Biological Theories of Gender
Saul McLeod published 2014
People often get confused between the terms sex and gender. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. For example, chromosomes (female XX, male XY), reproductive organs (ovaries, testes), hormones (oestrogen, testosterone).
Gender refers to the cultural differences expected (by society / culture) of men and women according to their sex. A person’s sex does not change from birth, but their gender can.
In the past people tend to have very clear ideas about what was appropriate to each sex and anyone behaving differently was regarded as deviant.
Today we accept a lot more diversity and see gender as a continuum (i.e. scale) rather than two categories. So men are free to show their “feminine side” and women are free to show their “masculine traits”.
The biological approach suggests there is no distinction between sex & gender, thus biological sex creates gendered behavior. Gender is determined by two biological factors: hormones and chromosomes.
Hormones are chemical substances secreted by glands throughout the body and carried in the bloodstream. The same sex hormones occur in both men and women, but differ in amounts and in the effect that they have upon different parts of the body.
Testosterone is a sex hormone, which is more present in males than females, and affects development and behavior both before and after birth.
Testosterone, when released in the womb, causes the development of male sex organs (at 7 weeks) and acts upon the hypothalamus which results in the masculinization of the brain.
Testosterone can cause typically male behaviors such as aggression, competitiveness, Visuospatial abilities, higher sexual drive etc. An area of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain called the sexually dimorphic nucleus is much larger in male than in females.
At the same time testosterone acts on the developing brain. The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right. In all humans the left side of the brain is more specialised for language skills and the right for non-verbal and spatial skills.
Shaywitz et al (1995) used MRI scans to examine brain whilst men and women carried out language tasks and found that women used both hemispheres, left only used by men.
It appears that in males brain hemispheres work more independently than in females, and testosterone influences this lateralization.
The effects of testosterone have been confirmed in animal studies.
Quadango et al. (1977) found that female monkeys who were deliberately exposed to testosterone during prenatal development later engaged in more rough and tumble play than other females.
Young (1966) changed the sexual behavior of both male and female rats by manipulating the amount of male and female hormones that the rats received during their early development.
They displayed “reversed” sexual behavior and the effects were unchangeable. A number of non-reproductive behaviors in rats are also effected by testosterone exposure around birth. These included exploratory behavior, aggression and play.
Young believed that the exposure had changed the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) in the brain, as male rats had a larger SDN than females. The results have proven to be highly replicable.
Because this study was conducted in a lab it has low ecological validity. For example, in the lab hormones are injected in one single high dose. Whereas in real life, hormones tend to be released by the body in pulses, in a graduated fashion. Therefore, the results might not be generalizable outside of the lab, to a more naturalistic setting.
This study also raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals in research.
Ultimately psychologists must ask themselves whether in their research the ends justify the means. By this we mean that all research using human or non-human animals must be considered in terms of the value of the results when compared to the cost (both moral and financial) of carrying out the work. Main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.
We should be cautious when extrapolating the results of animal research to a human population. This is because the physiologies (e.g. brains) of humans and animals species are not identical. Also, the social and cultural variables within a human population are more complex when compared to social interactions between rats. The consequence of this means the external validity of the research is uncertain. However, a study by Hines (1982) suggests it might be possible to generalize the results to humans.
Hines (1982) studied female babies born to mothers who had been given injections of male hormones during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage. They were found to be more aggressive than normal female children. Hines concluded that the extra testosterone in the womb had affected later behavior.
The normal human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. A chromosome is a long thin structure containing thousands of genes, which are biochemical units of heredity and govern the development of every human being.
Each pair of chromosomes controls different aspects of development, and biological sex is determined by the 23rd chromosome pair. Chromosomes physically resemble the letters X and Y.
SRY Gene (Sex-determining Region Y gene)
At about 6 weeks, the SRY gene on the Y chromosome causes the gonads (sex organs) of the embryo to develop as testes.
If the embryo has no Y chromosome, it will not have the SRY gene, without the SRY gene, the gonads will develop as ovaries.
Sometimes the SRY gene is missing from the Y chromosome, or doesn't activate. The foetus grows, is born, and lives as a little girl, and later as a woman, but her chromosomes are XY. Such people are, usually, clearly women to themselves and everyone else.
Koopman et al. (1991) found that mice that were genetically female developed into male mice if the SRY gene was implanted.
One of the most controversial uses of this discovery was as a means for gender verification at the Olympic Games, under a system implemented by the International Olympic Committee in 1992. Athletes with a SRY gene were not permitted to participate as females.
Individuals with atypical chromosomes develop differently than individuals with typical chromosomes - socially, physically and cognitively.
Studying people with Turner's syndrome and Klinefelter's syndrome might help our understanding of gender because by studying people with atypical sex chromosomes and comparing their development with that of people with typical sex chromosomes, psychologists are able to establish which types of behavior are genetic (e.g. determined by chromosomes).
Turner's syndrome (XO) occurs when females develop with only one X chromosome on chromosome 23 (1 in 5000 chance).
The absence of the second X chromosome results in a child with a female external appearance but whose ovaries have failed to develop. The physical characteristics of individuals with Turner's syndrome include lack of maturation at puberty and webbing of the neck.
In addition to physical differences, there are differences in cognitive skills and behavior compared with typical chromosome patterns. The affected individuals have higher than average verbal ability but lower than average spatial ability, visual memory and mathematical skills. They also have difficulty in social adjustment at school and generally have poor relationships with their peers.
