the two, or even to choose either motherhood or career. In contrast, there is no phrase like ‘working father’ because fathers are socialized as the ‘breadwinner,’ supporting the family by working outside the home, while mothers are expected to take on dual roles both in and out of the home. 

The glamorization of motherhood while, in fact, maintaining the asymmetry of power relations between men and women can be illustrated by an aspect of Indian culture. In India, mothers are perceived to be goddesses, and women’s high adoration as mothers is found in ritual and cultural practices manifested in scriptures and traditional texts (Neyer & Bernardi, 2011). By perpetuating patriarchal values by establishing the image of an ideal woman as mothers, these texts have a profound impact on society in establishing a gender hierarchy. Manusmriti, known as the foundational text on law and jurisprudence of India, composes many sections that guide the Indian society to conduct their gender according to divine will (Neyer & Bernardi, 2011). The text portrays women’s roles as wives, daughters, and mothers in which mothers hold the highest status but have many restrictions on their behavior. According to Manusmriti, a woman should treat her husband like a God because it makes her so virtuous that she will be elevated to heaven in the afterlife (Manusmriti: The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A ‘Good Woman’, 2018). Moreover, the text maintains that a virtuous woman is a mother of sons; thereby, motherhood becomes a religious and cultural duty of fulfilling a complete life deviated from herself. In turn, women are perceived to have value only in relation to their husbands and sons.


Quest for Traditional Masculinity in Men

Since women are often defined in relation to men, as discussed above, gender equality efforts also need to involve the contributions of men and deconstruct how men are socialized in specific ways that pressure them to conform to traditional gender roles, which contributes to the preservation of patriarchal society. In patriarchy, where social rules are constructed to enforce male-dominated society, it is insufficient to only analyze the relationship between men and women because there are other norms that promote patriarchal values within the social relationship among men. While patriarchy establishes a perceived society of superior men, masculinity can be regarded as the process of reproducing the social perception of superior men (Srivastava, 2015). Men need to constantly prove their masculinity by performing behaviors that are deemed manly to assert and maintain their superiority in the gender hierarchy (Edwards, 2015). 

Challenging the traditional gender roles of men has yielded many obstacles for feminists due to men being less willing to give up power that results from conforming to traditional masculinity. In addition to the desire to maintain their dominance, concerns surrounding social support and morality are other factors that lead men to be reluctant to reject traditional gender roles, and less willing to participate in gender equality efforts. A recent study shows that men value their current gender roles as important for identifying with their sense of self in social groups, otherwise, they fear losing their social status within a group (Jiang, 2022). A man’s sense of self is typically affirmed through his ability to control women, which men often think of as protection. For instance, the father of a daughter feels the need to ‘protect’ her until she gets married, as this control validates the father’s honor and masculinity. When a girl is married, the husband feels the need to be able to ‘protect’ her; this is how he is honored for his masculinity. Moreover, a son usually takes over the role of ‘protecting’ his mother when his father passes away. In all phases of women’s lives, men are expected to have control over the women in their families so they can be the providers and protectors, and men who cannot fulfill these socially-constructed responsibilities are criticized by their peers.

Men’s traditional masculinity is also measured by their outwardly-projected sexual desires and practices towards women. Especially among adolescent boys, peer pressure and cultural norms lead many young men to demonstrate their masculine self by pursuing women sexually (Duckworth & Trautner, 2019). Schrock and Schwalbe (2009) suggest that these social-sexual ‘manhood behaviors’ endorse masculinity, enabling males to be recognized as “one of the guys,” but these behaviors may also contribute to men viewing girls more as sexual objects than as individuals. Gender equality advocates should attempt to deconstruct the harmful effects of reinforcing these norms on men in the society whether through media or law.


Internalized Sexism 

The perpetuation of oppressive patriarchal values is not only channeled by superior male power structures, as women can also sustain this system by internalizing sexist beliefs that facilitate stereotyping, self-objectification, and slut-shaming towards themselves and/or other women. According to Ryan and Cornell (1989), internalization implies embracing social norms and values as one’s own. Throughout their upbringing, women have passively consumed traditional norms and social expectations on what a woman should look and behave like and are trained to meet these standards. As Aristotle argued, “We are what we repeatedly do;” thus, repetitive performance of the expected womanly behaviors in childhood and adolescence eventually leads women to feel as though they have always personally believed in acting out those norms. 

Research has shown that girls in the United States become susceptible to internalized sexism in their adolescence (Sheridan, 2021). The findings observed that upon entering adulthood, some girls, who were once bold, assertive, and outspoken, had changed to become shy, insecure, and quiet. One of the primary drivers of this phenomenon can be attributed to the fear of humiliation that comes with being unable or unwilling to conform to sexist societal gender roles (Sheridan, 2021). In the context of Myanmar, for example, women have been taught to think of themselves as a ‘second sex’ whose role is to support their future husbands within the home; in fact, those ideas are generally passed down from mothers to their daughters. “If you cannot cook well, you will never have a good husband” is a common phrase that is often expressed by many mothers when teaching their female children to do housework. Women internalize this hierarchy and perpetuate the oppression by themselves without realizing they are maintaining this asymmetrical relationship of power (Nwe, n.d.). The internalization of these stereotypical values works not only to keep women obedient, but many also  measure the worth of other women based on these standards. 

