About once every generation, it becomes intellectually fashionable to believe that gender or gender identity is a malleable trait, largely devoid of biological imperatives and at the mercy of parental initiatives or other social forces. Within time, these narratives meet an inevitable backlash from the natural sciences and the furor dies down, only to repeat itself twenty or so years later. We appear to be in the grip of another such cycle, with some individuals declaring that “Gender is a social construct!” and others pronouncing such ideas to be hogwash.
This debate suffers from three problems. First, the terms involved—sex, gender, gender identity, and gender role—are often poorly defined, which causes a good deal of confusion. Second, and related, in many cases participants in this debate may be using the term gender to mean two different things, which causes them to talk past one another. And third, these debates are often dominated by the loudest and most inflexible voices on either side, reducing opportunities for dialogue about how nature and nurture interact to produce behavioral outcomes.
For the purposes of what follows, let me start by clarifying the terms as I understand them. Others may disagree with my definitions of course, but at least this will provide a clear basis on which to proceed here:
- Sex: Biological sex is usually determined by one of two features. First, a genetic profile typically resulting in the production of either ova or spermatozoa and, second, the development in utero of male or female primary sexual characteristics (penis and testes or vagina and uterus, respectively). For the vast majority, the genetic profile and genitalia correspond, but for intersex individuals they may not. Most often a mismatch between external genitalia and chromosomes is due to issues influencing hormone exposure in utero.
- Gender or Gender Identity: This is the term that causes the most confusion. Here, I will use it to mean one’s internal perception of being male or female or, for a small percentage of individuals, non-binary (those who express a gender identity that doesn’t fit neatly into either category). For most individuals, biological sex and gender identity correspond. However, for a very small number of individuals, they may not, which produces a distressing condition known as gender dysphoria, which can be mitigated by transitioning.
- Gender Role: There are nuances in the way this term is used, but here I’ll use it to refer to societal expectations of how individuals are likely to behave based on either their sex (most likely) or gender.
I am familiar with the psychological literature relating to this topic, but I also consulted my friend and colleague Marcus Ynalvez, a sociologist at Texas A&M International University to get his view (however, all opinions and any errors in the essay are mine alone).
Part of the confusion regarding gender identity likely comes from the preference among some scholars to characterize gender as an external, behavioral performance “negotiated with” or perhaps enforced by social structures. If we think of gender as the internalized perception of maleness or femaleness (e.g. “I am a man/woman/non-binary”), the evidence suggests it is biological in origin. Specifically, a region of the brain called the hypothalamus appears to differ between males and females so that having a structure that is similar to typical female brains makes one feel female. Testosterone exposure in utero appears to be a critical factor in these developing brain differences, which means that male and female brains are essentially different from birth.
In transsexual/transgendered individuals, irregular degrees of hormone exposure appear to create what is, quite literally, a woman’s brain in a man’s body or vice versa. There are certainly still nuances and ongoing research into the process by which this occurs, but as one scholarly group put it, “There is no evidence that one’s postnatal social environment plays a crucial role in gender identity or sexual orientation.” It should be noted that it isn’t possible to conduct ethical randomly controlled experiments on human fetuses, but the confluence of animal experiments and correlational studies in humans comes as close to a causal model as we can get. For most individuals a sense of gender constancy begins in early childhood and remains stable for the lifespan.
So, our internal perception of maleness or femaleness is largely innate. Although there is research on transsexual/transgendered individuals that also supports this, unfortunately there is less research on non-trans non-binary individuals. One possibility is that the hypothalamus of such individuals is neither fully female nor male, but that hypothesis is speculative absent further research.
In the past, attempts to foist gender identities onto people have been recognized as potentially dangerous. This is part of the ongoing and heated debate about how to treat children exhibiting symptoms of gender dysphoria. Should they be immediately provided with hormones or even surgery, however young they are? Or should they wait until they reach an age at which they are sure how they identify their gender, but which may complicate the process of transition? Probably the most notorious case of forced gender reassignment was that of David Reimer, whose penis was amputated in a botched circumcision when he was an infant. Based on popular socialization theories of the mid-twentieth century, particularly those of psychologist John Money, Reimer was raised as a girl. The experiment failed spectacularly, causing Reimer significant distress. He returned to his male identity as a teen and later committed suicide (due, it should be added, to multiple issues). This tragic case and others like it indicate that gender identity cannot be shaped at will through social manipulation. The perception that it can is dangerous and likely to do significant harm.
If our perception of maleness or femaleness is largely innate, a function of the hypothalamus, what about how we express our gender? Some men are very masculine in the traditional sense—stoical, assertive, protecting, and commanding, whereas other men may be comfortable expressing more traditionally feminine qualities such as nurturance, emotional expressiveness, sociability, and collaboration. The same, of course, applies to women.
Do we express gender-specific behaviors because of our biology or due to societal expectations? Probably both. The available evidence strongly suggests that biology and environment work together in complex and nuanced ways that lead to how men and women express their respective gender roles. Studies of twins indicate that genetics still play a powerful part in gendered behavior, with genetics explaining a significant proportion of the variance in masculinity, femininity, and cross-gendered behavior in both boys and girls. Likewise, fetal testosterone plays a crucial role—exposure to higher levels of testosterone in utero is predictive of stereotypical masculine play in both young boys and girls. Nonetheless, a significant proportion of gendered behavior isn’t explained by biological factors and this is where social factors come in.