Klinefelter's syndrome (XXY) affects 1 in every 750 males. In addition to having a Y chromosome, these men also have an additional X on the 23rd chromosome, leading to the arrangement XXY.
Physically they appear male, though the effect of the additional X chromosome causes less body hair and under-developed genitals. The syndrome becomes noticeable in childhood, as the boy has poor language skills. At three years of age, the child may still not talk. At school, their poor language skills affect reading ability.
When they are babies, their temperament is described as passive and co-operative. This calmness and shyness remains with them throughout their lives. This suggests that level of aggression have a biological rather than environmental component.
Evolutionary Explanations of Gender
As the evolutionary approach is a biological one, it suggests that aspects of human behavior have been coded by our genes because they were or are adaptive.
A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago.
The evolutionary approach argues that gender role division appears as an adaptation to the challenges faced by the ancestral humans in the EEA (the environment of evolutionary adaptation).
The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.
The two sexes developed different strategies to ensure their survival and reproductive success. This explains why men and women differ psychologically: They tend to occupy different social roles.
To support the evolutionary perspective, the division of labour was shown to be an advantage. 10,000 years ago there was division of labour between males and females. Men were the hunter gathers, breadwinners, while the mother was at home acting as the ‘angel of the house’ and looking after the children.
Hunting for food required speed, agility, good visual perception. So men developed this skill.
If a women was to hunt, this would reduce the group’s reproductive success, as the woman was the one who was pregnant or producing milk. Although, the women could contribute to the important business of growing food, making clothing and shelter and so on. This enhances reproductive success but it also important in avoiding starvation – an additional adaptive advantage.
Deterministic approach which implies that men and women have little choice or control over their behaviors: women are natural ‘nurturers’ and men are naturally aggressive and competitive.
The consequence are that in modern society equal opportunities policies are doomed to fail as men are ‘naturally’ more competitive, risk taking and likely to progress up the career ladder.
The Biosocial Approach to Gender
The biosocial approach (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972) is an interactionist approach where by nature and nurture both play a role in gender development.
John Money’s (1972) theory was that once a biological male or female is born, social labeling and differential treatment of boys and girls interact with biological factors to steer development. This theory was an attempt to integrate the influences of nature and nurture.
Gender role preferences determined by a series of critical events:
Prenatal: exposure to hormones on the womb (determined by chromosomes). It states that biology caused by genetics, XY for a boy and XX for a girl will give them a physical sex.
Postnatal: Parents and others label and react towards a child on the basis of his or her genitals.
- Parents and other people label and begin to react to the child based on his or her genitals. It is when their sex has been labelled through external genitals, they gender development will begin.
- The social labeling of a baby as a boy or girl leads to different treatment which produce the child\s sense of gender identity.
- Western Societies view gender as having two categories, masculine and feminine, and see man and women as different species.
The way they are treated socially in combination with their biological sex will determine the child’s gender.
The approach assumes that gender identity is neutral before the age of 3, and can be changed, e.g. a biological boy raised as a girl will develop the gender identity of a girl. This is known as the theory of neutrality.
Rubin et al, 1974, interviewed 30 parents and asked them to use adjective pairs to describe their babies. Although there were no measurable differences in size between the babies, parents consistently described boy babies as better coordinated, stronger and more alert than daughters. This shows that parents label their babies.
Feder, H. H., Phoenix, C. H., & Young, W. C. (1966). Suppression of feminine behavior by administration of testosterone propionate to neonatal rats. Journal of Endocrinology, 34(1), 131-132.
Hines, M. (1982). Prenatal gonadal hormones and sex differences in human behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 92(1), 56.
Koopman, P., Gubbay, J., Vivian, N., Goodfellow, P., & Lovell-Badge, R. (1991). Male development of chromosomally female mice transgenic for Sry. Nature, 351(6322), 117-121.
Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man and woman, boy and girl: Differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity.
Quadagno, D. M., Briscoe, R., & Quadagno, J. S. (1977). Effect of perinatal gonadal hormones on selected nonsexual behavior patterns: a critical assessment of the nonhuman and human literature. Psychological Bulletin, 84(1), 62.
Shaywitz, B. A., Shaywltz, S. E., Pugh, K. R., Constable, R. T., Skudlarski, P., Fulbright, R. K., ... & Gore, J. C. (1995). Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Biological theories of gender. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/gender-biology.html
- Define sex and gender and femininity and masculinity.
- Critically assess the evidence on biology, culture and socialization, and gender.
- Discuss agents of gender socialization.
Although the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably and do in fact complement each other, they nonetheless refer to different aspects of what it means to be a woman or man in any society.
Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined at the moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence. Females, of course, have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. From this basic genetic difference spring other biological differences. The first to appear are the different genitals that boys and girls develop in the womb and that the doctor (or midwife) and parents look for when a baby is born (assuming the baby’s sex is not already known from ultrasound or other techniques) so that the momentous announcement, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” can be made. The genitalia are called primary sex characteristics, while the other differences that develop during puberty are called secondary sex characteristics and stem from hormonal differences between the two sexes. In this difficult period of adolescents’ lives, boys generally acquire deeper voices, more body hair, and more muscles from their flowing testosterone. Girls develop breasts and wider hips and begin menstruating as nature prepares them for possible pregnancy and childbirth. For better or worse, these basic biological differences between the sexes affect many people’s perceptions of what it means to be female or male, as we shall soon discuss.
