Gender and society versus sex and science
by Resa Willis (M.S. Biology)
We’ve all seen the trend. The yellow or green nursery rooms, the hesitation of some parents to offer gender-typical toys, the influx of gender-neutral options flooding the market, and even pressure on companies and stores to stop catering certain types of toys to specific sexes. Attempts at gender equality have trickled down to infants due to increasing popularity of adhering to nonconformity of gender roles. But how much of our attempts to negate gender stereotypes through selective exposure and conditioning are truly working with children? Biologists have something to say about that.
While offering children choice in toys, pursuit of interests, and even clothing can certainly be a positive practice, it does not necessarily mean that kids are automatically influenced by external stimuli. Children may, in fact, possess predetermined biological characteristics that could altogether halt gender neutralization attempts dead in their tracks. Surely, society isn’t completely culpable of conditioning girls to play with dolls and boys to play with trucks, right? This is a common misconception. We seem to think that society’s gender expectations have a significant impact on a child’s choice, and if offered a wider variety of choices, this trend is bound to shift. So, is societal socialization or biological tendency culpable for typical preferences? Let’s examine some empirical evidence.
According to an article published in Psychology Today, a landmark study conducted in 2002 by Gerianne Alexander and Melissa Hines, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, rocked the scientific community. Alexander and Hines offered gender typical toys to 44 male and 44 female vervet monkeys. Each monkey was offered a ball and police car (masculine), a cooking pot and soft doll (feminine), and a picture book and stuffed dog (neutral). Preference was then determined by the duration of time spent with each toy. The data was overwhelmingly conclusive. The male monkeys preferred the masculine toys, and the female monkeys preferred the feminine toys.
You might be asking, “Monkeys aren’t humans, so why does this matter?” Traditional sociologists claim that gender socialization, or the practice of parents offering “gender typical” toys to children is a direct correlation to ultimate preference. Yet these monkeys, who had never been socialized by humans, nor seen a toy before, displayed not only the identical sex-typical preferences as human children, but also played with the toys in the exact manner in which human children would.
This ground-breaking empirical endeavor was later replicated by another research team, and published in Hormones and Behavior. For this study, rhesus monkeys, masculine wheeled toys, and feminine plush toys were used. You guessed it- the data mirrored its predecessor study’s results to a tee.
When similar scientific explorations are performed on young children, results bear a strong resemblance to studies done on primates. In a widely replicated experiment, children between the ages of 2-5 are given gender neutral toys, such as a play cooking pot. When left to their own devices, boys turned the pot over, pushing it along the floor making car engine sounds, while girls made the pot into a makeshift dollhouse.
In yet another study of American preschoolers, Clyde Robinson and James Morris asked parents what children specifically requested for themselves versus what parents attempting gender neutralization selected as presents. Parents attempting to choose gender neutral toys for their children reported that their children instead requested gender specific toys in most cases. With boys aged 2-5 showing specific gender preferences 75% of the time, it was evident that males were even more prone to gravitating to masculine preferences than girls were to feminine choices.
Now that scientists have presented sufficient evidence to make a strong case for biological causation of gender preferences, the looming question researchers are now left with is: How and why does biology determine this preference? Current evidence is pointing to pre-natal testosterone levels, with increased fetal testosterone (T) linked to more “rough and tumble” tendencies in both males and females. Scientists have tracked toddlers of both sexes in regards to T levels, and report that boys with lower T levels exhibit higher preference for feminine toys, and girls with higher T levels choose masculine toys.
Some researchers do suggest that boys eventually exhibit a stronger sex bias than girls because social and cultural pressure stigmatizes boys for playing with toys in gender atypical ways. However, this does not atone for the obvious preferences displayed before society’s bias gets its proverbial hands on the child’s psyche.
Science goes further than simple observed behavioral investigations to explain sex differences. Brain research also reveals a marked difference between the physical brain composition between the sexes. Evolutionary programming may also play a significant role in biological preferences, as seen when girls opt for dolls over trucks at a young age, which reinforces the inherent maternal instincts present in female evolutionary biological lineage. Boys’ preference for objects with the ability to roll and turn, such as balls and toys with wheels, may point to more developed cerebral spatial skills, which can be linked to the male’s primitive role as hunter.
Fast forward to the present and our current understanding of sex, science, society, and gender.
While is it currently the politically correct, hip, and perhaps even the most open-minded practice to offer our children a wide variety of choices, we simply cannot deny biology. Realistically, we may have to accept that boys will be boys, and girls will be girls, no matter how we try to condition them, and that’s perfectly fine. Acknowledging inherent sex differences doesn’t make a parent sexist or “anti-gender fluid”, nor does it imply that one stereotypical sex inclination is better than the other. Forcing either sex to embrace gender neutral or gender opposite toys and behaviors may very well go against something that simply cannot be manipulated, creating a confused and dissatisfied child. Perhaps a more traditional, and healthy compromise for gender neutral play can be achieved by encouraging children to partake in traditional activities such as tag, tree climbing, and playing in the local creek.
Offering choice is a wonderful option for any child. Endeavoring to manipulate gender identity, however, while ignoring biological sex just may prove to be futile in the eyes of science, and detrimental to a child’s mental health. Ultimately, a child’s mental well-being is more important than societal expectations.