Men & Women: Equal But Not The Same (Pt.1)
The issue of sex and gender has become such a divisive topic that many are reluctant to voice opinions that don't follow the current zeitgeist. In some circles, the very mention of the differences between the sexes is enough to provoke accusations of hate speech, bigotry and oppression.
While I'm sensitive to the current climate, I'm not one to subscribe to a particular train of thought just because certain sections of society deem it so.
There are very real biological differences between the sexes that have a profound impact on many areas of life. From parenting and mental health to sexuality and communication, it's important to understand and appreciate these differences as they help to shape our views on masculinity and femininity and the associated gender roles within society. With such a vast and complex topic, my objective isn't to simply rehash facts and figures, but rather, look at the science and psychology that provides a deeper understanding of the differences between the sexes and how this translates in the real world.
This will be the first of a two-part post looking at the differentiating factors that define men and women and how this impacts us biologically, emotionally and sexually.
In this post, we'll explore the meaning of 'gender' and 'sex' across different cultures as well as the biological and psychological behaviours associated with them as there seems to be a considerable amount of confusion with no real consensus among experts. (All sources are listed in the footnotes.)
The History of Gender
The term gender refers to a set of traits and characteristics typically associated with masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these can include biological sex, cultural and societal norms and gender identity which is based on how one chooses to identify. The distinction between sex and gender based on the grounds of gender being learnt behaviour was first introduced in 1955 by John Money, a leader in the fields of sexual development and gender identity. Prior to Money's work, the terms 'sex' and 'gender' were generally considered interchangeable in relation to sex. Money's views on gender were later proven to be flawed in the controversial and tragic case of David Reimer, known as the 'John/Joan' case.
During the mid-1960s, Money encouraged the gender reassignment of David Reimer (then Bruce Reimer), a baby who was born a biological male but suffered irreparable damage to his penis during a botched circumcision. Based on the belief that gender was socially constructed and acquired from early childhood, Money hypothesized that sexual reassignment would be the best course of action for the parents to take. He reasoned that if the child were raised as a typical female with girls toys and clothing, “she” would be more inclined to accept “her” new identity.
Reimer underwent gender reassignment surgery as an infant to construct female genitals and was given estrogen during puberty. Despite being raised as a girl and encouraged to develop typically feminine traits, Reimer suffered from Gender Dysphoria and rejected the female gender assigned to him by his parents. Following the revelation of his true identity by his father at the age of 15, Reimer assumed a male identity and received testosterone therapy and surgery to reconstruct a penis and remove his breasts. He married a woman at the age of twenty-five but due to depression which he suffered from all his life, he committed suicide thirteen years later shortly after the breakdown of his marriage.
It's not my intention to delve too deeply into the topic of Gender Dysphoria in this post but I mention the John/Joans case to highlight the connection between gender and biology. The John/Joans case has a sad sense of irony given the fact that Money was the first to advocate the separation of gender and biology based on the belief that gender is purely a social construct. There have been many more reported cases since then.
The term 'gender' used in the context proposed by Money didn't become popular until the 1970s when the feminist movement embraced the concept in their fight for equality. The argument for gender being purely a social construct, whilst heavily disputed, is understandable given how sexism has been justified with pseudo-science over the years. In a system that creates war, poverty, debt, starvation and inequality by design, there's no way to sugar coat the fact that men are largely responsible for the current state of affairs (including pretty much all of recorded history) and this can't be divorced from our biological disposition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychological Association (APA) define gender as:
"socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men."
This definition may sound perfectly acceptable on the surface but it's stated as an unequivocal fact which is not supported by scientific consensus. Neglecting the impact that our biological make-up has on our behaviour, be it social, psychological, sexual or otherwise is not only inaccurate, it's also dangerously irresponsible.
Call me an old cynic but I for one value independent research and logic over the rhetoric espoused by groups and organisations with politicised agendas that often have a conflict of interest.
Gender Across Different Cultures
The concept of gender is fascinating because it challenges our preconceived ideas of the traits we usually associate with masculinity and femininity. I would definitely agree that society and culture have a huge impact on how gender is interpreted but I believe it's a combination of both nature and nurture. The idea of gender is not binary across all cultures as there are some matriarchal societies in Africa and Asia in particular where women assume typically masculine roles of leadership and dominance as well as the inheritance of wealth and spousal privileges.
The Mosuo of Tibet, the Minangkabau of Indonesia, the Akan in Ghana, the Bribri of Costa Rica and Nagovisi on the island of New Guinea are all examples of societies that have very different ideas and interpretation of gender roles. Societies like this help to provide a much deeper understanding of the role biology plays in determining masculine and feminine behaviour which we'll look at in more detail later on. Wherever this balance may lie, it's clear that attempting to simplify something as complex as gender roles, without accounting for the other contributing factors involved is highly likely to be inaccurate.