Gender as a Social Construction
If sex is a biological concept, then gender is a social concept. It refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their (biological) sex. A related concept, gender roles, refers to a society’s expectations of people’s behavior and attitudes based on whether they are females or males. Understood in this way, gender, like race as discussed in Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control”, is a social construction. How we think and behave as females and males is not etched in stone by our biology but rather is a result of how society expects us to think and behave based on what sex we are. As we grow up, we learn these expectations as we develop our gender identity, or our beliefs about ourselves as females or males.
These expectations are called femininity and masculinity. Femininity refers to the cultural expectations we have of girls and women, while masculinity refers to the expectations we have of boys and men. A familiar nursery rhyme nicely summarizes these two sets of traits:
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails,
And puppy dog tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice,
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
As this nursery rhyme suggests, our traditional notions of femininity and masculinity indicate that we think females and males are fundamentally different from each other. In effect, we think of them as two sides of the same coin of being human. What we traditionally mean by femininity is captured in the adjectives, both positive and negative, we traditionally ascribe to women: gentle, sensitive, nurturing, delicate, graceful, cooperative, decorative, dependent, emotional, passive, and weak. Thus when we say that a girl or woman is very feminine, we have some combination of these traits, usually the positive ones, in mind: she is soft, dainty, pretty, even a bit flighty. What we traditionally mean by masculinity is captured in the adjectives, again both positive and negative, our society traditionally ascribes to men: strong, assertive, brave, active, independent, intelligent, competitive, insensitive, unemotional, and aggressive. When we say that a boy or man is very masculine, we have some combination of these traits in mind: he is tough, strong, and assertive.
These traits might sound like stereotypes of females and males in today’s society, and to some extent they are, but differences between men and women in attitudes and behavior do in fact exist (Aulette, Wittner, & Blakeley, 2009). For example, women cry more often than men do. Men are more physically violent than women. Women take care of children more than men do. Women smile more often than men. Men curse more often than women. When women talk with each other, they are more likely to talk about their personal lives than men are when they talk with each other (Tannen, 2001). The two sexes even differ when they hold a cigarette (not that anyone should smoke). When a woman holds a cigarette, she usually has the palm of her cigarette-holding hand facing upward. When a man holds a cigarette, he usually has his palm facing downward.
Infant girls traditionally wear pink, while infant boys wear blue. This color difference reflects the different cultural expectations we have for babies based on their (biological) sex.
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual relationships with individuals of the other sex (heterosexuality), one’s own sex (homosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality). The term also increasingly refers to transgendered individuals, those whose behavior, appearance, and/or gender identity fails to conform to conventional norms. Transgendered individuals include transvestites (those who dress in the clothing of the opposite sex) and transsexuals (those whose gender identity differs from the physiological sex and who sometimes undergo a sex change).
It is difficult to know precisely how many people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. One problem is conceptual. For example, what does it mean to be gay or lesbian? Does one need to actually have sexual relations with a same-sex partner to be considered gay? What if someone is attracted to same-sex partners but does not actually engage in sex with such persons? What if someone identifies as heterosexual but engages in homosexual sex for money (as in certain forms of prostitution) or for power and influence (as in much prison sex)? These conceptual problems make it difficult to determine the extent of homosexuality.
A second problem is empirical. Even if we can settle on a definition of homosexuality, how do we then determine how many people fit this definition? For better or worse, our best evidence of the number of gays and lesbians in the United States comes from surveys of national samples of Americans in which they are asked various questions about their sexuality. Although these are anonymous surveys, obviously at least some individuals may be reluctant to disclose their sexual activity and thoughts to an interviewer. Still, scholars think the estimates from these surveys are fairly accurate but that they probably underestimate by at least a small amount the number of gays and lesbians.
A widely cited survey carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago found that 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women identified themselves as gay/lesbian or bisexual, with greater percentages reporting having had sexual relations with same-sex partners or being attracted to same-sex persons (see Table 11.1 “Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United States”). In the 2008 General Social Survey, 2.2% of men and 3.5% of women identified themselves as gay/lesbian or bisexual. Among individuals having had any sexual partners since turning 18, 2.2% of men reported having had at least some male partners, while 4.6% of women reported having had at least some female partners. Although precise numbers must remain unknown, it seems fair to say that between about 2% and 5% of Americans are gay/lesbian or bisexual.
Table 11.1 Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United States
|Activity, attraction, or identity||Men (%)||Women (%)|
|Find same-sex sexual relations appealing||4.5||5.6|
|Attracted to people of same sex||6.2||4.4|
|Identify as gay or bisexual||2.8||1.4|
|At least one sex partner of same sex during past year among those sexually active||2.7||1.3|
|At least one sex partner of same sex since turning 18||4.9||4.1|
Source: Data from Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
If it is difficult to determine the number of people who are gay/lesbian or bisexual, it is even more difficult to determine why some people have this sexual orientation while most do not have it. Scholars disagree on the “causes” of sexual orientation (Engle, McFalls, Gallagher, & Curtis, 2006; Sheldon, Pfeffer, Jayaratne, Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007). Some scholars attribute it to unknown biological factor(s) over which individuals have no control, just as individuals do not decide whether they are left-handed or right-handed. Supporting this view, many gays say they realized they were gay during adolescence, just as straights would say they realized they were straight during their own adolescence. Other scholars say that sexual orientation is at least partly influenced by cultural norms, so that individuals are more likely to identify as gay or straight depending on the cultural views of sexual orientation into which they are socialized as they grow up. At best, perhaps all we can say is that sexual orientation stems from a complex mix of biological and cultural factors that remain to be determined.
