There are in fact real and measureable differences between women and men as groups in things like emotions, empathy, spatial ability, physical activity level, violence, and interests that are documented at a very young age. Sociobiologists have also documented many differences across species. The question is, are these differences determined by biology, or are they socially constructed?
In order to answer this question, I wish to first define the terms “biological determinism” and “social constructionism.” Biological determinism is exactly that: the belief that biology determines such characteristics as behavior, ability, likes, dislikes, etc. Biological determinism is the theory behind the phrase: “boys will be boys.” This phrase is associated with “boyish” behavioral characteristics, which we can all easily identify, that are believed to be essential and natural in boys.
Social constructionism, on the other hand, is the theory that social identifiers, like race and gender, among others, are created by society rather than biology. Many argue that social constructionism is a much stronger force in shaping behavior and other social characteristics. Though social constructionists do have differing opinions on the influence of society or biology over male/female characteristics, a popular opinion is that though there are some innate biological differences between men and women, society is overwhelmingly more influential in the long term.
One of the ways we can see how society creates differences between men and women is the way we are socialized at birth. Research has been done that suggests that although there are small differences between men and women, the way parents interact with their babies and children can exacerbate those differences (Eliot 2009). It may make sense to say that because there are such common traits associated with men and women that are true for many people, that biology must be the answer as to why these differences exist. However, correlation does not imply causation. Just because girls tend to have certain traits and boys tend to have certain traits does not prove that these differences are based in biology.
It is also important to note that although some differences have been found between baby boys and girls, it is hard to understand what these differences even mean. For example, boys do on average have larger heads than girls, but it is unclear how or if brain size actually has any real effect on intelligence and mental ability (Eliot 2009). Some differences that researchers who also believe in social constructionism have found to be accurate include: size, Apgar score, and neurological maturity (Eliot 2009).
When discussing biology versus social constructionist theories on differences between men and women, it is incredibly important to examine the methodology used in many of these research studies. For example, one study produced results that argued that girls are innately more people oriented than boys. The study had extremely flawed methodology. In order to come their conclusion, researchers had newborn babies interact with a human face as well as a colorful mobile toy. The boy babies were recorded as having spent more time staring at the mobile than the human face, while the girl babies were recorded as being more receptive to the human face spending more time on the human than on the mobile (Eliot 2009). The problem with this study is that the analyst interacting with and providing visual stimulation for the babies was not blind to the baby's sex. It is a well known fact that when people know the sex of a baby, they interact with it very differently. People are often more animated with girl babies than they are with boy babies. Therefore, it is not a stretch to suggest that the human who participated in the study as a visual stimulant may have acted differently based on the sex of the baby, which could effect the outcomes of the study. If the researcher knew that the baby they were holding was a girl or a boy, it is likely that they would act differently and thus the data cannot be conclusive and suggest innate differences between baby boys and girls. The amount of time the baby boys and baby girls spent looking at either visual stimulant could very well be shaped by society due the ways in which people interact differently with babies based upon their sex. This study shows how important it is to be careful when attributing biological origin to something that is in fact very much influenced by society.
When researchers critically examine commonly held characteristics that are often believed to be based in biology, often times we can easily see the ways in which society has a direct influence in these outcomes. One example of this is a study assessing the ways in which parents perceive their children’s physical ability differently based on whether or not their child is a boy or a girl. Researchers asked parents to estimate the level of slope their eleven-month-old babies could successfully descend. Results did not show any real difference in the athletic ability of the two sexes; the interesting result was in the ways in which parents estimated their child’s ability to descend the slope. Mothers of baby girls under estimated their ability by an average of nine degrees. Mothers who had baby boys only underestimated their baby’s ability by an average of one degree (Eliot 2009). Lise Eliot, an author who applies a social constructionist approach, uses this study as an example of the ways preconceived notions about varying abilities between the sexes alters the expectations we have for our children.
This expectation has real repercussions. If parents believe their daughters to be less physically capable than their sons are, than they are less likely to enroll girls in athletic extracurricular activities. This widens the gap between athletic ability, but it is not based upon a biological athleticism boys possess. Rather, it reflects the ways in which boys are encouraged to pursue athletics based off of the commonly held belief that boys are innately more athletic and enjoy athletics more. Once again, it is easy to see the numbers of boys involved in sports and argue that boys are innately drawn to athletics more. When we consider the possibility that society may have some influence over who pursues athletics, we are able to see the ways in which these differences are based more in society than pure biology. This does not extend merely to athletics, but has large implications for how we normalize dangerous behaviors, like violence or aggression, based on gendered expectations that are wrongly perceived to be biological.
Even real and physical differences can be attributed to more social constructionist theories when we operate outside of the strict framework of absolute biological determinism. For example, a measurable difference between men and women is that the ratio of gray to white matter is larger in women than in men (Spanier and Horowitz 2011). Initially used as evidence of biological sex differences being absolutely hard wired, researchers have found that experience and behavior can actually change the structure of the brain. It is extremely critical that whether we are scientists or readers of science, we are cautious about how we make conclusions and whether or not we are considering all possible causes before doing so.
Sociobiology as a field has come under a lot of legitimate scrutiny for its methodology. Many critics of sociobiology take issue with the fact that sociobiologists draw a lot of their conclusions from nonhuman animal behavior using human ideas of relationships and apply them to animal interactions. In the continued quest to find a gene for monogamy, we can see more examples of flawed science in the search for biological origins of highly politicized and gendered institutions. For example, in Angela Willey and Sara Giordano’s piece, “’Why Do Voles Fall in Love?’: Sexual Dimorphism in Monogamy Research”, the authors utilize a feminist lens to critique the ways in which sociobiologists make claims about the naturalness of human behavior via flawed methodology in nonhuman animal studies. In this particular study, researchers used arbitrary definitions of monogamy (whether male voles spent more time with a previously bonded female vole or a newly introduced female vole) to argue that voles are in fact monogamous (Willey and Giordano 2011). The first obvious critique of this study was the researchers' definition of monogamy. The researchers used nearness of the male vole to the female vole to define monogamy. They even used language like “husband” and “wife” to describe the relationships between voles, which is terminology that can really only be attributed to humans, as marriage itself is a social construction.
The researchers that conducted this study applied their human understanding of monogamy to draw conclusions about animal relationships. After they (through flawed methodology) concluded that voles do in fact have a biological imperative for monogamy, the researchers were able to send a very strong message about difference. Scientists are often given a high level of legitimacy, and many people are unlikely to question scientific conclusions. However, these scientists used flawed methodology to make conclusions about the ways in which animals are determined to act, which in turn implicates our thoughts about how human behavior is natural and biologically determined.
When we apply a critical lens to the conversation about difference, we see that social constructionism, rather than biological determinism, is a more solid cause for many differences between men and women than pure biology. It is important that we utilize an understanding of social constructionism to question scientific conclusions about difference, though it is just as likely that the conversation is not dichotomous; it is very possible that biology and social constructionism both play a hand in the development of behavior. It is just a matter of how much, and at what period of time.
Written by Marisa B.
Written by Marisa B.
Eliot, Lise. "Under the Pink or Blue Blankie." In Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot, 55-102. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
Spanier, Bonnie. "Looking for Difference." In Gender and the Science of Difference: Cultural Politics of Contemporary Science and Medicine. Ed. Jessica Horowitz, 43-67. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2011.