The Development of Gender Differences
Think Like a Sociologist
Do you think gender is rooted in biology or does it come from culture and socialization?
What accounts for the differences in gendered 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. 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.
Figure 10.2 Belief That Women Should Stay at Home
Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018
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 gentler and more 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 10.2 “Belief That Women Should Stay at Home” shows that 25% of the public agrees or strongly 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.
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.
Biological Explanations for Gender Roles
Some scholars advocate for a biological explanation for gender roles as follows (Barash, 2007; Thornhill & Palmer, 2000). In prehistoric societies where few statuses existed, a major role centered on relieving hunger by hunting or gathering food; the other major role centered on bearing and nursing children. Many early foragers practiced persistence hunting, where prey would be stalked for miles until it was too exhausted to continue. This type of hunting requires a high energy expenditure; it also meant hunters had to be away from home for long periods of time tracking prey. Women, who were the only ones able to bear and nurse children, were frequently pregnant and then became the primary caretakers for children for several years after their birth; both conditions confined them near the home. Men were more suited to hunting due to being stronger and quicker. 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. Over time, early tendencies would have become fairly instinctual. Men by nature became assertive, women by nature became gentle. If this is true, traditional gender roles not only make sense, but they are also somewhat hard-wired; to go against them goes against nature. The caveat to this argument is that existing gender inequality must continue because it is rooted in biology.
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.
A second biological explanation for traditional gender roles centers on hormones and specifically on testosterone, which is found at higher levels in men than women. One of the most important differences between males and females in the United States and many other societies is their level of aggression; males are much more physically aggressive than females and in the United States commit upwards of 90% of all violent crimes. Why is this so? This gender difference is often attributed to males’ higher levels of testosterone (Mazur, 2009).
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. Some researchers have called this correlation a spurious one to begin with. In the Vietnam veterans study, another variable offers a better explanation of the violence seen: social class. When researchers divided the men into higher and lower social classes, the men from the lower social classes were more likely to get into trouble with the law and mistreat their wives (Dabbs and Morris, 1990). 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).
In sum, biological evidence for gender differences exists, but its interpretation remains very controversial and must be weighed against the evidence 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 inequality promise some hope for change. Let’s examine the evidence for these explanations.
Cultural Explanations for Gender Roles
Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from anthropologists, whose research 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 Papua 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.
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. U.S. Library of Congress – public domain
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.
Gender expectations depend on the culture. In the Wodaabe, nomadic herders living in parts of Africa, once a year the men dress extravagantly and apply makeup in order to attract the attention of the women in the group. Dan Lundberg – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Flickr
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 Papua New Guinea. Other anthropologists note that much subsequent research has found that gender-linked attitudes and behavior do differ widely from one culture to another, confirming Mead’s findings (Morgan, 1989). Thus, 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 animals 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 10.3 “Gender Responsibility for Weaving” shows the gender responsibility for yet another task, weaving. Murdock’s findings illustrate how gender roles differ from one culture to another and imply they are not biologically determined.
Figure 10.3 Gender Responsibility for Weaving
Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.
As you can see in the chart, 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.
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 Mohave, a Native American tribe, for example, recognize four genders: a female, a female who acts like a male, a male, and a male who acts like a female. In some societies, a third, intermediary gender category is recognized. Anthropologists call this category the berdache, who is usually a male who takes on a female’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 gender. Although some people in this category are born as intersexed individuals (as explained in section 10.1) many are born biologically as one sex or the other but adopt an androgynous identity.
We-Wa, a Zuni berdache, weaving on a loom. In some societies there is not a distinct line between male and female. John K. Hillers – Public Domain
An example of this intermediary gender category may be found in India, where the hijra role involves males who wear women’s clothing and identify as women (Reddy, 2006). The hijra 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 hijras continue to play an important role in Hindu religious practices and in Indian cultural life in general. Serena Nanda (1997, pp. 200–201) calls hijras “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.
A group of Hijra in Bangladesh, whose gender is female, and sex is male. USAID Bangladesh Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons
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 Dena, a First Nations people living in Canada 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.
