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Six Feminist Myths: Myth #1

A myth supported by the state.

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'Gender's a social construction'

Many feminists claim that the differences that can be observed between men's and women's behaviour are taught. They claim it's expectations from the environment that pressure boys to behave like boys and girls to behave like girls. They claim these differences remain throughout life. 'One isn't born a woman, one becomes one', said the legendary feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986).

The theory about gender as a social construction has even found political acceptance. The social democratic government at the time put it into their 2002 official government declaration. This is found in the 2002 government's statement Skr 2002/2003:140:

'Despite a long history of active work for equality, our society is still characterised by a gender power structure. Our work must in the future be given a more feminist direction. This means we must be aware of the gender power structure, that women are subordinate and men superior, and we must be prepared to change this. It also means that the government must regard masculine and feminine as 'social constructions', that is to say gender patterns created externally from birth through our upbringing, our culture, our economic frameworks, our power structures, and our political ideology.'

Anyone who studies research and science instead of political documents will however find that there are significant differences between the sexes already at birth. These genetic differences control many of the traits that are behind our daily behaviour.

What are the differences between the sexes?

A heavy name in research in this field is Simon Baron-Cohen, professor at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain. He developed the so-called 'E-S Theory' where 'E' stands for empathising and S for systemising. To be empathetic implies one binds with other human beings, one understands them and communicates well with them. Systemising means one analyses, understands, and builds systems - abstract systems, technical systems. According to the E-S Theory, people can be divided into three major groups based on how their brains work. The brain types are:

  1. The E brain which has an empathetic aptitude far greater than its ability to systemise
  2. The S brain which has an aptitude for systemising far greater than its aptitude for empathy
  3. The B brain where the two capabilities are equally developed

According to professor Baron-Cohen, the E brain is typical for women and the S brain is typical for men.1 There are individual variations and exceptions but the overall pattern is strong.

Another of the many researchers who've had an interest in the topic is Annica Dahlström, professor emerita at the department for medical chemistry and cell biology at the University of Gothenburg. She's devoted 15 years to the subject. In her book 'Gender is in the Brain' she reports on the complex chemical relationship between hormones, the brain, and other organs which both before and after birth form human beings into men and women. Even if there are individual discrepancies, Annica Dahlström says there are such things as 'typically female' and 'typically male' characteristics. For women the average is, according to Dahlström, that they:

  • Are more empathetic and caring
  • Are better at verbal communication and language
  • Detect more nuances and details with their eyes and ears
  • Are more sensitive to the moods of others and subtle signals
  • Can associate faster with information stored earlier
  • Are better at multitasking

For men on the other hand, according to Dahlström, they:

  • Are more willing to take risks and compete
  • Are better at focusing on one thing at a time
  • Are vastly superior at abstract thinking
  • Have better three-dimensional sight
  • Are more extreme (in both directions) as regards intelligence (even if average intelligence for the sexes is the same)

A third interesting researcher is Germund Hesslow, professor in neuroscience at the University of Lund. He says the differences between men and women are well documented. For example, says Hesslow, men in general have a greater ability for spatial thought and mathematical problem solving. Further, men are more aggressive and willing to take risks. Women, says Hesslow, are in general more nurturing (especially with infants) and more careful in their choice of partner. Women have more difficulty than men to consider brief sexual relationships. Hesslow also says, as does Dahlström, that men show a greater distribution in intelligence than women.2

I could go on citing researchers who have documented the differences between the sexes. But let's look at what research says about the causes of these differences.

Trained behaviour or genetic difference?

So there are differences between the sexes. But are they taught or are they genetic? The social environment of course has an influence, but there's a mountain of scientific studies that point to the very significant importance of the biological differences between the sexes. Scientific American summarised it well in an article about men's and women's brains. This is what they wrote:

'Over the past decade investigators have documented an astonishing array of structural, chemical and functional variations in the brains of males and females.'3

Let's look at a number of research projects that show that genetics is behind many of the differences between the sexes that we can observe. We can start in Sweden with Arne Müntzing, genetics scientist and professor of heredity. Already in 1976 he studied 12 week old infants who could hardly have been influenced by gender roles, and he found essential differences between the behaviour of boys and girls. Müntzing wrote: 'Boys gain early on a better grasp of spatiality, the position of bodies in relation to each other. This is probably the reason boys later on will be more interested than girls in technical constructions and mathematical problems. The girls on the other hand seek out problems with a human angle. It's not just the environment that gets a little girl to put her tin soldiers in a bed of cotton so they're comfortable and warm.'4

In 1999 doctoral student Anna Servin at the psychological institute at the University of Uppsala carried out a study of 300 infants. This was done in cooperation with researchers and doctors at Huddinge Hospital. Servin found clear behavioural differences between the sexes already at an age of nine months, differences which then increased. She writes in her thesis that it's the amount of androgens (male hormones) which determine the behaviour of a child, including things such as what toys the child wants to play with.5

This is how Anna Servin summarises the behavioural differences between boys and girls and the influence of these characteristics on the choice of toys: 'Boys generally have a better spatial aptitude, they see and understand how various constructions work and they're often more delighted with construction toys. Girls are usually better equipped verbally and have a greater interest in relationships and therefore chose toys in line with these abilities.'

