It’s been ages since I’ve written anything on here, I’ve been so busy I just haven’t had the time. So here’s something to get the brain cells working again…
I’m not a scientist in the true sense of the word, although as an engineer there’s a large overlap. While engineering largely deals with non-living things (and that includes dealing with accountants), we do have to design things that are used by humans, so having an insight into human behaviour and physiology is important. The science behind human behaviour is understandably complex and difficult to garner definitive conclusions from as the human brain is the most complex single organism we know and there’s such a variety of different people. So it is not surprise that studies of aspects of behaviour can reveal contradictory results.
I’d written in another one of my blog posts (Women in Engineering) about the lack of women in engineering and what we can do about it, so the differences in gender behaviour interests me, but seems filled with conflicting views and evidence. As a father to two young children, a boy and a girl, I also observe differences close up, but obviously with a smaller sample size.
Examples of Contradictory Views
A few months ago the BBC ran a short series called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ which tried to dispel myths and assumptions about the differences between girls and boys of primary school age. It found that a lot of behaviour is based around parents, carers and teachers pigeon-holing children based on their gender in terms of expectation of their behaviour. For example, giving dolls to girls and toy cars to boys. The general conclusion was that the differences in behaviour between boys and girls was purely down to external influences (i.e. nurture) and that if adults treated boys and girls identically, then they’ll behave the same.
To demonstrate a different viewpoint, I recently came across this article in the Guardian: “A child’s gender can be detected in their speech from age five, research says”. Not only does it mention gender differences, but throws in some questions about sexuality too. Of course, these are favourite topics for the Guardian, although this article goes largely against the typical Guardian viewpoint I feel. In this article the development of speech is indicated as a differentiator of gender and sexuality.
Surely both positions can’t be correct? It is worth saying they are looking at slightly different areas of behaviour. The BBC programme is looking at higher level activities such as playing with toys, physical and mental tasks, and basically the sort of things you’ll do at school. The Guardian article is looking at lower level behaviour such as clothing preferences, approaches to play and social behaviour. But there is a big overlap, so they both can’t be right. How much of it really is nurture and how much is nature?
They say an anecdote isn’t data, and of course one example doesn’t prove a rule. However, being a parent of two school children, I do observe their friends, talk to other parents and teachers. So there is quite a lot of information about variety of children to tap into.
The Guardian article discusses the differences in speech development as an indicator, and it is something I have noticed myself. My son’s speech is quite a long way behind my daughter’s, possible a couple of years in terms of development. I’ve also noticed it with their friends, most of the girls are far more articulate than the boys at the same age. Naturally there’s quite a spread within each group, so there is always going to be an overlap.
The teachers I meet are aware of these differences too. When I remark about my son’s development, they say that’s typical for boys and they progress at a different rate from girls, and there’s nothing to worry about. These teachers would have observed hundreds of children in their careers, so I’m not going to argue with their observations. However, the BBC programme suggests that teachers often unconsciously stereotype girls and boys and treat them differently, leading to these differences. I’m not so sure as I’ve observed children before school age, and the differences in speech development have been quite clear then.
As for other types of behaviour, I also see clear difference between the genders, but not for everything. My kids have been to plenty of birthday parties, and while I tend to steer clear of the party itself (there’s only so many times I can put up with Gangnam Style blearing out of a kids’ disco), I can see how they play when I need to collect them. From the age of about 6, girls and boys tend to separate out into two groups. The boys will be running around for more raucously, being far more physical. Whereas the girls might be dancing, chatting amongst themselves, or playing less physical games. The noise levels of both groups can vary a lot though, and that really does seem to down to individuals. Nobody it telling them how to play, and they can’t pick this up from watching adults, as they aren’t going to see us old farts partying, so it is largely self-determined action.
For higher level activity, such as playing with toys and games, and others interests, I see less of a difference. Both my children love playing with Lego (to American readers: Lego never has an ‘s’ on the end!), even though the sets a often gender-steered these days. They are both keen to help me cooking in the kitchen, and take an interest in how things work. There are slight differences, my daughter does sometimes play with her doll’s house, but that isn’t so different from my son playing with action figures. However, the action figures are often doing aggressive heroic things, whereas the dolls are doing more homely tasks; so there’s some clear differences there.
I certainly avoid pigeon-holing their play and interests along gender lines, and try to expose both of them to the same things. But I’ll never force them into something they aren’t interested in, and I do see some differences, but not as many as you may expect. For example, my daughter is keen on computers, whereas my son enjoys baking (although I think it is just an excuse to eat lots of cakes); so they don’t sit in the stereotypes too much. But their style of play is quite different, and distinctively genderised. If they are both playing with Lego, she’ll make a house with realistic features with the figures doing domestic things; whereas my son will be making some mad fantasy android monster thing with weapons and special powers. I’ve certainly never steering them myself towards these styles of play, but how much of that is down to their basic nature, and how much from influences such as TV and friends?
Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is where a person feels as if their gender does not match their biological sex. So you might be born a boy, but feel like you are really a girl. Eventually people who have GID can opt to have some transitional surgery and treatment to change sex. The most famous example is former Olympic Decathlete Bruce Jenner turning into reality TV celebrity Caitlin Jenner. Turning from a respected Olympian surround by talented athletes into a reality TV star surround by talentless fame-seekers must have been psychologically difficult to deal with.
If we watched the BBC programme, we could draw the conclusion that boys and girls are the same, and their behaviour is purely down to nurture and how society expects them to behave. If this is the case, then surely GID can’t exist? How can a boy feel like he’s really a girl, when there’s no such thing as ‘female behaviour’? So even with the most gender-neutral upbringing possible would GID exist? The Guardian’s article clearly suggests GID is a thing, and when boys exhibit speech characteristics of girls, then they may have a higher chance of having GID. So where does the truth lie?
Given the evidence I’ve seen from these articles and from my own observations, boys and girls do develop at different rates with different behaviour and broad interests. However, these characteristics have a wide spread for each gender, and there is plenty of scope for movement within those spreads. It is only at the extremes do we notice unusual patterns, and this is probably where GID children fall into. Where society plays a role is in polarising those slight differences and making them large. Whereas naturally there would be a large overlap between boys and girls, the outside world forces the two apart. To get a fairer society where boys and girls can be comfortable being themselves, and not feeling they have to conform to stereotypes, we have to remove this gap and allow the overlap to occur. This will also make it easier for those who are confused over their gender identity and sexuality and allow them to have self-confidence and encourage tolerance from others.
I also think there’s a long way to go in the science of gender and how it relates to behaviour and mental attributes. There’s too many contradictory conclusions out there, and politics often pollutes the research. The media also needs to improve in terms of reporting, and not let subjective views of journalists get in the way of objective reporting. It would be good to have science reporters with an actual background in the subject too.