Updated: Jun 8, 2020
The writer of this piece wanted to remain anonymous but she provides a fusion of constructionism and positivism. Check out our other pieces here.
Gender plays an important part of our daily lives. One of the first characteristics that someone else notices about us when we meet them is which gender we are presenting. Children learn about gender from a very early age, using the pronouns “he” or “she” by age three (Gotzke 2007). Gender difference is something that we are conscious of from early on and this shapes the way we see the world. Later in life, we notice other people’s gender quickly, and we use this information to make assumptions about the people that we interact with during our day to day lives.
According to one study, mothers are seen as less competent in their parenting when they held traditionally “male sex-typed occupations” (Okimoto 2012). Because of the gender assumptions attached to the occupation, these women were judged on their ability to parent, despite the lack of relevant information on the quality of their parenting. Gender has an effect on our lives and how we are perceived by others. Whether or not the perceived differences in gender are supported by what we find in our research is an entirely different question. And whether or not we are fundamentally different based on our gender is an important question to ask because of how differently we are treated based on it.
Many stereotypes do not hold up to scrutiny when we take a closer look. Quite a few studies have supported the “gender similarities hypothesis,” which is that “males and females are similar on most, but not all, psychological variables” (Hyde 1997). While there are some differences, generally these findings support that there are many more cognitive differences within gender than there are between them (Ellemers 2018).
However, some of these assumptions do have roots in biology. For example, biological men tend to have higher levels of testosterone. Elevated levels of testosterone have been shown to increase “punishing” behavior in men in response to an unfair deal (Dreher et al. 2016). In this instance, “punishment” was tested by giving participants in the study the opportunity to reduce the amount of money that another person would receive from the experiment based on the deal that this person offered them. When the men had higher levels of testosterone in their system, they were more likely to choose to punish the other person in the study conducted. Does this mean that women do not also exhibit these behaviors? Of course not. This simply supports the hypothesis that we are more likely to see these behaviors in men than women. Our behaviors are a result of many different factors including our values and how successful exhibiting those behaviors have been for us in the past.
Furthermore, while the common wisdom that men and women’s brains are “wired differently” has basis in reality depending on how neural activity is measured like how there is a “correlation between right-hemisphere activation and empathy only in women” (Rueckert, Naybar 2008) research has none the less found there do not seem to be extreme differences between our brain connectivity or nature or volume of our brain tissue (Fine 2013, Joel et al. 2015).
Our culture has a large impact not only on how we view gender, but also how we react when people conform or defy our expectations based on gender. One research team found that how we react to counterproductive work behavior in men and women is also different. One of their findings revealed that “women (not men) tended to receive harsher punishment recommendations for stereotypical (i.e. feminine) [counterproductive work behavior] than for counter-stereotypical (i.e. masculine) [counterproductive work behavior]” (Morgan et al. 2018). The gender of the study participants changed the reactions to their behavior. If you are a woman, the world will react to you differently if you exhibit certain behaviors rather than if you were a man. Reward and punishment strongly influence our behaviors, and if men and women are rewarded and punished differently, then we will behave differently.
How much and to what extent these gendered traits actually correlate with our biological sex is greatly up for debate. Many people believe that the behavior and thought processes of men and women have many differences. Our sex hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen, do play a part in behavior as stated above, but there is also a very clear cultural factor as well. Understanding more on how much these factors impact our behaviors is important, and as always, further research will help us better understand ourselves and each other. However, it has been stated before that while traits can be seen as “masculine” or “feminine,” such as aggression or empathy, we all possess these tendencies to different degrees, and the research supports that we are much more similar than we are different. It is important to accept that neither femininity nor masculinity and their associated traits are inherently better than the other, and instead accept people for who they are. When we put someone’s labels before the person, that is, when we see someone first as a man or a woman instead of seeing them as a person, we are seeing our idea of what a man or a woman is instead of the person that is in front of us. This reduces who they are and makes assumptions about them that often are not supported by the reality.
When we let our differences define who we are, we lose our connections, and we stop understanding each other. In order to truly connect, we need to look past gender and see the person underneath. We can connect with each other on parts of the human experience that are common to all of us, such as our passions and how we feel. Seeing people for who they are, instead of what they are, not only allows people to feel seen and heard, but gives us the opportunity to truly connect with another person in a way that we could not have otherwise.
Dreher, Jean-Claude, et al. “Testosterone Causes Both Prosocial and Antisocial Status-Enhancing Behaviors in Human Males.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, no. 41, 2016, pp. 11633–11638., doi:10.1073/pnas.1608085113.
Ellemers, Naomi. “Gender Stereotypes.” Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 69, no. 1, 2018, pp. 275–298., doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011719.
Fine, C. (2013). Neurosexism in functional neuroimaging: from scanner to pseudo-science to psyche. In M. Ryan & N. Branscombe The SAGE handbook of gender and psychology (pp. 45-60). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications, Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446269930.n4
Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent Narrative: Language 37 - 60 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network
Hyde, Janet Shibley, and Nita M. Mckinley. “Gender Differences in Cognition.” Gender Differences in Human Cognition, 1997, pp. 30–51., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195112917.003.0002.
Joel, Daphna, et al. “Sex beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 50, 2015, pp. 15468–15473., doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112.
Morgan, Whitney Botsford, et al. “Reactions to Men’s and Women’s Counterproductive Work Behavior.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, vol. 37, no. 6, 2018, pp. 582–599., doi:10.1108/edi-08-2017-0161.
Okimoto, Tyler G., and Madeline E. Heilman. “The ‘Bad Parent’ Assumption: How Gender Stereotypes Affect Reactions to Working Mothers.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 68, no. 4, 2012, pp. 704–724., doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2012.01772.x.
Rueckert, L., & Naybar, N. (2008). Gender differences in empathy: The role of the right hemisphere. Brain and Cognition, 67, 162-167.