The Development of Gender Differences
What accounts for differences in female and male behavior and attitudes? Do the biological differences between the sexes account for other differences? Or do these latter differences stem, as most sociologists think, from cultural expectations and from differences in the ways in which the sexes are socialized? These are critical questions, for they ask whether the differences between boys and girls and women and men stem more from biology or from society. As Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research” pointed out, biological explanations for human behavior implicitly support the status quo. If we think behavioral and other differences between the sexes are due primarily to their respective biological makeups, we are saying that these differences are inevitable or nearly so and that any attempt to change them goes against biology and will likely fail.
As an example, consider the obvious biological fact that women bear and nurse children and men do not. Couple this with the common view that women are also more gentle and nurturing than men, and we end up with a “biological recipe” for women to be the primary caretakers of children. Many people think this means women are therefore much better suited than men to take care of children once they are born, and that the family might be harmed if mothers work outside the home or if fathers are the primary caretakers. Figure 11.1 “Belief That Women Should Stay at Home” shows that more than one-third of the public agrees that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” To the extent this belief exists, women may not want to work outside the home or, if they choose to do so, they face difficulties from employers, family, and friends. Conversely, men may not even think about wanting to stay at home and may themselves face difficulties from employees, family, and friends if they want to do so. A belief in a strong biological basis for differences between women and men implies, then, that there is little we can or should do to change these differences. It implies that “anatomy is destiny,” and destiny is, of course, by definition inevitable.
Figure 11.1 Belief That Women Should Stay at Home
Agreement or disagreement with statement that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.
This implication makes it essential to understand the extent to which gender differences do, in fact, stem from biological differences between the sexes or, instead, stem from cultural and social influences. If biology is paramount, then gender differences are perhaps inevitable and the status quo will remain. If culture and social influences matter much more than biology, then gender differences can change and the status quo may give way. With this backdrop in mind, let’s turn to the biological evidence for behavioral and other differences between the sexes and then examine the evidence for their social and cultural roots.
Biology and Gender
Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, and we discuss two of the most important ones here. One explanation is from the related fields of sociobiology (see Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research”) and evolutionary psychology (Workman & Reader, 2009) and argues an evolutionary basis for traditional gender roles.
Scholars advocating this view reason as follows (Barash, 2007; Thornhill & Palmer, 2000). In prehistoric societies, few social roles existed. A major role centered on relieving hunger by hunting or gathering food. The other major role centered on bearing and nursing children. Because only women could perform this role, they were also the primary caretakers for children for several years after birth. And because women were frequently pregnant, their roles as mothers confined them to the home for most of their adulthood. Meanwhile, men were better suited than women for hunting because they were stronger and quicker than women. In prehistoric societies, then, biology was indeed destiny: for biological reasons, men in effect worked outside the home (hunted), while women stayed at home with their children.
Evolutionary reasons also explain why men are more violent than women. In prehistoric times, men who were more willing to commit violence against and even kill other men would “win out” in the competition for female mates. They thus were more likely than less violent men to produce offspring, who would then carry these males’ genetic violent tendencies. By the same token, men who were prone to rape women were more likely to produce offspring, who would then carry these males’ “rape genes.” This early process guaranteed that rape tendencies would be biologically transmitted and thus provided a biological basis for the amount of rape that occurs today.
If the human race evolved along these lines, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists continue, natural selection favored those societies where men were stronger, braver, and more aggressive and where women were more fertile and nurturing. Such traits over the millennia became fairly instinctual, meaning that men’s and women’s biological natures evolved differently. Men became, by nature, more assertive, daring, and violent than women, and women are, by nature, more gentle, nurturing, and maternal than men. To the extent this is true, these scholars add, traditional gender roles for women and men make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, and attempts to change them go against the sexes’ biological natures. This in turn implies that existing gender inequality must continue because it is rooted in biology. As the title of a book presenting the evolutionary psychology argument summarizes this implication, “biology at work: rethinking sexual equality” (Browne, 2002).
Critics challenge the evolutionary explanation on several grounds (Hurley, 2007; Buller, 2006; Begley, 2009). First, much greater gender variation in behavior and attitudes existed in prehistoric times than the evolutionary explanation assumes. Second, even if biological differences did influence gender roles in prehistoric times, these differences are largely irrelevant in today’s world, in which, for example, physical strength is not necessary for survival. Third, human environments throughout the millennia have simply been too diverse to permit the simple, straightforward biological development that the evolutionary explanation assumes. Fourth, evolutionary arguments implicitly justify existing gender inequality by implying the need to confine women and men to their traditional roles.
Recent anthropological evidence also challenges the evolutionary argument that men’s tendency to commit violence, including rape, was biologically transmitted. This evidence instead finds that violent men have trouble finding female mates who would want them and that the female mates they find and the children they produce are often killed by rivals to the men. The recent evidence also finds those rapists’ children are often abandoned and then die. As one anthropologist summarizes the rape evidence, “The likelihood that rape is an evolved adaptation [is] extremely low. It just wouldn’t have made sense for men in the [prehistoric epoch] to use rape as a reproductive strategy, so the argument that it’s preprogrammed into us doesn’t hold up” (Begley, 2009, p. 54).