Foucault’s idea of self-surveillance can help explain internalized oppression that involves reproducing practices and behaviors in the absence of oppressors (Bearman et al., 2009). Self-objectification, in which women see themselves as the object of male pleasures, can pressure women to modify their appearances consistently. Without the presence and guiding force of any external entity, the internalization of sexist beliefs ensures that women self-police themselves and monitor their performances. The male gaze towards women’s appearance manifests in everyday life through images in all kinds of media, and women often normalize these sexist depictions and believe that conforming their bodies and appearances to them is part of their gender identity and necessary for attaining the approval of men (Harding, 2021). Even though self-objectification guides women to strive for men’s validation through their sexualization, women are expected not to be active in revealing their sexual desires; instead to be sexually reactive, passive, and submissive (Harding, 2021). These beliefs are not just self-enforcing rules for women but also used to engage in discriminatory practices against those who break these gender rules, frequently leading to slut-shaming, which is the act of criticizing or depreciating someone’s worth based on their sexual character, behaviors, and desire, commonly targeted toward women. Slut-shaming is repeatedly used to blame female victims experiencing any sexual assault or harassment (Mirian, 2023). “She was asking for it by dressing like that,” is an often seen sentiment that deflects the faults of perpetrators onto victimized women (Slutshaming: What It Is And Why It’s Unacceptable!, 2022). These different forms of sexist beliefs have been internalized in women to strengthen male hierarchy and domination for the continuation of patriarchy and they need to be contested. 



While tangible forms of stereotypical gender values allow male domination to persist, other subtle ways of reinforcing gender roles also bolster the patriarchy. The cultural values of worshiping motherhood while setting certain restrictions on mothers’ agency, the toxic effects of reproducing traditional masculine norms, and the internalization of stereotypes and sexist beliefs are currently embedded in global society. It is important to note that these subtle manifestations of gender roles can occur differently across different contexts around the globe. These different manifestations of socially-constructed gender values require careful analysis through empirical research dedicated to both external and internal experiences of men, women and other diverse gender identities outside of the conventional gender binary. Thereafter, efforts to advance gender equality should aim to eliminate the harmful social structures and behaviors that generate, assimilate, or reproduce the hegemonic patriarchal world.



Bearman, S., Korobov, N., & Thorne, A. (2009, November 20). THE FABRIC OF INTERNALIZED SEXISM. Journal of Integrated Social Sciences. 

Duckworth, K. D., & Trautner, M. N. (2019). Gender Goals: Defining Masculinity and Navigating Peer Pressure to Engage in Sexual Activity. Gender & Society, 33(5), 795-817. 

Edwards, A. (2015, March 29). It’s a Man’s World: The Effect of Traditional Masculinity on Gender Equality. E-International Relations. 

Harding, T. (2021, June 2). How I learnt to stop craving male validation. Minka Guides.

Henderson, A. C., Harmon, S. M., & Houser, J. (2010). A new state of surveillance? Applying Michel Foucault to modern motherhood. Surveillance & Society, 7(3/4), 231-247.

Jiang, Z. (2022, May 23). Masculinity Development, Gender Stereotypes, and Gender Equality | Minnesota Undergraduate Research & Academic Journal. Publishing Services. 

Manusmriti: The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A ‘Good Woman’. (2018, January 11). Feminism in India. 

Mirian. (2023, June 9). What is slut-shaming? Planned Parenthood. 

Neyer, G., & Bernardi, L. (2011). Feminist perspectives on motherhood and reproduction. SSOAR – Social Science Open Access Repository. 

Nwe, A. (n.d.). inside-ctc-edit 1.indd. Christian Conference of Asia. 

Ryan, R., & Connell, J. M. (1989). Perceived locus of causality and internalization: examining reasons for acting in two domains. PubMed. 

Schrock, D., & Schwalbe, M. (2009). (PDF) Men, masculinity, and manhood acts | Michael Schwalbe. 

Sheridan, A. (2021). (PDF) How Does The Internalization Of Misogyny Operate: A Thoretical Approach With European Examples. ResearchGate. 

Slutshaming: What It Is And Why It’s Unacceptable! (2022, October 6). Yoxly.

Srivastava, S. (2015). Masculinity Studies and Feminism: Othering the Self. Economic and Political Weekly, 50(20), 33–36.

Van Laar, C. (2018, November 5). Feeling Pressure to Be a Perfect Mother Relates to Parental Burnout and Career Ambitions. NCBI.