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?

For another perspective, we also spoke to Jens van Tricht, the founder and director of Emancipator and author of “Why Feminism is Good For Men

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!

IMAGE CREDITS: BigStock – (c) SeventyFour; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Tricht (c) Jelmer de Haas


47 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Raquel

    we don’t have enough data but, i would like to believe that yes.

  2. avatar
    Dalla

    Dismantle and dump the “traditional” nuclear family and yes, we could

  3. avatar
    Corinna

    When I look at myself and at my sister we are both women but completely different in our interests and our personality. But my brother and I share so many hobbies and (have been told) to be very similar in character. Point is, I completely agree that there are many differences between genders (for whatever reason) but not all people of the same gender are the same!

  4. avatar
    Sara

    I think gender differences would be so much less pronounced if we treated people the same! So much of the way we behave or what we like is influenced by our surroundings, especially our family and friends… I mean these days we already start gender stereotyping before a baby is even born, with all these gender-reveal parties and gendered toys… it doesnt make any sense! many boys like cars and many girls like dolls, but many boys also like dolls and girls also like cars… just let people be!

  5. avatar
    Rajesh

    yes it will exist because we are different gender

    • avatar
      Antje

      Gender and Sex are completely different things. Gender is socially constructed.

    • avatar
      Rajesh

      female gender and male gender …is there any third gender..please enlighten me

    • avatar
      Antje

      sex: male-female, gender: feminine-masculine

    • avatar
      Rajesh

      hahahahaha and the difference is

    • avatar
      Antje

      biology vs social construct.

  6. avatar
    Sonya

    I don’t want to offend you, but the question is stupid. For anyone who has heard a little bit about human anatomy and physiology, it is absolutely clear that there are differences between the TWO genders . How do you plan to erase these differences? Want to play the role of GOD?

    • avatar
      Katerina

      Sonya Gineva I disagree, there are differences between (multiple) sexes that are physiological and anatomical. The differences between genders are socioculturally constructed and that means that society is reproducing constructed norms of which body (read sex) is capable of doing what!

    • avatar
      Angelos

      the social differences between genders are constricted BECAUSE there are biological differences.

    • avatar
      Katerina

      Having a vagina means I have to wear a dress? Meh, I think that argument is historically shaped – by hegemonic discourses.

    • avatar
      Joel

      no, but having a vagina will make more difficult to develop some tasks. And that as been proved over and over again. The male and female genetic is very different. Yes, men and women can do any task but some are easier for men and others for women.

    • avatar
      Antje

      Such as?

    • avatar
      Joel

      physical tasks, for example.

    • avatar
      Antje

      yes, I understood. Which ones?

    • avatar
      Loukas

      Do you all play dumb on purpose or you really are indeed? The average man is stronger, taller, and generally more capable of performing physical tasks than the average woman, and that’s just one example of the differences between a man and a woman. Why can’t you just accept that when it comes strictly to biology, a woman and a man ARE NOT THE SAME!

    • avatar
      Joel

      don’t you know what are physical tasks? Really?!?

    • avatar
      Loukas

      the average man is more capable of doing heavy physical work that the average woman SUCH AS (since you’re ignoring the obvious) lifting heavy loads. Does this really need more explanation? Are you acting that dumb?

    • avatar
      Antje

      clearly totally gagging for some mansplaining;-) If you then also could explain to me, how that then requires different social roles, some paid, some unpaid (mainly those associated with women), and then also why women are paid 20% less on average in Europe for the same task, and also how, in the age of machines and ai, physical power is even relevant. Thanks:-)

    • avatar
      Antje

      Well, I use machines for that, are you still lifting things (poor you;-)

    • avatar
      Loukas

      oh for example when working in a cafeteria and you have to move some heavy wooden tables you’ll go out and bring your Clark machine to do the work right? Because using a machine to lift everything in your life is totally realistic.

    • avatar
      Loukas

      judging by your pointless comments, there’s absolutely no connection between you and any type of intelligence. I’m not planning to continue this conversation. Wish you a good day.

    • avatar
      Antje

      If you say so;-) Byebye

  7. avatar
    Ana

    Pointless question when the majority of the commentators don’t have any idea about what is sex and what is gender!

  8. avatar
    Michał

    Sure, let’s start with evening out the incarceration rate, the workplace injury rate, the suicide rate, the family courts, the retirement age, university graduation rate, the age of death, and let’s start charging women who yell at their husbands with gender violence.
    I won’t hold my breath.

  9. avatar
    Olivier

    Born. We are different and complementary

    • avatar
      Riccardo

      nah, men and women don’t need each other to be completed.

    • avatar
      Olivier

      I don t agree. Read Platon

    • avatar
      Riccardo

      I read Platon. There isn’t any clear metaphysics of gender there, anywhere. Unless you can provide exact quotes (with reference to the original pages) that back up your comment, I suggest YOU to read Plato.

    • avatar
      Olivier

      men and women were united before. But The God’s split them in two part. Since this time each man an woman is looking for his half…. This is obviously our nature what does not mean that I accept exceptions

    • avatar
      Riccardo

      Also men and men and women and women. Idiot

  10. avatar
    Jay

    Its obviously a bit of both. USE COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!

  11. avatar
    Katya

    Gender roles, which we learn, are completely different than our biological differences — which we are born with.

    • avatar
      Benny

      wrong. Gender roles are not just learned. There are biological influences too. That is why there is a “nature-nurture debate”!

    • avatar
      Katya

      That there are biological differences which influence our tendency to one or the other role, in addition to the enormous social constructs imposed is probably true, as my twin brother and I noted at an early age. We tended to phrase it rather simply, e.g., “Why should I support a wife and family, and she not a husband and family?” We were certainly very aware of the differences, and sometimes we talked about them.

    • avatar
      Petr

      So why is gender referred for extrapolating biological sex differences (on average) to newborns without a role? “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.”

    • avatar
      Katya

      We are animals, mammals to be specific. In most animals, females are larger than males, but in most mammals, males are larger than females. How? Biology: Pituitary gland: hormones. HGH, testosterone… Of course, if we were insects, or some other animal species we females would be bigger!

  12. avatar
    Pirvulescu

    People are different, males are different from females.

  13. avatar
    Petr

    “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.” So if it is a newborn baby without a role how come you are adressing it as a gender stereotyping and not sex stereotyping? Further more the difference is innate characteristic of a sex (on average of course), how come you adress is as a gender-related thing and not sex-related thing?

    • avatar
      Katya

      We are animals, mammals to be specific. In most animals, females are larger than males, but in most mammals, males are larger than females. How? Biology: Pituitary gland: hormones. HGH, testosterone… Of course, if we were insects, or some other animal species we females would be bigger!

    • avatar
      Petr

      So why extrapolation based on biology is referred to as gender steretyping (and not sex stereotyping)? It is not connected to role or cultural expectation or anything that relates to gender.

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