A second biological explanation for traditional gender roles centers on hormones and specifically on testosterone, the so-called male hormone. One of the most important differences between boys and girls and men and women in the United States and many other societies is their level of aggression. Simply put, males are much more physically aggressive than females and in the United States commit about 85%–90% of all violent crimes (see Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control”). Why is this so? As Chapter 7 “Deviance, Crime, and Social Control” pointed out, this gender difference is often attributed to males’ higher levels of testosterone (Mazur, 2009).
To see whether testosterone does indeed raise aggression, researchers typically assess whether males with higher testosterone levels are more aggressive than those with lower testosterone levels. Several studies find that this is indeed the case. For example, a widely cited study of Vietnam-era male veterans found that those with higher levels of testosterone had engaged in more violent behavior (Booth & Osgood, 1993). However, this correlation does not necessarily mean that their testosterone increased their violence: as has been found in various animal species, it is also possible that their violence increased their testosterone. Because studies of human males can’t for ethical and practical reasons manipulate their testosterone levels, the exact meaning of the results from these testosterone-aggression studies must remain unclear, according to a review sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (Miczek, Mirsky, Carey, DeBold, & Raine, 1994).
Another line of research on the biological basis for sex differences in aggression involves children, including some as young as ages 1 or 2, in various situations (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008). They might be playing with each other, interacting with adults, or writing down solutions to hypothetical scenarios given to them by a researcher. In most of these studies, boys are more physically aggressive in thought or deed than girls, even at a very young age. Other studies are more experimental in nature. In one type of study, a toddler will be playing with a toy, only to have it removed by an adult. Boys typically tend to look angry and try to grab the toy back, while girls tend to just sit there and whimper. Because these gender differences in aggression are found at very young ages, researchers often say they must have some biological basis. However, critics of this line of research counter that even young children have already been socialized along gender lines (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2009), a point to which we return later. To the extent this is true, gender differences in children’s aggression may simply reflect socialization and not biology.
In sum, biological evidence for gender differences certainly exists, but its interpretation remains very controversial. It must be weighed against the evidence, to which we next turn, of cultural variations in the experience of gender and of socialization differences by gender. One thing is clear: to the extent we accept biological explanations for gender, we imply that existing gender differences and gender inequality must continue to exist. This implication prompts many social scientists to be quite critical of the biological viewpoint. As Linda L. Lindsey (2011, p. 52) notes, “Biological arguments are consistently drawn upon to justify gender inequality and the continued oppression of women.” In contrast, cultural and social explanations of gender differences and gender inequality promise some hope for change. Let’s examine the evidence for these explanations.
According to some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, today’s gender differences in strength and physical aggression are ultimately rooted in certain evolutionary processes that spanned millennia.
Vladimir Pustovit – Couple – CC BY 2.0.
Culture and Gender
Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from anthropologists, whose work on preindustrial societies demonstrates some striking gender variation from one culture to another. This variation underscores the impact of culture on how females and males think and behave.
Margaret Mead (1935) was one of the first anthropologists to study cultural differences in gender. In New Guinea she found three tribes—the Arapesh, the Mundugumor, and the Tchambuli—whose gender roles differed dramatically. In the Arapesh both sexes were gentle and nurturing. Both women and men spent much time with their children in a loving way and exhibited what we would normally call maternal behavior. In the Arapesh, then, different gender roles did not exist, and in fact, both sexes conformed to what Americans would normally call the female gender role.
The situation was the reverse among the Mundugumor. Here both men and women were fierce, competitive, and violent. Both sexes seemed to almost dislike children and often physically punished them. In the Mundugumor society, then, different gender roles also did not exist, as both sexes conformed to what we Americans would normally call the male gender role.
In the Tchambuli, Mead finally found a tribe where different gender roles did exist. One sex was the dominant, efficient, assertive one and showed leadership in tribal affairs, while the other sex liked to dress up in frilly clothes, wear makeup, and even giggle a lot. Here, then, Mead found a society with gender roles similar to those found in the United States, but with a surprising twist. In the Tchambuli, women were the dominant, assertive sex that showed leadership in tribal affairs, while men were the ones wearing frilly clothes and makeup.
Mead’s research caused a firestorm in scholarly circles, as it challenged the biological view on gender that was still very popular when she went to New Guinea. In recent years, Mead’s findings have been challenged by other anthropologists. Among other things, they argue that she probably painted an overly simplistic picture of gender roles in her three societies (Scheper-Hughes, 1987). Other anthropologists defend Mead’s work and note that much subsequent research has found that gender-linked attitudes and behavior do differ widely from one culture to another (Morgan, 1989). If so, they say, the impact of culture on what it means to be a female or male cannot be ignored.
Extensive evidence of this impact comes from anthropologist George Murdock, who created the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of almost 200 preindustrial societies studied by anthropologists. Murdock (1937) found that some tasks in these societies, such as hunting and trapping, are almost always done by men, while other tasks, such as cooking and fetching water, are almost always done by women. These patterns provide evidence for the evolutionary argument presented earlier, as they probably stem from the biological differences between the sexes. Even so there were at least some societies in which women hunted and in which men cooked and fetched water.
More importantly, Murdock found much greater gender variation in several of the other tasks he studied, including planting crops, milking, and generating fires. Men primarily performed these tasks in some societies, women primarily performed them in other societies, and in still other societies both sexes performed them equally. Figure 11.2 “Gender Responsibility for Weaving” shows the gender responsibility for yet another task, weaving. Women are the primary weavers in about 61% of the societies that do weaving, men are the primary weavers in 32%, and both sexes do the weaving in 7% of the societies. Murdock’s findings illustrate how gender roles differ from one culture to another and imply they are not biologically determined.
