Two Cultures: Male and Female?

Last night we had a rare Mums’ Night Out and one of the topics of conversation was (inevitably) our children and whether it was easier to have boys or girls.  I think that we came to the conclusion that both sexes had their fair share of joys and challenges, but we also ranted a bit about the gender stereotypes that we felt children were being forced to fit into, even from an early age.

By concidence, at the British Psychological Society’s annual student conference today, one research paper shows that even 9- month-old babies choose gender-specific toys.  

Researchers at City University, London found that, when presented with seven different toys, boys as young as 9 months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set.

And the girls? Hmmm, let me see if you can guess… At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.

Well, from personal experience, that was not true, as my older son adored dolls and teddy bears, while my younger devoured imitation food and pans.  But of course, what am I, a single exceptional example, in a sea of data that shows the opposite?

 However, it is also fair to add that from birth (and maybe even before that), parents and other carers respond differently to boys and girls, in words, gestures, behaviours, way of thinking.  These young creatures are like sponges, absorbing so much information in those first few months of life that it is difficult to determine exactly how much is innate and how much is learnt behaviour and preferences.

Lise Eliot’s recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain:  How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps critically examines all of the scientific evidence to date and explains in very clear language how modest differences at birth between the brains of boys and girls are amplified by social factors and eventually  produce greater anatomical changes in the brain of mature women and men.  So then we arrive at the conclusion that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ – two different cultures, speaking different languages, with different values and meanings, never the twain shall meet.

Book Cover

Latest research on gender differences

What I loved about Eliot’s book is its optimistic assertion (which every parent wants to hear) that the brain is remarkably plastic and can remodel itself constantly based on its experiences.  In other words, we are not stuck with our gender roles, we can make boys more socially and linguistically gifted, we can make girls more analytical and spatially aware. 

The two cultures are not incompatible or unbridgeable.  The two cultures are not even two separate cultures unless we deliberately seek to make them so.  And, as with all national or minority cultures, as long as we are open, flexible, curious and eager to learn more, we will find ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all.

Have you found boys and girls to be very different from an early age?  Do you find yourself responding differently to boys and girls?  What can we do to ensure our children grow up with fewer gender stereotypes?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Two Cultures: Male and Female?

  1. How about dropping these pseudo-scientific gender-studies claims? There is ample proof of large built in differences. It is high-time that the attempts to explain it away stop and we come to terms with the scientific reality.

    • sandaion6

      I think we are all agreed that there are differences in the adult female and male brains, but are they really large, and are they really innate? Scientific evidence is still a bit sparse on that.

  2. You raise two sub-issues:

    1. Are the differences between men’s and women’s brains large?

    Probably not—but they do not need to be: Human behaviour and interaction takes place within a comparatively limited frame, and within that frame even small differences can have (and regularly do have) a large impact. Consider, similarly, the difference in average height between men and women: A mere five inches (or so), to be compared with body heights in excess of five feet, have an enormous effect on how the sexes are perceived with regard to tallness, who has to bend his back uncomfortably when doing dishes, who has to ask for help when she needs something from the top-shelf, etc. The reason is that the frame of height is comparatively small—which is also why I, at 6′ 2”/3”, am considered tall, even though giraffes can reach several times my height and sequoias be more than fifty times as tall.

    2. Are they innate?

    Possibly not all, but there is still strong evidence for considerable inborn difference. A particularly notable example is that women who are exposed to unnaturally high testosterone levels before birth tend to become “tomboys”, have stronger spatial skills, and similar.

    In the end, human nature is like a strong wind: Walk in the direction of the wind and you make great progress with little effort; walk against the wind and every step forward is an effort.

    • sandaion6

      I really like that image of walking against the wind or with it. Very true – I think that is exactly the conclusion I reached. Thanks for that!

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