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Gender Related Behaviors: Influence of Culture & Biology

Updated on February 2, 2015

Masculinity

Throughout history, gender related behavior has been shaped by both genetic and environmental factors that either stimulate personal or social rewards or punishments. Certain physical differences between genders, such as body size and strength, have contributed to the creation of gender stereotypes. An example of this is that of males being stronger and by default; females being considered weaker. Historically males were responsible for hunting, discipline and protecting their families. Females were responsible for gathering, maintenance of family needs and child rearing (Brannon, 2010). Certain biological influences such as hormone release of estrogen or testosterone help facilitate attitudes that support these behaviors as a means of species survival (Carlson, 2010). Women have also been stereotyped as being nurturing and more “warm” than males (Brannon, 2010). At one point in time the gender role of a female was attributed to rearing and raising children as well as performing household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of family members. Males where expected to hunt, defend against threats and engage in work. Although the familial duties were shared, physiological and cognitive differences of gender influenced which duties were performed by each. As such, male behavior was expected to be assertive and aggressive whereas female behavior was expected to be submissive and passive.

Male children are taught to be physically and emotionally strong as well as to be protective of others through environmental and social conditioning. This is accomplished by males being encouraged to engage in competitive behaviors and to restrain their emotions. Certain aspects of an individual’s environment also reinforce the previously stated male expectations. Consider various toys and media targeted for young male children. Toys that are associated with violence or conflict, violent video games and even the emulation of superheroes have been shown to contribute to expressions of aggression in children and adolescence (Dowd, Singer & Wilson, 2006). These influences may promote behaviors indicative of protecting others as well as personal and social perseverance, yet they may also be a means by which to desensitize an individual to the suffering of others (Martin, 2007).

Femininity

Females are consistently exposed to toys that promote care of others, family and beauty; such as dolls, jewelry and clothing accessories. When either gender engages in play considered the norm for the other gender, social punishment is likely to occur. Whether it is casual redirection towards expected behaviors or ridicule for deviation from them, both are forms of punishment that help create the individuals gender-identity (Feldman, 2010). As a result the likelihood of aggressive and/or competitiveness expressed by males and domesticity by females may be increased. Interestingly, these gender behaviors are also supported by biology.

Studies have also shown that males exhibit a less empathetic response to emotional expression, specifically for external sources, than females (Schulte-Rüther, Markowitsch, Shah, Fink, & Piefke, 2008). Specifically, the neural activity generated during exposure to external emotional stimuli was evaluated on a “self-task” and “other task” scale. Results suggested that although there was “little difference in intensity” of emotional response to stimuli from either gender, males exhibited a more “cognitively driven” response with increased emotional distance (Schulte-Rüther, et al., 2008).

As such, the aforementioned behaviors exhibited by females seems to also be supported by biological influences. Females have been shown to exhibit a “stronger emotional resonance” to the emotional expression of others (Schulte-Rüther, et al., 2008). This likely contributes to the increased empathetic response evidenced in females. This characteristic likely also supports behaviors related to motherhood and family maintenance. Consider the stereotype or characteristic associated with mothers in a family unit. From personal experience mothers are likened to the glue holding everyone together and are consistently considered to know more. The emotional awareness of a mother may be what allows for an empathetic response to offspring. As such females exhibit an advantage when providing for the physical and emotional needs of their children. This is a major factor in childhood development and when present; supports the healthy development of the child (Feldman, 2010).

Mass Media

This suggests that this difference in gender is founded in biology, yet reinforced in social gender role expectations, just as aggression and competitiveness is for males. Behavior that supports these social standards may be reinforced by the gain of social acceptance. For example; from personal experience female children receive social and family support when emotions are expressed through crying, yet male children are instructed not to cry and toughen up. This behavior communicates a social norm in which emotional expression such as this is acceptable by females yet is unacceptable when expressed by males. Based on social learning theory; the reward of social acceptance likely reinforces females to engage in crying as a means of emotional expression and is thus socially supported. However, males expressing emotion in the same manner would likely receive punishment through resistance to their social resistance to their behavior.

As social attitudes, beliefs and ideals change the gender related roles and expectations of behavior ascribed to females and males also change. Consider the previous statement of behavior being ascribed to “females and males“. It is likely that at one point in time the structure of this would seem odd, or little used versus its counterpart of “males and females”. Yet as social standards have moved towards promoting a more equal view of gender roles and expectations, the long held patriarchal expression of males as first or dominant have faded. However, certain behaviors related to gender differences and the role definition created by them are still present and reinforced. From personal experience the most prolific and destructive reinforcement for both males and females is the conditioned perception of value placed on appearance, comfort and material acquisition in excess of meeting basic needs. An individual’s social appeal being based on the amount and quality of possessions or how they appear, promotes a social view in which an individual’s value is measured by these factors. As such an individual’s behavior and the attainment of social acceptance and validity become in part, contingent upon meeting those social values.