Figure 11.2 Gender Responsibility for Weaving
Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.
Anthropologists since Mead and Murdock have continued to investigate cultural differences in gender. Some of their most interesting findings concern gender and sexuality (Morgan, 1989; Brettell & Sargent, 2009). Although all societies distinguish “femaleness” and “maleness,” additional gender categories exist in some societies. The Native Americans known as the Mohave, for example, recognize four genders: a woman, a woman who acts like a man, a man, and a man who acts like a woman. In some societies, a third, intermediary gender category is recognized. Anthropologists call this category the berdache, who is usually a man who takes on a woman’s role. This intermediary category combines aspects of both femininity and masculinity of the society in which it is found and is thus considered an androgynous gender. Although some people in this category are born as intersexed individuals (formerly known as hermaphrodites), meaning they have genitalia of both sexes, many are born biologically as one sex or the other but adopt an androgynous identity.
An example of this intermediary gender category may be found in India, where the hirja role involves males who wear women’s clothing and identify as women (Reddy, 2006). The hirja role is an important part of Hindu mythology, in which androgynous figures play key roles both as humans and as gods. Today people identified by themselves and others as hirjas continue to play an important role in Hindu practices and in Indian cultural life in general. Serena Nanda (1997, pp. 200–201) calls hirjas “human beings who are neither man nor woman” and says they are thought of as “special, sacred beings” even though they are sometimes ridiculed and abused.
Anthropologists have found another androgynous gender composed of women warriors in 33 Native American groups in North America. Walter L. Williams (1997) calls these women “amazons” and notes that they dress like men and sometimes even marry women. In some tribes girls exhibit such “masculine” characteristics from childhood, while in others they may be recruited into “amazonhood.” In the Kaska Indians, for example, a married couple with too many daughters would select one to “be like a man.” When she was about 5 years of age, her parents would begin to dress her like a boy and have her do male tasks. Eventually she would grow up to become a hunter.
The androgynous genders found by anthropologists remind us that gender is a social construction and not just a biological fact. If culture does affect gender roles, socialization is the process through which culture has this effect. What we experience as girls and boys strongly influences how we develop as women and men in terms of behavior and attitudes. To illustrate this important dimension of gender, let’s turn to the evidence on socialization.
Margaret Mead made important contributions to the anthropological study of gender. Her work suggested that culture dramatically influences how females and males behave and that gender is rooted much more in culture than in biology.
Socialization and Gender
Chapter 3 “Culture” identified several agents of socialization, including the family, peers, schools, the mass media, and religion. While that chapter’s discussion focused on these agents’ impact on socialization in general, ample evidence of their impact on gender-role socialization also exists. Such socialization helps boys and girls develop their gender identity (Andersen & Hysock, 2009).
Socialization into gender roles begins in infancy, as almost from the moment of birth parents begin to socialize their children as boys or girls without even knowing it (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2009). Many studies document this process (Lindsey, 2011). Parents commonly describe their infant daughters as pretty, soft, and delicate and their infant sons as strong, active, and alert, even though neutral observers find no such gender differences among infants when they do not know the infants’ sex. From infancy on, parents play with and otherwise interact with their daughters and sons differently. They play more roughly with their sons—for example, by throwing them up in the air or by gently wrestling with them—and more quietly with their daughters. When their infant or toddler daughters cry, they warmly comfort them, but they tend to let their sons cry longer and to comfort them less. They give their girls dolls to play with and their boys “action figures” and toy guns. While these gender differences in socialization are probably smaller now than a generation ago, they certainly continue to exist. Go into a large toy store and you will see pink aisles of dolls and cooking sets and blue aisles of action figures, toy guns, and related items.
Parents play with their daughters and sons differently. For example, fathers generally roughhouse more with their sons than with their daughters.
Peer influences also encourage gender socialization. As they reach school age, children begin to play different games based on their gender (see the “Sociology Making a Difference” box). Boys tend to play sports and other competitive team games governed by inflexible rules and relatively large numbers of roles, while girls tend to play smaller, cooperative games such as hopscotch and jumping rope with fewer and more flexible rules. Although girls are much more involved in sports now than a generation ago, these gender differences in their play as youngsters persist and continue to reinforce gender roles. For example, they encourage competitiveness in boys and cooperation and trust among girls. Boys who are not competitive risk being called “sissy” or other words by their peers. The patterns we see in adult males and females thus have their roots in their play as young children (King, Miles, & Kniska, 1991).
Sociology Making a Difference
Gender Differences in Children’s Play and Games
In considering the debate, discussed in the text, between biology and sociology over the origins of gender roles, some widely cited studies by sociologists over gender differences in children’s play and games provide important evidence for the importance of socialization.
Janet Lever (1978) studied fifth-grade children in three different communities in Connecticut. She watched them play and otherwise interact in school and also had the children keep diaries of their play and games outside school. One of her central aims was to determine how complex the two sexes’ play and games were in terms of such factors as number of rules, specialization of roles, and size of the group playing. In all of these respects, Lever found that boys’ play and games were typically more complex than girls’ play and games. She attributed these differences to socialization by parents, teachers, and other adults and argued that the complexity of boys’ play and games helped them to be better able than girls to learn important social skills such as dealing with rules and coordinating actions to achieve goals.
