The supposition of the existence of ‘gender norms’ could be more damaging than we think, writes Louise Dolphin
The hypothesis that males and females are vastly different beings is constantly perpetuated and promoted in modern media. From books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus to the current craze in research searching for evidence that our brains are hardwired differently.
To track some of these assumptions, it is necessary to go right back to how gender concepts emerge for us in our formative childhood years. Physical differences aside, many studies have claimed real differences between boys and girls in an array of areas such as activity level, cognitive skills, emotionality, and personality.
If, for a moment, we accept these claims, that even young boys and girls are considerably different from each other, what might cause this?
On one hand we have the biological theories. They maintain that differences between boys and girls are best explained by differences in brain structure and hormone production. That they are innate differences. For example, the universal finding that boys are more aggressive and (as children) engage more in ‘rough and tumble’ play is attributed to higher concentrations of androgens (e.g. testosterone).
We need to be careful here, however, as to my knowledge a causal link has yet to be established. It is entirely possible that behaviour and situational factors can effect hormone levels. Just last month, neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon claimed that any (trivial) brain connectivity differences between men and women are caused by the “drip, drip, drip of gender stereotypes” (e.g. spending a long time multi-tasking, would cause the relevant section of a woman’s brain to develop).
The true role played by nature or innate forces has yet to be established in studying the observed differences between boys and girls. But for me, the socialisation or nurture theories are more compelling. Socialisation theories argue that the differences observed between boys and girls are best explained by the different ways in which they are treated, and by the different expectations of the societies in which they grow up.
Even newborn babies draw gendered comments. In an experiment, a baby girl dressed in blue was likely to be told “aren’t you so big/strong/a little bruiser,” whereas a baby boy dressed in a pink was “so pretty/cute/gorgeous.” Parents are thought to reinforce gendered norms.
For example, studies have found that particularly fathers are more likely to offer gender-stereotyped toys during free play, such as dolls for girls and trucks for boys. Gendered norms can even impact on how parents scaffold a child’s learning.
A study published in Psychological Science in 2001 followed 185 families through a Californian children’s museum. It found that, while boys and girls showed no difference in the length of time they engaged in an exhibit, parents were three times more likely to explain science to boys than to girls.
On the topic of education, one (admittedly outdated) study in 1991 found that girls were interrupted more frequently by their teachers than boys and given less time to speak in class. All of these studies looks at differences between the sexes, but a new strand of research is stepping back from this and saying, ‘Hang on, perhaps there are more differences within the sexes than between them.’
A 2014 review published in the latest edition of the Annual Review of Psychology by Janet Shibley Hyde provides compelling evidence that, across the board, fewer differences exist between the sexes than we think.
For example, reviewing data on over seven million 2nd–11th graders, she found that there is no significant different in mathematical ability between boys and girls at any grade. In addition, there were no significant differences in terms of vocabulary, reading comprehension or essay writing.
In terms of personality and social behaviour, Hyde concludes, “Although stereotypes portray women as the emotional ones… the data, from both children and adults, indicate that gender differences in emotional experience are small or, in many cases, trivial.”
Notably, she found exceptions to the “gender similarities hypothesis”, where differences were moderate or large (e.g. 3D mental rotation, the personality dimension of agreeableness/tender-mindedness, sensation seeking, interests in things versus people, physical aggression, some sexual behaviours). But Hyde cautions researches about seeking out gender differences.
She says, “Researchers should keep the possibilities of gender differences and gender similarities in balance as they report and interpret their findings. There are serious costs to an overemphasis on gender differences, such as beliefs that boys and girls are so different that they must be educated in gender-segregated schools or a belief that marital therapy for heterosexual couples cannot succeed because of profound gender differences in communication styles.”
As a researcher, this surprises me slightly. Like many others, I regularly fall into the trap of assuming gender differences in my data. In fact, one of the first things I do with a clean data set is run some comparison tests between male and female scores.
I’m fascinated to see where this research will lead. Advancements in neuroscience are sure to yield some intriguing results. But perhaps we should be wary too. Overinflated gender difference claims may appeal more to our intuition than reality.
In fact, such black and white, categorical thinking can be quite harmful. Gender stereotypes can inhibit behaviour change, but also discourage and hinder us from seeing the true individuality in each person.