Gender: Is it a Social Construct or Biological Inevitability?

Sex is the biological fact of maleness or femaleness. Males and females are different from the moment of conception. Hormonal and chromosomal differences make them physically different. Androgen and estrogen direct the process of sex differentiation from six weeks after conception throughout life. These hormones make males taller, heavier and more muscular than women. Research shows that they may also be accountable for aggressiveness in males. At puberty they trigger the production of secondary sexual characteristics. In males, these include facial and body hair, broader shoulders and a deeper voice. In females, puberty brings on pubic hair, menstruation, breasts and broader hips. Also, women are equipped with two internal ovaries that produce ova, and a uterus for gestating young. Though both sexes have both sets of hormones, the proportion of those hormones gives a person their masculine or feminine physical traits. Yet the biological differences that exist in males and females are only averages that are very influenced by other factors. For example, although men are on average larger than women, body size is in fact influenced by diet and physical activity, which in turn maybe influences by culture, class and race. The general all-or-none categorizing of gender traits is very misleading. There is an overlap in the distribution of “typical male” or “typical female” traits.

Obviously there is no doubt that males and females differ biologically. Yet we have to ask ourselves one question, do we form our ideas of gender roles according the influence of our society, or does biological predisposition outweigh the cultural influence? Gender refers to the cultural and social definition of feminine and masculine, it bears no relevance to the biological sex. Rather, it is the socially constructed expectations placed on a person as a result of their sex. Socialization is defined as the process by which we learn the ways of a given society or social group so that we can function within it. We’re born either male or female, but not boy or girl. Femininity and masculinity do not bubble up from our genetic makeup. The distinction between boy and girl is taught. Therefore, gender is a learned identity. From the moment a child is born, (s)he begins the process of gender socialization. There is no nation where men and women are not gendered. The gender system organizes society in such a way that boys and girls are treated differently, and the expectations for boys and girls also differ. There’re many different influences in gender socialization. Family and peer relationships, schools and religious institutions, and media exposure all play major definitive roles in gender socialization. From and early age the child is treated according to the notions that come with the child’s sex, and in turn, each one of these institutions plays it’s role in forming the child’s idea of male / female and masculine / feminine.

Gender Socialization in the Family
With the first cry of “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl”, the process of learning gender begins. Just by looking around or taking our own growing-up experience into consideration, it becomes pretty obvious that parental treatment is very much sex-biased. Often from the very moment of birth, infant males are dressed in blue and infant females in pink; from that point on they can start becoming boys and girls. Though a small percentage of parents started to adopt gender-neutral colors for newborns, the significance of blue and pink remains a permanent symbol of gender. While this might not sound like a major deal, how many boys / men do we know who voluntarily wear pink clothing? Pink and blue is where the influence of parents in gender socialization begins.

A study conducted in 1969 by psychologists Michael Lewis and Susan Goldberg found that mothers treated their young sons and daughters very differently. They usually kept their infant female children closer to them than their boys. They also touched and talked to their daughters more than their sons. By the age of 13 months, girls stayed closer to their mothers when they played. When the researchers placed barriers between the mothers and their children they found the girls were more likely to cry and motion for help; the boys to try to climb over the wall. Lewis and Goldberg concluded that, in our society, parents unconsciously reward independence in their sons and passive dependence in their daughters. Sociologists have found, though often anecdotally, that parents allow their young sons to roam farther from home, to get dirtier and play rougher, and even to be more destructive in their play. Young girls are kept cleaner and are expected to stay that way, and they are taught the importance of beauty and image. Girls tend to play indoors more, and are much less rough in their games. Parents promote this type of activity in their children, and they teach that violence and rough athletic activity are proper for boys. Cleanliness and quite near inactivity is proper for girls.

According to
– Research in 1974 and again in 1995 showed that parents, especially fathers, describe newborn girls as softer, finer-featured, smaller, weaker, and more delicate than boys. (Bryant and Check 65)

– As children get older, parents, especially fathers, reinforce gender roles, by encouraging activities and play with toys that are gender-specific. (Bryant and Check 65)

– Parents talk more to their daughters, give them less autonomy and encourage them to help others, while encouraging boys from an early age to express certain types of emotions but not others, like fearfulness. (Bryant and Check 65)

– With 24-hours of birth, parents describe their sons using adjective such as strong, alert, and coordinated, despite the fact that there are few physiological or behavioral differences between males and females at birth. (Renzetti and Curran 7)

– Parents tend to elicit more gross motor activity form their sons. (Renzetti and Curran 7)

– Parents, especially fathers, tend to engage in rougher, more physical play with infant sons. (Renzetti and Curran 7)

– Parents play more interactive games with toddler sons and also encourage more visual, fine-motor, and locomotor exploration with them. (Renzetti and Curran 7)

– Parents use more emotional words with daughters, and use the word anger more with sons. (Renzetti and Curran 8)

The toys parents give to their children are also interesting artifacts of gender socialization. Almost without fail, the playthings of boys and girls come from two different worlds and the parents reinforce this stereo-type with toys they purchase for their children. Walking by the cluttered shelves in the children’s section of a major department store, androgynous or gender-neutral toys seem an exception rather than a rule. But beyond that, the separation between what is bought by parents for young boys and young girls is startling and even rather scary. Boys are offered an endless assortment of toys such as trucks, planes, race cars, boats, space ships and police, fire and military hardware. Swords, guns and other toy weapons are numerous in the “boy toys” category. There are endless selections of sport related paraphernalia, action figures, systems of construction such as blocks and legos, and different video games. Girls appear to have a somewhat less subdued selection both in the toy store and in what they parents offer them. While a stunning variety of dolls and doll equipment does exist, the pink universe of “girl toys” seems to end there. The only break to this theme is board games. With each trip to the toy-store, the parent reinforces the child’s gender role with a purchase of a gender-biased toy. And while the playthings of young boys seem based on power, action, adventure, and even violence, the toys of girls seem to reflect one thing: domesticity. If little boys are trained to be race car drivers and fire fighters through their toys, girls are trained to be mothers and house wives with theirs. It’s also interesting to note, that although some parents do not become worried if their female child prefers “boy toys”, they (usually the father) refuse to let their sons play with dolls and other girl oriented toys.