Meanwhile, Barrie Thorne (1993) spent many months in two different working-class communities in California and Michigan observing fourth and fifth graders sit in class and lunchrooms and play on the school playgrounds. Most children were white, but several were African American or Latino. As you might expect, the girls and boys she observed usually played separately from each other, and the one-sex groups in which they played were very important for the development of their gender identity, with boys tending to play team sports and other competitive games and girls tending to play cooperative games such as jump rope. These differences led Thorne to conclude that gender-role socialization stems not only from practices by adults but also from the children’s own activities without adult involvement. When boys and girls did interact, it was often “girls against the boys” or vice versa in classroom spelling contests and in games such as tag. Thorne concluded that these “us against them” contests helped the children learn that boys and girls are two different and antagonistic sexes and that gender itself is antagonistic, even if there were also moments when both sexes interacted on the playground in more relaxed, noncompetitive situations. Boys also tended to disrupt girls’ games more than the reverse and in this manner both exerted and learned dominance over females. In all of these ways, children were not just the passive recipients of gender-role socialization from adults (their teachers), but they also played an active role in ensuring that such socialization occurred.
The studies by Lever and Thorne were among the first to emphasize the importance of children’s play and peer relationships for gender socialization. They also called attention to the importance of the traits and values learned through such socialization for outcomes later in life. The rise in team sports opportunities for girls in the years since Lever and Thorne did their research is a welcome development that addresses the concerns expressed in their studies, but young children continue to play in the ways that Lever and Thorne found. To the extent children’s play has the consequences just listed, and to the extent these consequences impede full gender inequality, these sociological studies suggest the need for teachers, parents, and other adults to help organize children’s play that is more egalitarian along the lines discussed by Lever, Thorne, and other scholars. In this way, their sociological work has helped to make a difference and promises to continue to do so.
School is yet another agent of gender socialization (Klein, 2007). First of all, school playgrounds provide a location for the gender-linked play activities just described to occur. Second, and perhaps more important, teachers at all levels treat their female and male students differently in subtle ways of which they are probably not aware. They tend to call on boys more often to answer questions in class and to praise them more when they give the right answer. They also give boys more feedback about their assignments and other school work (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). At all grade levels, many textbooks and other books still portray people in gender-stereotyped ways. It is true that the newer books do less of this than older ones, but the newer books still contain some stereotypes, and the older books are still used in many schools, especially those that cannot afford to buy newer volumes.
Gender socialization also occurs through the mass media (Dow & Wood, 2006). On children’s television shows, the major characters are male. On Nickelodeon, for example, the very popular SpongeBob SquarePants is a male, as are his pet snail, Gary; his best friend, Patrick Star; their neighbor, Squidward Tentacles; and SpongeBob’s employer, Eugene Crabs. Of the major characters in Bikini Bottom, only Sandy Cheeks is a female. For all its virtues, Sesame Street features Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and other male characters. Most of the Muppets are males, and the main female character, Miss Piggy, depicted as vain and jealous, is hardly an admirable female role model. As for adults’ prime-time television, more men than women continue to fill more major roles in weekly shows, despite notable women’s roles in shows such as The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy. Women are also often portrayed as unintelligent or frivolous individuals who are there more for their looks than for anything else. Television commercials reinforce this image (Yoder, Christopher, & Holmes, 2008). Cosmetics ads abound, suggesting not only that a major task for women is to look good but also that their sense of self-worth stems from looking good. Other commercials show women becoming ecstatic over achieving a clean floor or sparkling laundry. Judging from the world of television commercials, then, women’s chief goals in life are to look good and to have a clean house. At the same time, men’s chief goals, judging from many commercials, are to drink beer and drive cars.
Women’s and men’s magazines reinforce these gender images (Milillo, 2008). Most of the magazines intended for teenaged girls and adult women are filled with pictures of thin, beautiful models, advice on dieting, cosmetics ads, and articles on how to win and please your man. Conversely, the magazines intended for teenaged boys and men are filled with ads and articles on cars and sports, advice on how to succeed in careers and other endeavors, and pictures of thin, beautiful (and sometimes nude) women. These magazine images again suggest that women’s chief goals are to look good and to please men and that men’s chief goals are to succeed, win over women, and live life in the fast lane.
Women’s magazines reinforce the view that women need to be slender and wear many cosmetics in order to be considered beautiful.
Another agent of socialization, religion, also contributes to traditional gender stereotypes. Many traditional interpretations of the Bible yield the message that women are subservient to men (Tanenbaum, 2009). This message begins in Genesis, where the first human is Adam, and Eve was made from one of his ribs. The major figures in the rest of the Bible are men, and women are for the most part depicted as wives, mothers, temptresses, and prostitutes; they are praised for their roles as wives and mothers and condemned for their other roles. More generally, women are constantly depicted as the property of men. The Ten Commandments includes a neighbor’s wife with his house, ox, and other objects as things not to be coveted (Exodus 20:17), and many biblical passages say explicitly that women belong to men, such as this one from the New Testament:
Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22–24)
Several passages in the Old Testament justify the rape and murder of women and girls. The Koran, the sacred book of Islam, also contains passages asserting the subordinate role of women (Mayer, 2009).
