I got thinking about this after watching an interview with Steven Pinker, one of my academic crushes, and then another interview with Jordan Peterson. Both referred to biological differences between men and women, although in different ways, and I wanted to do a post exploring my own take on sex and gender differences, and the roles of both biology and socialization.
X and Y chromosomes
An individual’s sex assigned at birth is based on external anatomy. In most cases, that matches up with genetics, although when there are more ambiguous genitalia or intersex genitalia, the sex assignment can be more arbitrary. Humans have 23 chromosome pairs, one of which is the sex chromosomes. Females have XX and males have XY. There may also be abnormal sex chromosome combinations, such as XXY, which produces Klinefelter’s syndrome.
While some of the genes on the sex chromosomes have an impact on hormones and genitalia, there are also genes that do other things. Genes on the Y chromosome trigger a number of changes, beyond just the genitalia, that differentiate the fetus from female in the womb. Puberty produces a different hormonal soup in females and males. In females, estrogen and progesterone predominate, and in males, testosterone predominates, although everyone has a little of everything. Sex hormones make a difference long before puberty, though; they also impact development in the womb.
Not-same but equal?
In his book The Blank Slate (which I haven’t actually read), Pinker argues against the tabula rasa theory, which says that we’re born without any innate characteristics and who we become is based on our experiences. He said that there are differences between the sexes, but there’s a lot of overlap on those areas of differences. The differences are also very specific, so it’s not a matter of men being better at math, it’s broken down further into specific abilities.
On average, women are better at reading comprehension and writing, fine motor coordination, perceptual speed, and recall from long-term memory. Men have better visuospatial skills, and are better able to mentally rotate 3D objects.
There are also physical differences in the brain. Women tend to have a relatively larger hippocampus, which is involved in long-term memory, as well as greater communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Men have a larger amygdala, which is involved in fear and threat response, and their amygdala functions differently, so that they’re less likely than females to retain vivid memories of emotional events. Particular variations in the brain’s cortex are generally more common in males than females, but they also tend to be seen in females with autism spectrum disorder, so that may relate to autism being more common in males.
There’s some indication of differences between sexes in the activity of neurotransmitters, which may have something to do with certain mental disorders being more common in one sex than the other.
On average, there are differences in sexual interests and behaviours, which may relate to evolutionary effects (I have a book review coming up on a cool book on evolutionary psychology). However, as individuals, of course, evolutionary drives can be overridden by all kinds of things, including our characteristics, desires, and behavioural choices.
With all of these averages, though, there’s enough overlap between the sexes that someone’s sex can’t be predicted based solely on knowing their performance in any of these areas. A particular female may have far superior visuospatial skills compared to a particular male, so there’s no reason that females wouldn’t be able to excel in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Social construction of gender
We’re all socialized into our cultural groups, which involves learning what it means to be male or female, among many other things. This is where we get into the notion that gender is socially constructed. What is a social construct? In the field of psychology, constructs are a way of describing and delineating concept that may match up with observations of reality but are not in and of themselves a tangible thing. Social constructs are representations of ideas generated by social groups that may correspond to objective reality, but are themselves intangible. When it comes to gender, the social constructs of male and female may correspond, at least in some cases, to the objective reality of the machinery between the legs, but the social construct is not, or at least not solely, based on that objective reality.
Some would argue that every difference we think we know about males and females is socially constructed. I would take a more moderate position and say sure, there are some biological differences at the population level, but there’s also a whole heck of a lot that’s been socially constructed.
Society is a lot more complicated than it was back in the caveman days. On an evolutionary scale, though, the caveman days might as well be yesterday, and no significant evolutionary changes have happened since then, meaning the basic biology remains the same. So all the complexity that’s been layered on as society has advanced but biology hasn’t changed much—that’s probably socially constructed.
There are a lot of things we associate with gender that are clearly socially constructed. Pink vs. blue, skirts vs. pants, hairy vs. hair removed, for example, are part of the Western constructs of femaleness and maleness. And the stereotypes in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? Social constructs.
