Gender Differences: Biology & Culture
As opposed to sex (which comprises only the biological aspects of being either female or male), gender includes the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral characteristics associated with being female or male. Gender is defined by one's gender identity or the recognition that one is either male or female based on both biological and psychosocial considerations, and the internalization of this gender concept into one's self-identity. Gender role is largely a product of the way in which one was raised and may not be in conformance with one's gender identity. The development of gender differences is a complicated issue including elements of both nature (biology) and nurture (socialization). Far from being straightforward, research is finding that these two factors are interrelated in complex ways. Much more research is needed before the relationship between the two factors and the influence of the relationship on gender is completely understood.
Keywords Androgyny; Biosocial Theory; Culture; Doing Gender; Gender; Gender Identity; Gender Role; Gender Stereotype; Hermaphrodism; Patriarchy; Sex; Sexual Discrimination; Social Role; Socialization; Society
"Women are the weaker sex and need to be protected." "Big boys don't cry." "Women and men are different but equal, and each has a unique role within society." These are just a few of the beliefs about gender that can be heard in discussions on the roles of women and men in society. It is difficult to parse out the extent to which any of these beliefs is true, and examples of the entire spectrum of attitudes toward gender can be seen in society: Women who stay at home, keep house, raise the children, and are subservient to their husbands can be seen along with those whose mates stay home with the children while they go out to work. In between is a whole array of other approaches to how individuals and societies "do gender," or interpret what it means to be one gender or another through the ongoing social interactions that individuals have with each other.
Gender vs. Sex
There is a difference between gender and sex. In most cases, it is obvious to the casual observer what the sex of another person is: Biological differences typically make it relatively easy to distinguish adults of one sex from the other. In many cases, it is also relatively easy to tell one gender from another: Women tend to dress and act in one way and men tend to dress and act in another. There are, of course, exceptions to each of these rules of thumb. From a psychosocial point of view, individuals may be androgynous, displaying feminine and masculine characteristics or traits. From a biological point of view, intersex individuals are those born with both female and male sex organs. However, these are exceptions to the rule. Sex is biological in nature and determines one's biological destiny, such as the ability to bear or sire children. Gender, on the other hand, helps define one's role within society. Gender — or the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral characteristics associated with being female or male — is a learned characteristic based on one's gender identity and learned gender role. Gender can be thought of as a society's interpretation of the cultural meaning of one's sex. In fact, the perspective of "doing gender" posits that gender is a construct that is interpreted by members of a society through the ongoing social interactions that individuals have with each other.
Such notions can easily give rise to gender stereotypes, or culturally defined patterns of expected attitudes and behavior that are considered appropriate for one gender but not the other. Gender stereotypes tend to be simplistic and based not on the characteristics or aptitudes of the individual, but on over-generalized perceptions of one gender or the other. For example, although the traditional gender stereotype might be that women stay home and clean the house and raise the family while men go out and work, the fact that many women in today's society are successful physicians, scientists, lawyers, business owners, and executives (among other jobs traditionally thought to be "male") demonstrates that it is the abilities and aptitudes of the individual — not her/his gender or sex — that should prescribe the parameters in which s/he can work.
The Basis of Gender
In some ways, gender roles are biologically based. For example, physiologically, it is women who must gestate and bear the young of the species. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is the woman who must take care of the child after it is born, as is demonstrated by stay-at-home fathers who nurture the child while the mother returns to work in a reversal of traditional typical Western gender roles. Although gender has a biological foundation in the physiological differences between females and males, the way that gender is interpreted differs from culture to culture and, in some ways, from individual to individual. For example, although some societies are patriarchal in nature in which the male is the head of the family, descent is traced through the father's side of the family, and men have power over women, others are matriarchal with women holding these roles instead of men.
Nature vs. Nurture
Scientists have long been divided over the relative influences and contributions of nature (i.e., heredity and constitutional factors) and nurture (i.e., sociocultural and environmental factors) in the human development and the degree to which these sets of factors affect his/her eventual personality, abilities, and other characteristics. Part of this issue comprises ongoing questions concerning the extent to which individuals in society ascribe to one gender or another due to biological imperatives such as their sex or to psychosocial factors such as the way that they were raised. One of the assumptions that some people make regarding gender is that because human females in general tend to be not as strong as the male of the species, women are "inferior" in other ways as well. However, scientists have found no gender-based differences in general intelligence between the genders. This does not mean, of course, that every female is as smart as every male or vice versa, but that general intelligence and other mental traits tend to be normally distributed within each group. There is no scientific reason to believe that women and men (as genders) differ from each other on intelligence.
At first glance, it might seem relatively easy to sort out the influences of nature and nurture on the acquisition of gender identity and gender roles. After all, the argument might go, males and females and preprogrammed by the sex organs and hormones to behave in a certain way. Socialization then takes over and determines whether or not these biological predispositions are followed or ignored. However, the interaction between nature and nurture in regard to gender is much more complicated than that. Biosocial theories of gender posit that gender roles are the result of complex interactions between biological and social forces. This interaction helps explain why not every little girl grows up to be a stay-at-home mother or even a mother at all. In one example of a biosocial approach to gender, Udry (2000) hypothesizes that the effect of gender socialization during childhood is constrained by biological processes that produce natural behavior predispositions.
Basing his work on primate research that has been performed with rhesus monkeys, Udry performed a longitudinal study using secondary data and prenatal blood samples that had been collected in the Child Health and Development Study (CHDS) from 1960 through 1969. Udry selected subjects for his study who had mothers with at least two prenatal blood samples in the CHDS study and who had been interviewed themselves at that time. Of 470 daughters who were eligible for participation, 75 percent completed the questionnaire. In addition, subjects completed the Personality Research Form, the Adjective Check List, the Bem Sex Role Inventory, and the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory. Measures of adult gendered behavior included questions in four general factors:
- Importance of home (e.g., ever married to a man, number of live births, importance of career);
- Feminine interests (e.g., feminine appearance factor, likes baby care, score on discriminating factors on Strong);
- Job status (e.g., proportion female in current job and previous job);
- Masculinity-femininity (e.g., feminine and masculine scales on Bem, Adjective Check List, and Personality Research Form).
A 10 ml venous blood sample was also drawn from each subject.
Although produced in males in significantly greater amounts, androgens (male hormones that control the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics) are also produced in females by the adrenal glands and ovaries. One of the factors that may affect androgen levels in females is stress. The results of the study showed that mothers' prenatal hormone levels had an effect on the gendered behavior of their adult daughters. In particular, prenatal androgen exposure from the second trimester (but not the other two trimesters) affected gendered behavior, with women who had experienced greater prenatal exposure to androgens exhibiting more...
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