The roles typically associated with gender clearly possess a certain level of fluidity from one culture to the next, some believe that this gives credence to the notion that men and women are ultimately the same. I can understand the reason for this train of thought within social and political arenas, however, if gender is based purely on "socially constructed characteristics of women and men" as stated by the WHO and the APS, one has to ask where to draw the line, and under whose authority that line should be drawn.
I'm not being facetious, but running with the logic of gender being purely a social construct based on learnt behaviour, who's to say that one couldn't choose to identify as an entirely different species altogether? And before you dismiss the question, consider the case of Oxana Malaya, the feral child who was raised as a dog and identified as one. If legislation was passed to make it legal, would it make it true? If it's completely subjective based purely on how one chooses to identify, who decides what is and isn't permissible in the world of gender politics.
The Differences Between The Sexes
"It's an elemental fact that people increasingly don't want to hear: Sex differences in personality and behaviour are real. And they have a profound effect on many aspects of health." - David P Schmitt Ph.D - Phycology Today
Despite the evidence, there seems to be a growing trend of neglecting our biological disposition and how that influences us from a psychological perspective. Whilst there is clearly no consensus on this subject, there is empirical evidence right across the board from neuroscience, phycology, genetics, evolutionary biology and transgender research that all support the fact that there are differences between men and women that are hard to deny. The stark contrast in strength, size and physical attributes including the hormonal effects on both male and female during puberty are clear to see.
Perception of risk, danger, security, mate selection criteria, morality, infidelity, conflict and parenting all indicate that the hand of evolution has helped to mold us into considerably different creatures in certain areas. For example, prenatal women usually produce androgen which is a steroid hormone that influences typical masculine traits like rough and tumble play, thrill-seeking behaviour, aggression and certain cognitive abilities like spatial awareness and mental rotation.
We are aware that all humans start out as female and during the prenatal development stage, the Y chromosome kick starts the masculinisation process within the body during the early stages of pregnancy. During this stage, male brains are permanently altered due to androgens whereas the female brain remain typically unaffected. There is substantial evidence that exposure to androgens during the prenatal stage influence the brain physiologically resulting in a difference in the sexes.
Let's take a closer look at some specific examples to see how male and female biology affects us from a broader perspective.
Men & Women See Things Differently
According to new scientific research published in BioMed Central, the male and female visual cortex (the area of the brain responsible for processing image) works differently. Men were found to have more sensitivity in relation to distinguishing fine detail and fast moving objects whereas women were found to have a greater awareness of colour.
Other research has confirmed that the male retina is thicker and has more magnocellular cells which are responsible for tracking the movement of objects. The female retina is thinner and has more parvocellular cells which are responsible for identifying objects & analysing texture and colour.
In the brain, there are high concentrations of the male sex hormone (androgen) receptors throughout the cerebral cortex, especially in the visual cortex which is responsible for processing images.
"Androgens are also responsible for controlling the development of neurons in the visual cortex during embryogenesis, meaning that males have 25% more of these neurons than females." - BioMed Central
Men are 50% more likely to go colour blind which is linked to a defective gene that occurs in the X chromosome which men only have one of, whereas women have two. For women, both X chromosomes would have to be defective. According to evolutionary biology, these differences can be traced back to our hunter/gatherer days where men developed a greater ability for head-on vision used for stalking prey. Women, on the other hand, developed better peripheral awareness to help with gathering food and supplies to support and protect heir young.
Men & Women Assess Risk Differently
It's been well documented that men and women have a different propensity towards risk but new research indicates that there may be many more factors at play given that testosterone is said to be a poor indicator of how one is likely to assess risk. Women are typically viewed as being level headed with the ability to weigh up multiple variants in the decision-making process whereas men tend to be more aggressive and risky based on the copious amounts of testosterone surging through our veins.
The 'Standard Domain-Specific Risk-Taking Scale' is a well known and widely used psychometric test consisting of 40 questions designed to identify attitudes towards risk.
Participants are asked to indicate the likelihood that they would engage in certain activities should they happen to find themselves in a particular situation such as:
Revealing a friend’s secret to someone else.
Driving a car without wearing a seat belt.
Having an affair with a married man/woman.
Investing 10% of your annual income in a new business venture.
Taking a skydiving class.
Riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
Thekla Morgenroth, a psychologist at the University of Exeter noticed that many of the risks that women typically have to consider were not listed in this test. Upon expanding the scope of the questions, women scored very similar results to men. This indicates that it may not be so much a case of women being inherently risk-averse right across the board, instead, perhaps it's more related to the particular context.