The scale one is looking at influences the type of lens that one uses. Biological differences are seen on a species-wide scale, while the effects of social constructs are seen on a cultural scale. Both of those are on a pretty large scale, and looking at a big picture can’t tell you the experiences of particular individuals.
My experience of gender is shaped not only by my biology and my Western culture, but also by my individual experiences and my sense of self. A species-wide or cultural scale can give some hint of what my experiences might be, but they can’t even hint at my sense of self as a unique individual.
There’s backlash in some corners to the notion that there are biological differences between males and females, partly because it contradicts the idea that we’re all the same, and therefore we must all be equal, a belief that seems to be pretty strongly held by radical feminists. Yet it should be possible to be not-same and still equal.
Steven Pinker points out that equality doesn’t mean sameness, it means equal treatment, which is a moral/political issue, not a biological one. He suggested that the notion of a difference is upsetting to people who believe that sameness means there can’t possibly be a reason to discriminate (even though difference shouldn’t be a reason to discriminate anyway).
I’m not entirely sure how to characterize Jordan Peterson’s arguments without getting caught up in my opinion that he’s a remarkably unpleasant human being, but he seems to look at gender as biologically based, end of story, and not open to any sort of idiosyncratic interpretation. Since identities other than the standard male/female don’t fit within that frame of reference, he seems to invalidate them out of hand. My sense that his approach is very reductionistic, while Pinker’s approach is that biology plays a role, but in the big picture, there’s a lot more than just biology going on.
The term neurosexism has been coined for the idea that there are brain differences between the sexes. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot published a review in the journal Nature of Gina Rippon’s book The Gendered Brain. In it, she notes that researchers have moved away from looking for evidence of women’s inferiority, and the current perspective is that “women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in a way that happens to coincide with biblical teachings and the status quo of gender roles.” She adds that Rippon’s book:
“… accomplishes its goal of debunking the concept of a gendered brain. The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart.” Rather, “most of us remain strapped in the ‘biosocial straitjackets’ that divert a basically unisex brain down one culturally gendered pathway or another.”
If Jordan Peterson is being a biological reductionist, Lise Eliot and Gina Rippon appear to be just as reductionist, only pointing in a different direction. Neither of those extremes is even close to being able to predict or dictate what a unique individual experience might be.
I don’t see any reason att all why biological differences and sexism should have to be mutually exclusive. Given that there appears to be significant overlap in the areas where males or females have the edge, one would expect that overlap to also be visible in the representation of each sex in different occupational fields. That’s not the case, though, which points to social factors, including sexism, having a substantial influence.
Non-traditional gender identities
So, where do transgender, non-binary, and other gender-queer identities fit into the mix? None of the structural or functional differences as a result of the early hormone soup are mutually exclusive; there’s plenty of room for overlap. There’s been some research looking into a potential genetic basis for people being transgender, but nothing conclusive appears to have been identified thus far (and there may also be non-genetic biological differences). There’s more research to suggest that sexual orientation has some genetic basis.
Here’s my way of thinking. We’re born the way we are, and our brains, personalities, and other characteristics develop however they will. As we start to learn what the social constructs of male and female are, we begin to identify one, both, or neither as being the best fit with who we are. Less of an “I am that” than a “that is like me.” I also wonder, if our social constructs of maleness and femaleness weren’t so heavily focused on the physical, would that sense of being in the wrong body still be an issue? Or is our evolutionary drive to find fertile mates strong enough that physical sex characteristics will strongly influence how we appraise others regardless of cultural influences?
I find this subject interesting because it seems to draw in a lot of other issues, and it all gets tangled up into something that’s perhaps more ideological than it needs to be. Maybe it’s because I like shades of grey, but the idea of a combination of biology and social construct just seems very logical to me.
What do you think about the difference between sex and gender, and whether it’s all a matter of biology or socialization?
- Eliot, L. (2019). Neurosexism: the myth that men and women have different brains. Nature, 566(7745), 453-455.
- Ngun, T. C., Ghahramani, N., Sánchez, F. J., Bocklandt, S., & Vilain, E. (2011). The genetics of sex differences in brain and behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(2), 227-246.
- Stanford Medicine: Two minds: The cognitive differences between men and women