Gender stereotypes are pervasive, yes but where do they come from? The knee-jerk answer that people give to this question is ‘Society’. As you’ll figure out in the article, there’s more to the story.
Sam and Elena were siblings. Sam was 7 and his sister Elena was 5. They got along well except for some minor quarrels that erupted every now and then.
For instance, Sam had this habit of dismembering Elena’s dolls and teddy bears, leaving her in tears. He did the same to his own toys too. His room had become a junkyard of broken cars and guns.
His parents were fed up with his behaviour and warned him that they wouldn’t buy him any more toys if didn’t stop breaking them. He just couldn’t resist the temptation. His sister never understood his impulse.
Socialization theory and evolutionary theory
Before the advent of evolutionary psychology, which holds that human behavior is shaped by natural and sexual selection, it was believed that people act the way they do mainly because of how they were socialized early on in their lives.
When it came to gender differences in behaviour, the idea was that it was the parents, the family, and other members of society who influenced boys and girls to behave the way they did in stereotypical ways.
According to this theory, we’re born as clean slates waiting to be written upon by society and if society doesn’t reinforce these stereotypes they’d likely disappear.
Evolutionary psychology, however, holds that such stereotypical behaviour is rooted in evolution and biology and that environmental factors can only influence the degree of expression of such behaviours but they don’t necessarily create these behaviours.
In other words, men and women are born with some innate predispositions that can be further shaped or even overridden by environmental factors.
The problem with socialization theory is that it doesn’t explain why these ‘stereotypes’ are universal and the fact that sex differences in behaviour emerge early on in life- before social conditioning can take effect.
Evolution and gender stereotypes
Ancestral men were predominantly hunters while ancestral women were predominantly gatherers. For men to be reproductively successful, they needed to be good at hunting and they needed to possess the skills associated with it such as good spatial ability and a strong upper body for throwing spears, etc. and fighting enemies.
For women to be reproductively successful, they needed to be excellent nurturers. They needed to bond well with fellow women so that they could take good care of the infants together and they also needed to bond well with their own infants in order to understand their emotional and physical needs.
This meant requiring good language and communication skills and also a good ability to read facial expressions and body language.
They also needed to have sharp smelling and tasting abilities so as to make sure they avoided gathering poisonous fruits, seeds, and berries, thereby protecting themselves, their infants, and their family members from food poisoning.
Over evolutionary time, men and women who had these skills and abilities successfully passed on these traits to succeeding generations resulting in an increase of these traits in the population.
Emergence of sex-typical behaviour in early childhood
As mentioned earlier, boys and girls show a preference for ‘stereotypical’ behaviours from early childhood. They’re evolved to ‘practice’ these behaviours early on so that they become good at it once they reach reproductive age.
In short, boys are interested in things and how they work while girls are interested in people and relationships.
Boys like superman, batman, and other action figures who are great at defeating enemies and when engaged in play they fantasize about being these superheroes. Girls like dolls and teddy bears and nurture and care for them.
Boys generally like games that sharpen their skills of throwing, hitting, kicking, and manipulating objects while girls generally like activities and games that allow them to bond with other people.
For example, boys play games like “Robber Police” where they take up the roles of robbers and policemen, chasing and catching each other while girls play games like “Teacher Teacher” where they take up the role of a teacher handling a class of kids, often imaginary kids.
As a child, I saw my sister and other female cousins play for hours being teachers and students in an imaginary class with a bunch of imaginary kids.
A recent study showed that infants as young as 9 months old prefer toys typed to their gender.1 When 1st and 2nd graders in another study were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, boys indicated a total of 18 different occupations, ‘football player’ and ‘policeman’ being the most common.
On the other hand, in the same study, girls indicated only 8 occupations, ‘nurse’ and ‘teacher’ being the most frequent.2When boys break toys they want to understand how these toys work. They will even attempt to reassemble the toys or make new ones themselves.
I myself tried to make my own car numerous times in childhood but failed every time. Eventually, I was content with moving an empty cardboard box with a long string pretending it was a car. This was the most functional car I could make myself.
Boys also compete with each other building tall buildings while girls, when they build things, emphasize more on the imaginary people living in those houses.3
It’s common knowledge that girls are better at reading body language and facial expressions. This ability also seems to develop early in girls. A meta-analysis showed that females have an advantage in reading facial expressions even as children.4
Role of hormones
Numerous studies have consistently shown that gonadal hormones during early development have an influence on sex-typical behaviours in children. This influence has been found to be the strongest on childhood play behaviour and sexual orientation.5
There’s a rare genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) in which a mutation results in the masculinization of the brain of a person born as a female due to the overproduction of male hormones during development in the womb.
A study published in 2002 showed that girls with this condition played more with masculine toys (such as constructional toys) even when alone, without any influence from parents.6 So much for the socialization theory.
- City University. (2016, July 15). Infants prefer toys typed to their gender, says study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160715114739.htm
- Looft, W. R. (1971). Sex differences in the expression of vocational aspirations by elementary school children. Developmental Psychology, 5(2), 366.
- Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2016). Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps: How to spot the differences in the way men & women think. Hachette UK.
- McClure, E. B. (2000). A meta-analytic review of sex differences in facial expression processing and their development in infants, children, and adolescents.
- Collaer, M. L., & Hines, M. (1995). Human behavioral sex differences: a role for gonadal hormones during early development?. Psychological bulletin, 118(1), 55.
- Nordenström, A., Servin, A., Bohlin, G., Larsson, A., & Wedell, A. (2002). Sex-typed toy play behavior correlates with the degree of prenatal androgen exposure assessed by CYP21 genotype in girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 87(11), 5119-5124.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.