Sex Roles, Vol. 52, Nos. 3/4, February 2005 (
Social Role Theory and the Perceived Gender
Role Orientation of Athletes
Lisa A. Harrison
and Amanda B. Lynch
In this research we examined the inﬂuence of athletic roles upon the perceived gender role
orientations of male and female athletes. Participants were 148 students who read a bogus
newspaper article that described either a male or female athlete who had successfully com-
peted in an athletic event. The type of sport (football, basketball, and cheerleading) was ma-
nipulated. Female football players and basketball players were perceived as higher in agency
than female cheerleaders. Male cheerleaders were perceived as higher in communality than
male football players and male basketball players. Participants made external attributions
concerning the motivations of athletes who competed in gender traditional sports. They made
internal attributions concerning the motivations of athletes who competed in gender nontra-
ditional sports. These ﬁndings are examined in relation to social role theory.
KEY WORDS: social role theory; gender role; athlete; sport.
The recent 30-year anniversary of the passage
of Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972
that prohibits discrimination against women in feder-
ally funded educational programs, including athletic
programs, has sparked a renewed interest in research
on male and female athletes (Parsons & Betz, 2001).
Because there has been an 847% increase in girls’
participation in high school varsity sports since the
passage of Title IX (National Coalition for Girls and
Women in Education, 2002), it is important to under-
stand how people think about female athletes. The
present study expands our understanding of this as
we examined whether the perceived gender role ori-
entations of male and female athletes are inﬂuenced
by their involvement in stereotypically feminine or
masculine athletic roles. In addition, we examined
whether approval rates and attributions concerning
athletes are affected by whether athletes participate
in gender traditional or gender nontraditional sports.
Portions of this work were presented at the annual meeting of the
American Psychological Society, Atlanta, GA; May 2003.
Department of Psychology, California State University,
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Psychology, California State University, Sacramento, California
95819-6007; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Social Role Theory
According to social role theory, behavioral sex
differences spring from the differential social roles
inhabited by women and men, especially those
concerning the division of labor (Eagly, Wood,
& Diekman, 2000). Historically, because of eco-
nomic, ecological, social, and technological pres-
sures, women and men were assigned to labor tasks
that were consistent with their physical attributes.
Thus, men were more likely to fulﬁll tasks that re-
quired speed, strength, and the ability to be away
from home for expanded periods of time. Con-
versely, because women were primarily responsible
for childbearing, women were more likely to ful-
ﬁll tasks related to home and family. As a result of
the differential social roles inhabited by men and
women, based upon this division of labor, gender
roles developed concerning expectations about the
characteristics and behaviors of women and men.
Thus, men are expected to fulﬁll the masculine gen-
der role that reﬂects agentic qualities and women are
expected to fulﬁll the feminine gender role that re-
ﬂects communal qualities (Wood & Eagly, 2002).
Descriptive and injunctive social norms help to
maintain adherence to traditional gender roles. For
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.