We Still Haven't Figured Out Cultural Gender Differences, but We're Getting Closer

Are the behavioral differences between boy and girls biological or only cultural? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Joyce Schenkein, Neuropsychologist, College Professor, and Vision Scientist, on Quora.

An early answer to the question of gender identity being biological or cultural was offered by Sigmund Freud in his statement that "anatomy is destiny". His opinion was that all girls experience "penis envy" whereby they endlessly feel cheated by nature.

In contrast, all boys undergo an Oedipal Complex, whereby they sexually desire Mama and then live in constant fear that Papa will discover their lust and castrate them. Furthermore, Freud postulated that boys must resolve their complex, ultimately by identifying with Papa (and thereby acquiring social values).

Because girls do not go through this complex, Freud postulated that women were "amoral" (which meant they should not be empowered to vote or hold political offices, etc.)

Later, Karen Horney tried to level the playing field for girls. She postulated that girls go through an Electra Complex (love Daddy, fear Mommy) which leads to similar dynamics to the boys. Finally, others have pointed out that being able to bear a child actually tops having a penis and as a result, new imaginary terms emerged, such as "womb envy".

Because of Freud's belief that a male must identify with his father to be masculine, he explained homosexuality as a failure in this process. In other words, homosexuality was "caused" by family dynamics and therefore could be reversed by psychotherapy, which turns out NOT to be true. It is also not possible to reverse gender-related preferences with electric shock therapy or hormones in adulthood - as in the travesty regarding Alan Turing.

Eventually, Malinowski, who studied young males in the Trobriand Islands, failed to support Freud's notion of the Oedipal complex.

Welcome to the scene, Margaret Mead. She appeared to dispel Freud's ideas by identifying three tribal societies in which the male-female behaviors all differed (Arapesh, Mundugamor, and the Tchambuli). In one culture, both males and females were gentle. In another, both were aggressive. And in the third, roles were reversed so that men were vain and preened a great deal while the women were the hunters. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

Never mind that Mead's work was not well substantiated by others. Even her husband, who traveled with her, had no idea how she derived her conclusions. At the time, however, her monograph was a force in liberating women by suggesting that they were shaped according to a cultural model. Thank you, Margaret Mead.

The new belief that culture was responsible for masculinization and feminization led to a emergence of unisex clothing during the 1970's in the USA, permission for men to wear pink shirts, girls to wear pants, and a deliberate departure from buying dolls for girls only (the emergence of G.I. Joe dolls for boys). Girls were also pictured on the covers of construction toys.

Regarding this hypothesized lack of brain-based gender bias, Dr. John Money further claimed that a baby could be raised to be either gender. Therefore, a child with ambiguous genitalia could be surgically altered and raised as whatever sex the parents/surgeon decided.

Poor David Reimer fell victim to this thinking. Following a botched circumcision, David's parents were advised to surgically alter him to be a girl, give him a girl's name (Brenda) and withhold the truth. However, David/Brenda suffered tremendously, always wanting to play the same games as his twin brother, to urinate facing the toilet etc. Eventually, he was told the truth. He elected to be surgically restored to have a male body. The book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as A Girl by John Colapinto describes the enormous pain attendant in David/Brenda's life.

Revisiting the children studied by J. Money, it became very clear that Money had altered his data and intimidated his subjects. The new conclusion is that any decision regarding a child's gender must be made by the child himself (or herself).

Later studies by Maccoby & Jacklin found that males and females do differ. In all cultures, males are more aggressive than females. In IQ testing, females perform better on verbal tests while males are superior on spatial/performance tests. Note: this is a statistical difference between males and females. It applies to large populations only. The majority of the distributions that describe these traits overlap, which means that in many areas, males and females are alike. Certainly, a given female may be more spatially adept than a given male. And a given male may far exceed a given female in verbal abilities.

The male preference for wheeled objects and the female preference for dolls is true, not only in human children but also in monkeys.

We are currently much more sophisticated about brain gender. We know that the presence or absence of sensitivity to various hormones during fetal development has a profound effect upon gender-related behavior and mating preferences ("SciCafe: How the Brain Shows its Feminine Side").

Finally, Daphna Joel (2011) protests the uni-dimensional model of gender where bias can be measured along a single continuum. Instead, she points out that gender consists of many different components, such as parenting/nurturing behavior, cognitive styles, aggression, response to stress, tendency toward depression, autism, learning disabilities, and criminality. Many of these traits are independent of each other (have their own genetic bases), but interact with gender and life experience. For example, in rats who were conditioned to an eye-blink task, exposure to stress improved learning in males, but hampered it in females.

Her model would consider all these factors in deciding one's male and female predilections.

So a very female person would have more of the many female-type responses on a large variety of attributes, whereas a male would have the opposite bias. But males and females show much overlap.

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