A long line of research suggests that parents play and interact with boy and girl children, even from infancy, in gender stereotypical ways. Teasing this out as a causal factor in the emergence of gender roles can be tricky, however. Are parents merely predicting foreseeable biological differences, or do they have a modeling role in shaping gendered behavior? Some studies do correlate parenting practices with later gender-specific behaviors such as aggression, although effect sizes tend to be small. In twin studies, shared environment (e.g. parenting) tends to be fairly weak as a predictor. Considerable evidence indicates that peers are likely to be a more powerful socialization agent, particularly among boys, given how boys and girls tend to gender segregate during the elementary school years. While many blame the media, media effects research is going through a full-blown crisis of replicability and credibility so it’s hard to say anything definite there. Teens tend to feel differential pressure from parents, peers, and themselves, with peer and self-pressure particularly powerful in the development of gendered norms.
Most of the evidence is correlational, so it’s difficult to establish causal paths. That’s the trick, for instance, with parenting practices. It’s pretty clear that parents treat boy and girl children, even infants, differently. This is typically assumed to have a causal influence, and the assumption may be correct. But whether or not that influence is also decisive and just how powerful it is remains uncertain. As libertarian journalist John Stossel has gleefully pointed out for decades, attempts at gender neutral parenting tend to have little impact on stereotypical play, with boys making guns out of dolls and carrots. Apparently even young chimpanzees engage in gender-stereotypical play, such as the use of rudimentary stick dolls among females.
It appears that biology plays a powerful role in our internalized sense of gender as well as our preference for gendered behaviors (allowing for non-trivial social influences, particular for the latter). However, this still results in heterogenous outcomes for males, females, and non-binary individuals. In a society in which people are offered the freedom to express themselves in non-traditional ways, this may all be fine. But we can see the damage caused by the coercive imposition of gender norms in repressive societies. At the extremes, women may be prevented from working altogether, or excluded from high-status careers. Men who do not conform to traditional masculine traits may be bullied or ostracized. Such forced conformity can cause significant trauma, depression, and anxiety for people who do not conform to traditional gender expectations. Advocating for greater freedom of gender expression is therefore a worthy cause in the pursuit of individual wellbeing.
However, advocates are confronted with at least two difficulties. First, they must be cautious not to simply replace a rigidly conservative conception of gender roles with an equally rigid progressive one wherein those who do express more traditional gender traits that match their biological sex are ostracized or condemned. This error is what likely produced, for instance, a recent Gillette commercial which some felt denigrated traditional masculinity, as well as a widely panned set of guidelines from the American Psychological Association for therapy with men and boys. The APA guidelines were not only criticized for their lack of scientific rigor, but also raised concerns that the negative portrayal of traditional masculinity might discourage many men from seeking therapy.
The second pitfall comes from setting impossible goals. Put simply, if biology causes some aggregate gender differences in predisposition, then equal opportunity and egalitarianism may not necessarily lead to equal outcomes in terms of life choices. Women and men, as well as non-binary individuals, may ultimately tend to gravitate toward different life paths. For instance, there’s little question that historical sexism made it extremely difficult for women to become titans of industry. Working diligently to remove barriers for women’s success is obviously important for its own sake. But it’s also entirely possible that, even in a fully egalitarian world, fewer women than men might be inclined to make the soul-sucking sacrifices necessary to get to become a Fortune 500 CEO, and that’s not necessarily bad. Making equal parity in life outcomes the goal as opposed to equality in opportunity could actually pressure people into a life-path to which they are unsuited.
Furthermore, setting rigid societal goals risks entrenching a perpetual state of resentment and grievance even when, hypothetically, there are no actual barriers left to remove. Lack of parity can also be found in male-dominated careers such as construction, sanitation, and coal mining, yet there appears to be little interest in encouraging greater female participation in these professions. By contrast, in my own field, psychology majors are presently overwhelmingly female and this is not because anyone is actively discouraging male students from applying. Achieving parity is probably impossible without refusing many well-qualified female majors, or forcibly compelling potential male students to enter a discipline they may not wish to study. Naturally occurring differences in proclivities may always result in divergent life paths for men and women. Our goal should be to ensure that no individual is forced into or discouraged from a life path on account of their biological sex or identified gender. And we should take care to value the societal contributions of men, women, and non-binary individuals equally.
Ultimately, the mantra that “gender is a social construct” is misleading and may cause significant confusion and unnecessary acrimony. It is more reasonable to suggest that gender is an internalized sense of masculinity/femininity that is shaped by a complex interaction of genetic, hormonal and social forces. Granted, that’s probably harder to fit on a coffee mug. But I remain optimistic that if we are realistic about the complex interplay of biology and environment, we can work toward an egalitarian and open society that allows individuals to express their individuality whether or not they conform to traditional (or progressive) gender role norms.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. His forthcoming book How Madness Shaped History will be out in January 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111