Three Theoretical Approaches to Gender

"There is nothing so practical as a good theory."
-- Kurt Lewin, social psychologist

Kevin and  Carlene are 11-year old twins. Carlene is more articulate than Kevin, and she tends to think more synthetic, creative, and integrative ways. Kevin is better at solving analytic problems, especially mathematical ones. He also has more developed muscles, although both he and Carlene spend equal time in athletics. How do you explain the differences in these twins? Your response reflects your implicit theory of gender:

1. Biological Influences

This was the first attempt to explain the general differences between men and women. This approach maintains that biological characteristics of the sexes are the basis of gender differences -- the X and Y chromosomes and hormonal activities influence a range of individual qualities from body features to thinking to motor skills. Although this theory has been overshadowed recently by the theory of socialization, there is still much research that demonstrates some biological influences on human behavior. 

Most males have an XY chromosome. They inherit the X chromosome from the mother and the Y chromosome from their father. Most females have an XX chromosome structure because they inherit an X chromosome from each parent.  In 1996, geneticists reported evidence that several genes controlling intelligence are located only on X chromosomes (Tanouye). This implies that the genetic aspects of males' intelligence is inherited from their mothers, whereas families may inherit their genetic intelligence from either or both parents. Genetic researchers have also reported that the primary gene responsible for social skills is active only on the X chromosome (Langreth, 1997). This may explain why women are generally more adept and comfortable than men in social situations.

A second focus of biological theories is the role of hormonal activity in shaping sex-related behaviors. Sex hormones affect development of the brain as well as the body.  For instance, estrogen, causes women's bodies to produce "good" cholesterol and boosts the immune system. The men who have a higher level of the male sex hormone, testosterone, have been linked to jockeying for power, attempts to dominate others, and physical expressions of anger (Schwartz & Cellini, 1995).

A third focus of biological theories is brain structure and development. Research indicates that, although men and women use both lobes of the brain, each sex tends to specialize in one. Men generally have greater development of the left lobe of the brain, which controls linear, conventionally logical thought, sequential information, and abstract, analytical thinking. Women tend to specialize in the right lob which tends to promote imaginative and artistic activity, holistic and intuitive thinking, and some visual and spatial tasks. Research indicates that women tend to use both sides of their brain to do language tasks, whereas men are more likely to use only the left side of their brains. Further, women's brains do not have to work as hard as men's brains to figure out others' emotions (Begley, 1995).

Linking the two lobes of the brain is a bundle of nerves and connecting tissues called the corpus callosum. Women generally have greater ability to use this structure and to access the distinct capacities of both lobes. A recent report ("Men Use Half a Brain to Listen," 2000) shows that men used mostly the left lobes of their brains when listening, whereas women used both lobes to listen.

Although tempting to use biological differences to explain gender differences, one researcher, M. Hines (1992) cautions that the splenium (a fold of tissue found within the corpus callosum) changes as a result of experience, which implies that we can develop it by just using it.

Research on brain development also suggests that there maybe differences between the brains of heterosexuals and gays. The National Academy of Science (Elias, 1992) reports that sexual orientation may be strongly influenced by biology. The anterior commissure, a band of fibers in the brain connecting the brain lobes, is significantly larger in gay men than in heterosexual men or women.

2. Interpersonal Influences

There are several major theoretical views which have emerged to explain how individuals become gendered:

a. Psychodynamic theory emphasizes interpersonal relationships within the family that affect a child's sense of identity, particularly his or her gender.

Originally advanced by Sigmund Freud (1957), this theory focuses on family and psychic dynamics that influence individuals' development of gender identity.  The objects-relations theory is one of the most widely endorsed branches of psychodynamic perspective. This theory claims that relationships are central to the development of human personality, and specifically gender identity. This theory states that early relationships are the primary basis of our sense of identity. The theory postulates that this early relationship is the most fundamental influence on how an infant comes to define him or herself and how he or she understands interactions with others.

Because boys are primarily raised by their mothers, how do they formulate a masculine gender identity? According to this theory, boys must differentiate himself from his mother and declare himself unlike her.  The idea that a boy must renounce his mother to establish masculine identity underlies the puberty rites of many cultures.

b. Psychological theories stress learning and role modeling between children and a variety of other people, including parents.

The psychological theories of gender development highlight the role of communication on gender through individual learning and cognitive development.

The Social Learning Theory (Mischel, 1966) claims that individuals learn to be masculine and feminine (among other things) through observation, experimentation, and responses from others.  Rather than biological sex, this theory argues that children learn gender by imitating others.  According to Mark Breeklove, a behavioral endocrinologist, "We're born with predispositions, but it's society that amplifies them, exaggerates them" (Blum, 1998).

Social learning theory views children as passive learners who absorb a gender identity in response to external stimuli such as rewards and punishments from parents and other significant people.

c. Cognitive Development Theory assumes that children play active rather than passive roles in their identity development.  Researches claim children use others to define themselves because they are motivated by an internal desire to be competent, which includes knowing how to be masculine or feminine in western culture. Central to this theory (Kolberg, Gilligan, and Piaget), children are believed to go through several stages of development. From birth until about 24-30 months, they search for labels to apply to themselves.  A key point in their development is by the age of 3 or earlier when a child develops gender constancy (Campbell, 1993) which is the sense that their gender will not change. At this age, boys and girls now develop themselves to identifying behaviors and attitudes others consider to be masculine or feminine.

Carol Gilligan and her colleagues theorized that most females are socialized to values connections with others, to communicate care and responsiveness, and to preserve relationships. According to Kohlberg, males are more likely to value autonomy and to communicate ways that preserve their independence from others.

3. Cultural Influences

Scholars in this field do not dispute biological and psychological factors but assume that they are qualified by the larger influence of culture.

There are many examples of cultures that have different views of gender than those in the United States (north European). For example, Tahitian men tend to be gentle, mild tempered, and non-aggressive, and it is entirely acceptable for them to cry, show fear, and express pain. Further evidence of the cultural nature of gender comes from a classic study conducted by Beatrice Whiting and Carolyn Edwards (1973). They investigated gender identities in children from3 to 11 years olds in three cultures. They found that the nurturing inclinations and skills we associate with femininity are taught to whomever a society labels caregivers.

Native American tribes offer another cultural construction of gender. Prior to contact with Western Europeans, many of the Native American groups had long-established matrilineal systems of inheritance, property ownership, and social status. These tribes were not necessarily matriarchal (in which females have greater power than males) but they were matrilineal because lines of kinship were traces through females, not males.

What research has shown is that although both sexes can nurture and be aggressive, it is the culture which encourages or discourages these qualities in children of each sex.

Standpoint theory (Collins 1986): focuses on how gender, race, and class influence the circumstances of individual's lives, especially their positions in society and the kinds of experiences those positions foster.  According to the standpoint theory, different social groups like women and men develop particular skills, attitudes, ways of thinking and understandings of life as a result of their standpoint within society. Patricia Hill Collins (1986) uses standpoint theory to show that Black women scholars have special insights into Western culture because of their dual standpoints as members of a minority group (African Americans) and members of  majority institutions (higher education).

Another application of standpoint logic comes from Sara Ruddick's study of mothers. She claims that the demands of their role  as lead mothers develop what she calls "maternal thinking."  Ruddick argues that we often assume maternal thinking is an instinct that comes naturally to women, but instead is a set of attitudes and behaviors that arise out of women's location in domestic, caregiving roles.  Alison Bailey (1994) also found that ethnicity also shapes perspectives on mothering.

Excerpted from Gendered Lives, Julia T. Wood, chapter 2