It's been well documented that men and women tend to have different priorities regarding career aspirations, life goals, partner selection, family planning, nesting, emotional needs, consumer habits, the list goes on. But without the proper context, it's impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from these behavioural traits beyond the stereotypes we usually come across. In this day and age, you can find research to support pretty much any claim that you can think of but that doesn't necessarily make it true. If we want a more accurate view of what's really going on we need to widen the scope for a more panoramic view as the devil is in the detail or meta-data in this case.
Men And Women Exhibit
On average men tend to be much more likely to result to physical aggression, whereas women are more likely to exhibit displays of aggression verbally. However, according to recent findings, this is down to the difference in the way male and female brains are wired to process aggression, as opposed to the more commonly held belief that this is due to increased levels of testosterone.
Men tend to have a larger and more active amygdala on the right side of the brain which is linked to negative emotion and behaviour. Women, on the other hand, tend to have a more active amygdala on the left side of the brain which is responsible for mental reaction rather than physical reaction.
New scientific evidence refutes the widely held belief that testosterone is directly responsible for aggression and risky behaviour. In a study by the Universities of Zurich and Royal Holloway in London, 120 subjects were given either testosterone or a placebo and asked to barter with colleagues for money. The intention was to see whether their levels of testosterone would be the determining factor on how aggressive and Machiavellian they were in their approach.
The results showed that the level of testosterone was a poor indicator of behaviour as there was no clear distinction, leading to the hypothesis that other factors such as social status, hierarchy and cultural norms may have much more of an impact on our behaviour.
Women Experience More
During adolescence and puberty, male testosterone levels can increase 20 fold but women tend to be in a constant state of flux due to their monthly cycle. At the start of this cycle, women can experience up to 25% growth in connections in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that's linked to memory), learning and emotion. With increased oestrogen during this stage, women can feel more socially tuned in and switched on.
During ovulation, progesterone (classified as a neurosteroid) reverses the effect of oestrogen and reduces the connections. During the last few weeks of a woman's cycle, progesterone often causes her to feel irritable and lethargic, like a form of cerebral sedation. At the end of this cycle, due to the depletion of progesterone in the brain, women will often feel emotional and even hostile. This is believed to be the reason why women's moods and overall demeanour can often change from week to week.
The Male & Female Brain
Now that we have looked at some of the more low hanging fruit, let's address the debate around the difference in the male and female brain which has much of science divided. A US team at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 men, women, boys and girls and found striking differences. The "connectome maps" reveal the differences between the male brain (seen in blue) and the female brain (orange)
Male brains appeared to be wired front to back, with few connections bridging the two hemispheres. In females, the pathways crisscrossed between left and right. These differences might explain why men, in general, tend to be better at learning and performing a single task, like cycling or navigating, whereas women are more equipped for multitasking, say the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). You can find counter arguments and statistics for every claim and it's clear that there is still so much more we don't understand about the true physiological nature of the brain.
New research conducted by Daphna Joel at Tel Aviv University in Israel claims that the assumption that there are male and female brains is false. Using brain scans of 1,400 people aged 13 to 85, Dr Joel was able to look at brain patterns across the genders. The group identified 29 brain regions that appeared to vary in size across males and females. Upon closer inspection, they concluded that less than 10% of the participants had pure male or female brains when assessed individually and brain types existed on a spectrum, rather than being binary.
However, Dr Michael Bloomfield, Clinical Research Fellow at the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre in London, said:
"It has been known for some time that there are differences between the sexes when it comes to how our bodies work and the brain is no exception."
Dr Bloomfield goes on to say that we need to be careful when drawing conclusions from the differences as "we cannot say yet that one is causing the other. Furthermore, the measure used in the study, called "connectivity", is only one aspect of how our brains are wired."
Most scientists seem to agree that there are distinguishing physiological features between men and women, however, extracting meaning from these differences is not so simple. In contrast, erroneous claims that these differences are inconsequential or non-existent defies all rationale.
When all is said and done, men and women appear to be more similar than we are different as we all share masculine and feminine traits to one extent or another. If attempts to understand the meaning in the differences are undertaken from a point of equality and understanding, rather than attempting to justify superiority over another gender, I think this will allow for more collaborative research and discussion.
We shouldn't feel the need to paint men and women as the same in order for us to be equal. Our differences should be celebrated and accepted, instead of being swept under the carpet as an antidote to sexism and prejudice. Hopefully, with more research and understanding, we can prioritise truth and healthy debate over pseudoscience and political agendas.
Keep an eye open for part 2 where we'll navigate the tricky and often elusive world of emotion and sexuality between the sexes.
References listed below:
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