Socialization and Gender
In Chapter 4, several agents of socialization were identified, including the family, peers, schools, the mass media, and religion. While this discussion focused on these agents’ impact on socialization in general, ample evidence of their impact on gender-role socialization also exists. Such socialization helps us to develop our gender identity (Andersen & Hysock, 2009).
Our understanding of gender now encompasses a wide variety of possibilities, as discussed in the previous section. However, our history is rooted in the perception that there are only two genders, man and woman, which influenced both what was taught through gender socialization as well as what was thought about men and women. To wit, gender socialization is not a benign process. Though the manifest outcome is intended to simply teach people what society expects of them as women or men, unintended consequences for both genders result in inequality. Perhaps due to sexism, the world of women is valued less than the world of men. The very word that describes women’s role, feminine, is associated with weakness and frailty; indeed, it is considered an insult to describe a man using female characteristics, or to call him a ‘little girl.’ In addition, people who express a non-binary gender, such as transgender individuals, often experience significant prejudice and discrimination.
You learned about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Chapter 3, which states people understand the world using the words and concepts provided by their culture. Go to the following websites for Wordhippo, an online thesaurus.
What do you notice about the words used to describe ‘man’ and ‘woman?’
How might these words affect people’s perceptions of men and women?
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 infant’s 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.
Parents send messages with the items they give their children, too. They may give their girls baby dolls and later Barbie dolls to play with and their boys “action figures” and toy guns. Girls get puzzles and coloring books; boys get footballs and skateboards. The clothes children wear also subtly direct them, since dark colors hide stains and jeans allow for rough play, but pastels show dirt and dresses are hard to crawl in. 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.
Using Your Sociological Imagination
Go to the following website which lists suggestions for the best toys for children: Good Housekeeping’s Best Kid’s Toys. What do you notice about the following:
At what age are the toys categorized by gender?
How are the toys described? Is gendered language used?
Are the same items, such as dolls, reconfigured for girls or boys?
How are the toys shown being used by children?
In general, what messages do toys send children about gender roles?
Peer influences also encourage gender socialization through both direct and indirect methods. If a peer group has strong expectations about gender roles, members of the group usually comply. However, if there is not unanimous agreement about gender roles there is far more variation in behavior (LibreTexts, 2021). Peers pressure to comply occurs when children sanction those who do not conform to traditional gender role expectations.
Using Your Sociological Imagination
How has your peer group influenced expectations about your gender roles?
As they reach school age, children typically organize themselves by gender and begin to play different games based on their gender, which have the effect of teaching different lessons to those children. 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.
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 schoolwork (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.
Gender socialization also occurs through the mass media (Dow & Wood, 2006). On children’s television shows, the major characters often are male. For example, the still 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 Krabs. 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. For every Peppa Pig there is Pete the Cat, Steven Universe and the many male puppies in PAW Patrol.
As for adults’ prime-time television, according to an annual report conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in the 2019 – 2020 season across all platforms, 37% of television programs had male protagonists while 29% had female protagonists. Female characters tended to be younger than male characters, with roles skewed toward being the wife or mother. Male characters, meanwhile, were most likely to be seen at work (Women in Hollywood, 2020).
Figure 10.4 Results from Four Media Research Studies Measuring the Presence of Female and Male Characters in Film
Source: Sandstein – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons
In movies, as Figure 10.4 “Results from Four Media Research Studies Measuring the Presence of Female and Male Characters in Film” shows, most characters are male, most of the dialogue is spoken by men, most of the speaking roles go to men, most protagonists are men, and even most of the characters with names are men.
The only slightly tongue-in-cheek Bechdel-Williams test was suggested by writer Allison Bechdel as a way to measure women’s presence in fictional films. The variables are simply to note in a movie if there are two female characters, if they talk to each other and, when they do, if they talk about something other than a man. Researchers used her premise to conduct a study and found that only about half of the time all three criteria were met (Garber, 2015).