This discussion suggests that religious people should believe in traditional gender views more than less religious people, and research confirms this relationship (Morgan, 1988). To illustrate this, Figure 11.3 “Frequency of Prayer and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family” shows the relationship in the General Social Survey between frequency of prayer and the view (seen first in Figure 11.1 “Belief That Women Should Stay at Home”) that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” People who pray more often are more likely to accept this traditional view of gender roles.
Figure 11.3 Frequency of Prayer and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family
Percentage agreeing that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2008.
A Final Word on the Sources of Gender
Scholars in many fields continue to debate the relative importance of biology and of culture and socialization for how we behave and think as girls and boys and as women and men. The biological differences between females and males lead many scholars and no doubt much of the public to assume that masculinity and femininity are to a large degree biologically determined or at least influenced. In contrast, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists tend to view gender as a social construction. Even if biology does matter for gender, they say, the significance of culture and socialization should not be underestimated. To the extent that gender is indeed shaped by society and culture, it is possible to change gender and to help bring about a society where both men and women have more opportunity to achieve their full potential.
- Sex is a biological concept, while gender is a social concept and refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to people based on their sex.
- Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, but sociologists think culture and socialization are more important sources of gender roles than biology.
- Families, schools, peers, the mass media, and religion are agents of socialization for the development of gender identity and gender roles.
For Your Review
- Write a short essay about one or two events you recall from your childhood that reflected or reinforced your gender socialization.
- Do you think gender roles are due more to biology or to culture and socialization? Explain your answer.
Andersen, M., & Hysock, D. (2009). Thinking about women: Sociological perspectives on sex and gender (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Aulette, J. R., Wittner, J., & Blakeley, K. (2009). Gendered worlds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Barash, D. P. (2007). Natural selections: Selfish altruists, honest liars, and other realities of evolution. New York, NY: Bellevue Literary Press.
Begley, S. (2009, June 29). Don’t blame the caveman. Newsweek 52–62.
Begley, S. (2009, September 14). Pink brain, blue brain: Claims of sex differences fall apart. Newsweek 28.
Booth, A., & Osgood, D. W. (1993). The influence of testosterone on deviance in adulthood: Assessing and explaining the relationship. Criminology, 31(1), 93–117.
Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (2009). Gender in cross-cultural perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Browne, K. (2002). Biology at work: Rethinking sexual equality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Buller, D. J. (2006). Adapting minds: Evolutionary psychology and the persistent quest for human nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Card, N. A., Stucky, B. D., Sawalani, G. M., & Little, T. D. (2008). Direct and indirect aggression during childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review of gender differences, intercorrelations, and relations to maladjustment. Child Development, 79(5), 1185–1229. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01184.x.
Dow, B. J., & Wood, J. T. (Eds.). (2006). The SAGE handbook of gender and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Eliot, L. (2009). Pink brain, blue brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps—and what we can do about it. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–67.
Hurley, S. (2007). Sex and the social construction of gender: Can feminism and evolutionary psychology be reconciled? In J. Browne (Ed.), The future of gender (pp. 98–115). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
King, W. C., Jr., Miles, E. W., & Kniska, J. (1991). Boys will be boys (and girls will be girls): The attribution of gender role stereotypes in a gaming situation. Sex Roles, 25, 607–623.
Klein, S. S. (Ed.). (2007). Handbook for achieving gender equity through education (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lever, J. (1978). Sex differences in the complexity of children’s play and games. American Sociological Review, 43, 471–483.
Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mayer, A. E. (2009). Review of “Women, the Koran and international human rights law: The experience of Pakistan” [Book review]. Human Rights Quarterly, 31(4), 1155–1158.
Mazur, A. (2009). Testosterone and violence among young men. In A. Walsh & K. M. Beaver (Eds.), Biosocial criminology: New directions in theory and research (pp. 190–204). New York, NY: Routledge.
Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Miczek, K. A., Mirsky, A. F., Carey, G., DeBold, J., & Raine, A. (1994). An overview of biological influences on violent behavior. In J. Albert, J. Reiss, K. A. Miczek, & J. A. Roth (Eds.), Understanding and preventing violence: Biobehavioral influences (Vol. 2, pp. 1–20). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Milillo, D. (2008). Sexuality sells: A content analysis of lesbian and heterosexual women’s bodies in magazine advertisements. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 12(4), 381–392.
Morgan, M. (1988). The impact of religion on gender-role attitudes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 301–310.
Morgan, S. (Ed.). (1989). Gender and anthropology: Critical reviews for research and teaching. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.
Murdock, G. (1937). Comparative data on the division of labor by sex. Social Forces, 15, 551–553.
Nanda, S. (1997). Neither man nor woman: The Hirjas of India. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 198–201). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Reddy, G. (2006). With respect to sex: Negotiating Hirja identity in South India. New Delhi, India: Yoda.
Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How America’s schools cheat girls. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (1987). The Margaret Mead controversy: Culture, biology and anthropological inquiry. In H. Applebaum (Ed.), Perspectives in cultural anthropology (pp. 443–454). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality, 52(3/4), 111–150.
Tanenbaum, L. (2009). Taking back God: American women rising up for religious equality. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Tannen, D. (2001). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Quill.
Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Williams, W. L. (1997). Amazons of America: Female gender variance. In C. B. Brettell & C. F. Sargent (Eds.), Gender in cross-cultural perspective (2nd ed., pp. 202–213). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2009). Evolutionary psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Yoder, J. D., Christopher, J., & Holmes, J. D. (2008). Are television commercials still achievement scripts for women? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(3), 303–311. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00438.x.
This is a derivative of Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.