EMBO l FEBS Women in Science Session Print E-mail

Monday 12 September 18:45-20:00 - Yellow Level, Room OE F2

The Nature & Nurture of Gender


Melissa Hines

Department of Social & Developmental Psychology, University of Cambridge, UK

Session chair: Gerlind Wallon DE

Are men from Mars and women from Venus?  The available evidence suggests that men and women, as well as girls and boys, are largely similar psychologically, behaviorally and neurally.  There are some average differences between the sexes, however, and these differences appear to arise from combinations of factors, some inborn, and others social or cultural. Also, gender is multi-faceted, rather than one- or even two-dimensional, and each facet of gendered behavior appears to arise from a different combination of factors, some in the realm of nature and others in the realm of nurture. For instance, children show large sex differences in their toy and activity preferences. Boys prefer rough, active play and toys like vehicles and weapons, whereas girls prefer toys like dolls and tea sets. 

Similar sex-typed play preferences are seen in non-human primates, and there is substantial evidence that prenatal exposure to testosterone influences human sex-typed toy preferences. At the same time, however, there is substantial evidence that children are socialized to choose gender appropriate toys, and that they imitate the toy preferences of others of the same sex and show increased interest in toys that they are told are for children of their own sex. 

The factors that have been found to influence the interests of girls and boys are not identical to those that influence adult sexual orientation, gender identity, or cognitive abilities that show sex differences.  Indeed, the male advantage in math performance in our society appears to be more closely linked to social and cultural factors, than are sex differences in play. The “Mars/Venus” and “Male Brain/Female Brain” perspectives are incomplete and over-emphasize inborn contributions to gender variability. 

Although it is important to understand inborn influences, the over-emphasis on nature, particularly in regard to men and women’s math and, by association, science performance, is damaging, because it lowers expectations regarding the potential of women.  This is particularly unfortunate given the growing need to attract more individuals, regardless of gender, to pursue careers in science.