Understanding Gender: The Psychological Analysis of Gender
Psychologists view gender as the “condition of being male, female, or neuter. In a human context, the distinction between gender and sex reflects the usage of these terms. Sex usually refers to the biological aspects of maleness or femaleness, whereas gender implies the psychological, behavioural, social, and cultural aspects of being male or female”. Gender is an essential aspect of the exploration of social identity; it defines the roles and expectations of the individual in pre-existing constructs of society. Gender has a close relation to sex, and its existence can be traced to evolution. Gender is also a demonstration of one’s masculinity or femininity which abides by behaviours associated with their sex. Biological roles of sex evolved into socio-cultural aspects that created the construct of gender. To understand the psychology of gender and its effects on an individual’s interpersonal and intra-personal identity, psychologists developed theories around biological sex, socio-cultural gender. These perspectives aim to understand the formation and development of gender roles, the explanations for gender differences, biases, conformity and stereotypes.
The following article looks at these perspectives and deconstructs the influence of biological and sociological perspectives on gender. The article also looks at a critique of gender roles as proposed by anthropologist Margret Mead and aims to create an interrelation between her findings and the psychological perspectives.
Biological Perspectives of Gender
Biological factors such as genetics play a crucial role in the determination of the biological sex of a person. The 23rd pair of chromosomes (X and Y) are responsible for the determination of the sex of a foetus. An XX combination results in a female and an XY results in a male foetus. Along with this, human’s have sex organs that produce hormones – testosterone in males and estrogen in females. However, males and females both produce both the hormone of the opposite sex, but in smaller quantities. These hormones are responsible for sexual development physically, as well as the development of one’s gender identity. It has been shown that some variations in the chromosomes can cause a disparity in one’s sex. Some of these include
- Turner’s syndrome, occurring when females lack the second X chromosome (XO)
- Kleinfelter’s syndrome, when males have an extra X Chromosome (XXY)
However, studies have shown that despite the variation and the atypical chromosomes, in both cases it has been observed that people with Turner’s syndrome and Kleinfelter’s syndrome have been known to exhibit some behaviours of the opposite sex.
In order to look at the role of biology in one’s gender identity, Money et al. (1965) conducted a longitudinal study of an infant named Bruce (who was later known as David Reimer). Money, a renowned psychologist, took an interest in David’s case after David’s parents sought his medical help after David’s penis was accidentally burnt during a circumcision procedure. Money suggested that David’s parents perform a sex reassignment surgery and raise him as a female and was renamed, Brenda. As David grew, he felt extreme discomfort with his female body (gender dysphoria) despite being given regular doses of oestrogen. When he found out about his sex reassignment, David decided to transition back to a man by having a double mastectomy and renaming himself David. The dysphoria experienced by David shows the correlation between gender identity and biology.
Social Perspectives of Gender
Gender and identity are crucial in determining the roles of an individual in a given society. The society’s perception and stereotypes about gender create a need to conform to gender norms dictated by society. The gender roles and stereotypes condition children from a young age to display gender-appropriate behaviour as dictated by cultural norms. Eagley (1987) developed the social role theory which theorised the rise of gender stereotypes are a result of the roles dictated by society for men and women. One of the most prominent theories in observing social influences on gender is Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977).
The theory states that children learn by observing and imitating adult models that are similar to them. The most common similarity trait observed is gender. The theory also explains the reason for the gendering of characteristics which in turn dictates the difference in behaviour between boys and girls. The variation also influences this in the treatment of boys and girls by parents and caregivers. The variation in treatment begins at an early age right from assigning colours to genders and reinforcing stereotypes. A young boy is conditioned to suppress his emotions while a girl is expected to exhibit emotions. Children are also influenced by toys which they are given which are gendered. A boy is given a toy car while a girl is given a doll. Children are conditioned by positive (rewards) and negative (punishment) reinforcement of sex appropriate behaviour. Children are also known to behave similarly to peers of their same gender as it promotes socialisation and an ingroup based on gender.
