Is it nature or is it nurture? Our biological sex at birth is determined by our chromosomes and is usually – though not always – visible through primary and (after puberty) secondary physical sex characteristics. Yet individuals do not exist in a vacuum, they are raised in societies.
Throughout our lives, powerful cultural and social influences are at work on our psychology and behaviour, and we are all under enormous pressures to confirm to social expectations of sex and gender. So, how much is nature and how much is nurture?
Studies have shown that, following the birth of a daughter, parents estimate the height of the newborn to be smaller than the estimates made by the parents of boys. It’s true that adult women are smaller on average than men, but this doesn’t apply for newborns. It’s pure projection based on gender stereotyping on the part of the parents. From birth, parents also have very different ideas about how their little boys and girls should grow up.
A lot of research has been done into the phenomena of “stereotype threat” and the impact on boys’ and girls’ performance during, for example, mathematics tests. To be clear: there are no biological differences in the ability of boys and girls when it comes to maths. However, the more girls have internalised their parents’ expectations, the worse they do in maths tests.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Hermann arguing that men and women are just different and, therefore, it would be better to accept these differences (and even foster them for the benefit of society). Is he right? Or is that just an excuse to reinforce the social construction of gender roles?
To get a reaction, we spoke to German Green MEP Hannah Neumann. What would she say?
No, sorry, Hermann. I can agree that men and women are different, but Hermann and me are also different, and men between themselves are very different, and women between themselves are also very different. This is proven by the research reports that we get about the differences between men and women. Actually, they all state something like: we’re talking about the differences between men and women, but if we look closely there’s actually more overlap between men and women than there is difference between men and women, and the differences among men and among women are bigger than the differences between the groups. So, we should beware not to homogenise men and women as opposites and then overlooking the differences and the changeability of men and women themselves.
This discussion of biology and nature vs nurture always comes up, and I think it should not be too difficult to see how much proof there is of the differences we make as a society in how we raise children and in how we have arranged social, political, and economic orders. If we stop all that and leave nature to itself, then maybe we get a view of what differences there would be originally. John Stuart Mill wrote something centuries ago like: it is impossible to speak about the nature of women as long as we have not seen women or been able to observe women in their natural state of being. And this world is far from a natural state of being, this world is full of creation, construction, cultural influences, institutions and norms and values that have nothing to do with biological roots. That maybe claim those, but they don’t dare to let events happen themselves because they need, apparently, to put them into rules and structures and regulations and norms…
Next up, we had a comment from Monica saying that we have to start confronting gender stereotypes in the toy shops and clothing stores if we want to achieve equality between men and women. Is she right?
How would Jens van Tricht respond?
Yes, but we have to start everywhere, Monica. Too often we think there will be an easy solution for this very complex problem. It is a systemic issue, it is a global issue, it is an inter-generational issue. Yes, we have to start with how we raise children, but once we say that, we get involved with parents, with professionals, with policymakers, who all influence the way we raise children.
I think there is a risk in trying to solve the problems that adults have created by changing youth. We need to work on all levels. There is a growing insight, globally also, that we need to work in what is sometimes called the ‘socio-economic model’. We need to work on individual change, relational change, community change, organisational change, systemic change, and institutional change.
So, I do agree we need to work on that. I do agree that it’s important to start there. But I wouldn’t get into prioritising one starting point over another, because we need to do it all. So, I embrace all the initiatives that work on different dimensions of this patriarchal, unequal gender system…
Would gender differences exist if we treated everyone the same from birth? How much is nature and how much is nurture? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!