Battle of the sexes; Is gender a social construct?


Paxton Scott, Head Editor

Too many third-wave feminist type thinkers argue that masculinity and femininity are social constructs and only reflect common gender stereotypes. They worry that acknowledging biological behavioral differences in men and women amounts to sexism. Science is not sexist, and ignoring that data on gender leads to harmful misinformation.

It is true that social ideals affect how both men and women act, but gender differences go much deeper than superficial stereotypes. At their base, masculine and feminine behaviors can be traced back to different evolutionary requirements for men and women.

Scientifically, men and women experience different physical development. When adolescents hit puberty, a size differential emerges; men significantly increase in upper body strength, weight, and body hair while women grow breasts and hips.

What is the reason for this discrepancy? A 2008 study published by Nature concluded that “due to fights between males for the possession of females, sexual selection has favoured bigger males”.

Gender differences driven by natural and sexual selection go deeper than merely physical appearance.

For instance, studies have shown—and this is apparent even watching an elementary recess—that boys tend to play with more masculine toys such as trucks while girls are more likely to play with dolls or stuffed animals. One argument for this discrepancy is that boys are encouraged by society to conform to male stereotypes—to play with trucks—and girls experience similar pressures to play with dolls.

A study in 2009 from Emory University suggests otherwise. Researchers looked at the 34 Rhesus monkeys and compared their reactions when given a variety of toys. The study found, “Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys”.

Since the toys held no gender significance to monkeys, the study concluded the difference in preferences demonstrated that “such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization.”

Gerianne Alexander, a Texas A&M psychology professor, explains the study results: “girls have evolved to perceive social stimuli, such as people, as very important” and dolls look like people.

Although toy selection does not have a lot intrinsic importance, the data highlights that males tend to be more interested in objects and females tend to be more interested in people, even when socialization is removed.

After puberty occurs, differences in male and female behavior—physical and behavioral—become even more apparent.

Multiple independent studies have shown that men score much lower in agreeableness than women. Agreeableness is one of the “Big 5” personality traits psychologist use to analyze personality, and it is associated with empathy, compassion, and kindness. One biological reason for men being more disagreeable is higher testosterone levels.

As study produced by neuroscientist at UCLA states, “aggression latencies are strongly influenced by the simultaneous action of gonadal hormones and [male] sex chromosomes.”

An example of this is that men on average exhibit more violent tendencies than women—of the mass shootings in the U.S. between 1982 and 2018, 98 percent were perpetrated by men. In addition to killing others, men are overrepresented in suicides despite being underrepresented in depression.

A study by a Finnish behavioral psychologist concludes that women are less violent because “being physically weaker, they simply have to develop other means than physical ones in order to reach successful results.”

Among the “Big 5” traits, women are also overrepresented in neuroticism. People with high neuroticism are more hesitant, anxious, depressed, and lonely. A concrete example of this is that women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men.

While not a very useful trait in the 21st century, natural selection likely favored neuroticism in women because it correlates with caution and worry. Women, historically, have been more vulnerable than men because of their child bearing responsibility.

In connection with personality traits, Dr. Grace J Wang at the University of Pennsylvania found that men and women even respond differently to stress with separate parts of the brains: “stress in men was associated with CBF increase in the right prefrontal cortex [while] stress in women primarily activated the limbic system.”

In a follow up study, Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, concluded that while males’ response to a social threat is typically “fight or flight”, “females’ are more marked by a pattern of ‘tend-and-befriend’”.

Taylor defined tending as activities aimed at protecting oneself and offspring. Befriending is behavior aimed at creating a social network to aid in that process. Since women are both smaller than men and responsible for small children,  “fight or flight” was not an evolutionarily tenable response to stress.

This is not to say that nature is the only factor. Social pressures certainly contribute to behavioral differences as young boys and girls attempt to fit into the expectations of their parents and their peers. However, to describe masculinity and femininity as social constructions is to ignore science and reject common experience.

Of course some individuals identify with a gender different then the one they were born with, and have the clear right to do that. In fact, transgender individuals often take hormones to become more biological and behavioural similar with the gender that they identity with.

When talking about genders, we are talking about biology. The time has passed when we could—in good scientific conscious—write off gender as as a social construction.