While it is proven that gender is a result of social conditioning, another factor that must be considered are schemas. “Schemas are mental frameworks that representations of a person’s knowledge about some entity or situation, including its qualities and the relationships between these.” Schemas help organise new information into schemas which develop as a result of experiences and memories. Gender schema theory (1981) by psychologist Sandra Bern looks at how gender schemas are formed as a result of observing others which dictates appropriate behaviour; this instils values, morals and roles in children from their observations. Culturally, the need to conform and the fear of being removed from the ingroup is one of the most prominent reasons to embody gender roles and stereotypes. In Bern’s theory, she proposed that without stereotypes and conformity, people would have more freedom and remain a part of society.
Critique of Gender in Society
While several biologists and psychologists are firm on their ideation that sex and gender are tightly knit and as a result, create a society where men and women have roles based on their gender. However, Anthropologist, Margret Mead discussed the variation in gender roles in traditional primitive societies. In her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). Her study revolved around three tribes in Papua New Guinea, where she stayed with each tribe for six months.
1.The Arapesh Tribe
The tribe was gentle and embodied feminine traits. Here, both men and women were encouraged to be peaceful, gentle, nurturing and sensitive.
2.The Mundugumor Tribe
The tribe was a stark contrast to the Arapesh where both men and women were violent and aggressive. The members of the tribe Here, the violent masculine trait was followed by both men and women and aggression and violence was encouraged
In both the Arapesh Tribe as well as The Mundugumor tribe, it was noticed that despite having both men and women, the two tribes maintained a gender consistency wherein all members were subjective to conform. Here, the two tribes almost erase the need for gender as the two tribes continue to thrive despite the lack of designated gender roles.
3.The Tchambuli Tribe
The Tchambuli tribe practised the reversal of traditional gender roles set in other societies. Here, the men were less dominant while women were the ones who were the breadwinners. Interestingly the Mead found the idea of women domination and submissiveness of the males was interesting as the two other tribes had a standardised gender role for all members of the tribe. The reversal of gender roles questioned the notion of gender roles as conditioning to norms might promote the socio-cultural justification for behaviour. However, the reversal of gender roles clashes with the theory of biological influences. It must also be noted that a strong social influence can diminish biological influences as the notion of a norm is different (where females dominate). Hence, the creation of a unique society can distort gender norms if all members of a society believe in it hence making the reversal of gender toles, becomes a norm to conform to.
The roles of biology and culture on gender influences the segregation of labour based on gender. The theoretical approaches pave the way for the acceptance of gender identities beyond the binary. Gender identities can be fluid and are a result of both societal as well as biological aspects. Reinforcement of gender roles creates a structure for appropriate behaviours associated with one’s gender. However, despite the evidence of genetic and social influences, the debate of nature and nurture must be considered. A person, despite being genetically born with male genitalia, if raised with female values, can exhibit characteristics of a female and vice versa. However, this is still debated as the case of David Reimer proves that biological sex plays a vital role in determining gender. While this holds true, it must be acknowledged that gender dysphoria occurs in people despite having been raised in accordance with their biological sex. This calls for a questioning of the extent of genetic influences which is still debated. Looking at the socio-cultural perspective as
Conformity plays a vital role in gender as behaving and exhibition of roles in accordance with ones gender is seen as the norm. People tend to enforce these norms as stereotypes which are conditioned into people right from birth. However, the socio-cultural perspective creates room for questioning the genetic influences as socio-cultural influences have a more significant impact. Margret Mead’s study demonstrates the importance of culture, and social norms on gender as her study shows that the gendered behaviour practised by a group can be appropriated to form a culture where the unconventional expressions of gender become the norm. While biology and society play a role in the expression of one’s gender, it eventually boils down to the extent of biological and socio-cultural influences which is imparted on an individual.
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