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 unrealistically ecstatic over achieving a clean floor or pristine and good smelling laundry. Judging from the world of television commercials, 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 sports cars and trucks.
Women’s magazines reinforce the view that women need to be slender and wear many cosmetics in order to be considered beautiful. Note how the skin has been lightened on the model in the photo on the right, and her already slim waist was reduced. Photo Editing Services Tucia.com – Glamour /Fashion Retouching by Tucia – CC BY 2.0
Women’s and men’s magazines reinforce these gender images (Milillo, 2008). Most of the magazines intended for teenage 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 teenage 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.
Watch and Reflect
After watching the video by well-known researcher, Jean Kilbourne, consider the following question: Does the media reflect social norms about gender, or does it create and teach them?
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 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). Research from the General Social Survey confirms this assumption, finding a correlation between frequency of prayer and acceptance of traditional gender roles in the family. Less than 15% of respondents who never or infrequently pray accept traditional gender roles in the family, while more than 30% of those who pray daily accept these traditional roles (2018).
The Benefits of Being Male
Most of the discussion so far has been about women, and with good reason: in a sexist society such as our own, women are the subordinate, unequal sex. But gender means more than female, and a few comments about men are in order.
Many scholars talk about , or the advantages that males automatically have in a patriarchal society whether or not they realize they have these advantages (McIntosh, 2007). A few examples illustrate male privilege. Men can usually walk anywhere they want or go into any bar they want without having to worry about being drugged and/or sexually assaulted. Although some men are sexually harassed, most men can work at any job they want without having to worry about this issue. Men can walk down the street without having strangers make crude remarks about their looks, dress, and sexual behavior. Men can apply for most jobs without worrying about being rejected or, if hired, not being promoted because of their gender. We could go on with many other examples, but the fact remains that in a patriarchal society, men automatically have advantages just because they are men, even if race, social class, and sexual orientation affect the degree to which they are able to enjoy these advantages.
When Gretchen Whitmer was sworn in as the Governor of Michigan in 2018, people made negative comments on social media, disappointingly covered in the local news, about how she looked giving her inaugural speech. Around the same time, Australian morning show anchor Karl Stefanovik decided to wear the same suit for every show he hosted until somebody noticed. A year later, nobody had. Julia Pickett – CC BY-SA 4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons and Eva Rinaldi – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Wikimedia Commons
The Costs of Being Male
Yet it is also true that men pay a price for living in a patriarchy. Without trying to claim that men have it as bad as women, scholars are increasingly pointing to the problems men face in a society that promotes male domination and traditional standards of masculinity such as assertiveness, competitiveness, and toughness (Kimmel & Messner, 2010), summed up as . Indeed, when men and women were asked by a social scientist what they envied about the other gender, while women envied men’s pay, men envied women’s emotional freedom. Socialization into masculinity is thought to underlie many of the emotional problems men experience, which stem from a combination of their emotional inexpressiveness and reluctance to admit to, and seek help for, various personal problems (Wong & Rochlen, 2005). Sometimes these emotional problems build up and explode, as mass shootings by males at schools and elsewhere indicate. Compared to girls, for example, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disorders, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder, and they are also more likely to commit suicide and to drop out of high school.
Men experience other problems that put themselves at a disadvantage compared to women. They commit much more violence than women do and, apart from rape, also suffer a much higher rate of violent victimization. They die earlier than women and are injured more often. Because men are less involved than women in child-rearing, they also miss out on the joy of parenting that women are much more likely to experience.
Growing recognition of the problems males experience because of their socialization into masculinity has led to increased concern over what is happening to American boys. Citing the strong linkage between masculinity and violence, some writers urge parents to raise their sons differently in order to help our society reduce its violent behavior (Miedzian, 2002). In all of these respects, boys and men—and our nation as a whole—are paying a very real price for being male in a patriarchal society.
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. 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.
Section 10.2 References
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a person that combines aspects of both feminine and masculine characteristics
the advantage that males automatically have in a patriarchal society, whether or not they realize they have these advantages
cultural norms associated with the male gender to prove harmful to men and society