Is gender a reflection of nature or has gender become naturalized?
In the 2010 review publication “Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences,” Rebecca M. Jordan-Young presents examples of changes in popular and scientific views about what it means to be female. Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Barnard College says that, contrary to popular belief, today’s ideas on feminine behavior are not “common sense,” and are not biological. These concepts have changed over time and across cultures; ideas about what makes “femaleness” reflect society.
A widely accepted idea of today is that men have a greater sexual drive than women. But not too long ago, in the Renaissance Era, the popular belief of the day in Western Europe was the complete opposite. Women were believed to be the sexually insatiable gender, while men were more able to control their desires. In fact, a man who slept with many women was considered effeminate. Such a man was lacking in basic “manly” self-control. The idea that the desire for many partners and sexual encounters is essential to masculine biology is anything but accurate.
On the career and education front, considerable changes have taken place in the past few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was believed that women were not “temperamentally” equipped for careers such as law, medicine, and dentistry. These careers involved a level of “systematizing” that women were not biologically suited for.
Statistics at the time reinforced popular belief — in 1960, 2 percent of all law degrees in the United States were awarded to women and only 1 percent of dental degrees were conferred to women. In about 40 years, these figures rose to 42 percent and 34 percent respectively, and are continuing to rise. To younger people this data is probably unremarkable, but less than a generation before, no one would have predicted these changes.
Gender stereotyping begins early, if “baby X studies” are any indication. “Baby X studies” refers to research that involves creatively manipulating the perceived sex of infants or toddlers to analyze how observers react to the children when they are labeled as “male” or “female”.
One of the best known studies involves the showing of a short film of a baby reacting to kinds of toys. The research found that when the baby was labeled as a “boy” viewers of the film saw his reactions as displaying pleasure or anger, where the “girl” was seen as displaying fear. The film involved only one baby and all viewers of the film saw the same clips — the only difference was that some viewers were told the baby was male and others were told the baby was female. Other baby X studies had similar findings; “girls” were believed to be expressing more fear or inhibition than “boys.”
“Brainstorm” poses an interesting question — does perceived gender influence what a person is believed to be capable of and what their personality is like? Is gender a reflection of biology or a reflection of society?