When considering this type of value system in which a male is viewed as having greater ability to provide material possession, they may have an advantage in meeting this social expectation. Yet what perception does this create for a female who maintains the home while relying on the income of their male partner for their personal needs? It seems likely that this may further create perceptions of inequality between both genders. Perhaps this perception also contributed to what eventually became the woman’s movement and a path towards women entering the work force, furthering their education and attaining financial independence. Although media exposure has become more androgynous, behaviors related to domesticity are still promoted in advertisements, television shows and motion pictures. As an example, consider advertisements for house cleaning products. A personal review of various commercials for bathroom and kitchen cleaning products depicted females in them three times as much as males. In addition to this, males where depicted more often in commercials related to automotive cleaning products. This example may not substantiate any application beyond personal review, yet seems to warrant further research due to its support of social norms regarding gender role expectations of behavior.

Current Social Perceptions

Current trends in gender behavior, however suggest a movement towards a more blended perception of gender behavior. Children that deviate from gender norms do not face as much ridicule as they move into adolescence. However, resistance is still present as strict expectations of gender behavior have been present for a long time. Women having careers and men being stay at home fathers has become more acceptable socially. From personal experience as a stay at home dad for a period of time, perceptions of family members reflected social expectations of behavior in their generation. The older the family member, the less accepting they were of this paradigm. Interestingly, children present in the family did not ascribe any bias or judgment regarding their mother working full time and father taking care of the home. In addition to this there has been an increase in the depictions of females in the workforce as well as depiction of males as single fathers, stay at home dads, or engaging in occupations classically associated with females such as nurses, childcare practitioner and social workers. As such, females have also engaged in behaviors and pursuits classically associated to males, such as business, construction and politics. These changes in perception allow for gender related behaviors to be more androgynous and seems supportive of creating a balance between feminine and male characteristics.

With current trends in increased acceptance of engaging cross-gender related behaviors, it is likely that this movement will continue into the future. It also seems a possibility that the shift in gender roles may swing to the other extreme in which females become perceived as the smarter sex. Studies have shown that females are engaged in secondary education with increased prevalence (Census.gov, 2013). This will likely result in females becoming more proliferate in the work force. In addition to this it may become more likely that females, due to their educated status, may eventually gain income equality with males. There seems to appear a consistent pattern throughout history of those being oppressed, moving towards equality by means of competing with the oppressor. In the classical war of the sexes, the context of it being a war dictates that there will be a losing side. In a gender context, this seems likely to be expressed as disparities in gender rights and treatment for both sides. Males currently receive higher rates of pay for the same job than females do, pay less for vehicles and service and have an easier time gaining employment (Brannon, 2010), yet females seemingly receive more preferential treatment in some areas of their lives. Examples of this can be evidenced by what some would call chivalry; holding doors, giving grand gifts, protecting females from harm right down to putting the toilet seat down.

This may seem a benefit to females yet it also perpetuates the perception that females are helpless and more in need than males. This may perpetuate the perception of inequality between genders. An individual’s beliefs affect their perceptions of others, themselves and their environment and as such, determine their respective behaviors. Any benefit or limitation applied based on gender seems to perpetuate the behavior through environmental reinforcement that created the disparity to begin with. Curiously, children do not ascribe gender roles until conditioned to do so. From personal experience, I have witnessed young girls and young boys play with each other’s toys without any bias for or from the other gender. Society and its collective perception of gender roles seem to be the dominant influences that condition gender behaviors through reinforcement and/or punishment.

Conclusions

Based on the information presented it is apparent that both genders are limited and benefited from various gender role expectations. Gender associated behaviors exhibited by either sex are deemed acceptable to social standards and are therefore reinforced through social learning. Deviation from this behavior is punished through social stigma. However, upon reflection of this information, it becomes apparent that the real issue is not equality between genders but that of balance. Both genders possess traits and behaviors that seem to balance one another. The biological and cognitive differences between genders seem to be complimentary to one another. The context of gender being one of combativeness seems to only exacerbate stereotypes and behaviors expectations. Perhaps a shift away from the focus on disparities and differences to one of strengths and how they complement each other may result in a less gender driven perspective and as such, less bias, discrimination, preferential treatment as well as less stringent behavioral expectations and role definitions.

References

Brannon, L. (2011). Gender: Psychological Perspectives. Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

Carlson, R. N. (2010). Psychology of Behavior. Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

Dowd, E. N., Singer, G. D. & Wilson, F. R. (2006). Handbook of Children, Culture and Violence. London: Sage Publications Inc.

Feldman, S. R. (2010). Child Development. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education Inc.

Martin, F. J. (2007) Children’s Attitudes toward Superheroes as a Potential Indicator of their Moral Understanding. Journal of Moral Education, 36(2), p239-250

Schulte-Rüther, M., Markowitsch, H. J., Shah, N. J., Fink, G. R., & Piefke, M. (2008). Gender Differences in Brain Networks Supporting Empathy. NeuroImage, 42(1), 393-403.

U.S Census (2013). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2013 - Detailed Tables. Retrieved on Oct 26th 2014 from http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2013/tables.html

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