This kind of sex-biased treatment probably takes places in nearly every family and these ideas remain virtually intact into adulthood, only to be passed down to the next generation. Children learn, from their parents, that the line between man and woman is clearly different. Beginning at home, during their early years, children are taught that their behavior should differ according to their sex. For boys: independence, power, leadership and freedom are emphasized. For girls: domesticity, passiveness, a focus on beauty and image, and a generally more subdued existence.

Gender Socialization at School
School represents a vast social environment in which children come together for 30 hours a week. School is where they learn who they are by playing, watching and interacting with their peers. The stunning powers of acceptance and rejection can put the finishing touches on the development of early gender identity in young children. Many studies of elementary and middle schools show a self-imposed segregation of students based on sex. In choosing work partners or where to sit boys almost always choose other boys, and girls other girls. On the playground large spatial separations can be seen between boy groups and girl groups. It is within these groups, isolated from the other sex, that children learn from each other the proper social posture and models of interaction “proper” for their gender. The social differences between adolescent boys and girls are numerous, often dramatic, and usually carry on into adulthood. Boys tend to interact in larger, more publicly visible groups. They take up more space, and are rougher in their play. Girls tend to choose smaller, more intimate groups of shifting alliances. Compared to boys, they tend to be less competitive and engage in more turn-taking. Girls tend to yield more readily than boys to teachers and the rules of the institution. The larger boy groups give each member a greater degree of anonymity, and group rule breaking for boys is rather common. Boy groups are also more clearly hierarchical, with well defined leaders. From this, boys learn how to interact in structured organizations where there is a clear top and bottom. They learn competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggression as tools for success. Girls tend to organize themselves into pair groups of “best friends” linked in shifting alliances. They continually negotiate with each other for friendship, and talk about who “likes” who. Compared with boys, girls tend to be more interested in forming intimate relationships and communicating their feelings. This interaction helps to teach the creation, sustaining, and ending of relationships, intimate and otherwise. Their attention to who “likes” who and the delicate social interactions of those around them teach them strategies for forming and leaving personal relationships. These disparities between early male and female socialization reflect several major qualities of later sexual identification: that girls and boys are members of opposing, sometimes antagonistic groups, that cross-gender contact is at once dangerous and pleasurable, and that girls are more sexually defined than boys.

Gender Socialization and the Media
Television advertisements targeted at children often blatantly reinforce gender stereotypes, boys play with trucks and war toys; girls play with dolls, makeup, and miniature appliances. After viewing thousands of ads with messages and images featuring gender specific toys and activities, portraying girls and boys as ‘natural’ opposites, advertisers are providing very young children with hegemonic, yet generally false portrayals of gender roles. By viewing such commercial content on a daily basis, children are forming ideals and norms of female/male and femininity/masculinity that are in all actuality nothing more than the standards for society’s “norms”. In our society children ‘learn’ through observation, hour by hour, from television more so than by any other source. This being so, how male and female children relate to one another within both same and cross gender social interactions is as likely to have been influenced by commercial performances, as by the examples of their peers or even by the behavior displayed in their families. Advertising tends to portray activities, interests, demeanor, and roles along rigid gender lines. Most modern children’s advertisements depict traditional, stereo-typical images of boys playing with cars, trucks, and action figures while engaging in rowdy, loud, even violent game-play. Conversely, girls are most often shown playing with dolls of all sorts, dressing and grooming them in relatively passive manners. These advertisements show children how they should behave. Consequently, all these stereotypes contribute to the patterns of early gender role formation that will later on lead to the social realities of a child’s life as an adult.

So, how do we become boy /girls, women / men? By taking in the qualities which humans are taught, literally from the moment of birth, about what men and women, boys and girls, are supposed to be. They lie beneath our consciousness and alter our perceptions, opinions, reactions and impulses without us even beginning to realize it. We are taught that women are nurturers and men are leaders. We are taught that women are emotional and loving, and that men are strong and impassive. These things, unlike our biology, are taught to us via a socialization process. They, not biology, make males men and females women.

Due to our sex, we’re thrown into a stereotype the roles of which might not suite us. There is no denying the biological difference in males and females, but just because men are biologically more aggressive, and women are biologically endowed to bear children, doesn’t mean that society should emphasize this as destiny. It seems that our society is plagued my misconceptions of masculinity and femininity and only in the last decade or so, the ideas of “stay home dad” and a woman choosing not to have children, became a bit more acceptable. Only through having an awareness of just how our gender ideas are formed, can we start to focus more on our goals as “people” and less on our supposed destiny as males or females.

Hu, Jiang, and Jennifer Watkins. Beyond Pink and Blue: Colors, Toys, and Gender.

University of Oregon, 1998.

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