Testosterone Does the Talking

Professor Richard Udry at the University of North Carolina compared the testosterone levels in female foetuses with the same people's attitudes and behaviour as adults 30 years later. He found that there's a connection between the level of testosterone in the fetal stage and the degree of masculine/feminine behaviour in one's 30s. The behaviour monitored in the adults was their attitude towards children, marriage, work, career, and their appearance.

High levels of testosterone in the fetal stage corresponded with less feminine behaviour and fewer feminine attitudes.6

Phthalates are a group of compounds that inhibit sex hormones. Eight researchers at the University of Rochester discovered that boys who in the fetal stage are exposed to phthalates will play in a less boyish way than other boys.7 Analogous with this, seven researchers at University of Cambridge have concluded that high levels of the male sex hormone testosterone during the fetal phase result later on in a more pronounced masculine behaviour in play.8

A study by researchers from the US and Great Britain concluded that the level of testosterone during the fetal stage determines how interested the child will be later on in systemising. The higher the level of testosterone, the greater the interest in systemising.9 A fourth research report shows that girls suffering from CAH Disorder (unnaturally high levels of male hormone testosterone) will play with construction and transportation toys more than other girls. In addition, they play in a tougher and more aggressive way.10 (Many researchers call this somewhat tougher boyish playing style 'rough and tumble play'.)

We move on. Already at a very early age, boys are more interested in mechanical objects than girls whilst girls are more interested in faces. A research project showed that one year old girls spent more time than boys of the same age looking at their mothers' faces. When the one year olds were shown films, the girls looked a longer time than the boys at the films that showed a face, whilst the boys looked longer than the girls at films that showed automobiles.11

Could these one year olds have possibly been influenced by the expectations of the world around them as regards gender roles? In order to investigate that, these researchers went on and conducted a similar study of children only one day old. The infants could choose between looking at a woman's face or a mechanical mobile which in its colour, size, and form brought the face to mind. Results showed that the boy babies devoted most of their time to the mobile whilst the girl babies devoted most of their time to the face.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge also found that twelve month old girls have a more empathetic response to other people's problems than boys of the same age.12

Once upon a time the female hormone diethylstilbestrol was used to treat women who'd had repeated miscarriages. This made interesting research projects possible. Amongst other things it was shown that boys born of women who've been given the above mentioned treatment (and in other words been given female hormones) demonstrate a more 'female', empathetic behaviour. For example, they showed a greater interest in playing with dolls than other boys.13

Other research has been conducted on boy babies born with the deformity IHH, meaning their testicles are very small and therefore produce a lot less testosterone than normally. Research showed that these boys were poorer at spatial forms of systemising than other boys. In addition there are boy babies born with AI Syndrome, a condition meaning the boys aren't receptive to androgens (male sex hormones). They too were poorer at spatial systemising. At the same time, girls born with the diagnosis CAH Disorder, which as mentioned results in abnormally high levels of (male) androgens, are more clever at spatial systemising than other girls.14

There's also a research project that shows that the level of testosterone determines the level of economic risk-taking in adults. Amongst other things, the researchers established that women who choose a career in finance have higher levels of testosterone than other women.15

The Swedish periodical Illustrerad Vetenskap (Science Illustrated) wrote recently:16

'New research shows that men have 6.5 times as much brain gray matter as women whilst women have ten times as much brain white matter as men. This can explain why men are often better at, for example, mathematics whilst women are better at languages.'

Homo sapiens is an animal

Studies of the world of animals are interesting since animals can hardly be influenced by human gender roles and social norms. If nature created the animals so that the sexes differ for biological reasons, why should homo sapiens be an exception? Following are a few interesting research projects with animals:

One study used a number of apes who were given a number of toys. They were amongst others rag dolls, lorries, and a few gender-neutral toys such as picture books. The researchers found that the males spent more time playing with the 'boyish' toys than the females, whilst the females spent more time with the 'girlish' toys. The sexes spent the same time with their picture books and the other gender-neutral toys.17

Another project exposed female ape foetuses to androgens (male sex hormones). These female apes later showed a more manly playing behaviour, the so-called 'rough and tumble play', than other females.18

A third research project conducted by a third research group gave sticks as toys to apes. They found that the females in a very clear way played with the sticks as if they were dolls, something the males did to a much lesser extent.19

In a fourth project, researchers gave two types of toys to the apes - vehicles with wheels and plush toys. The males demonstrated a strong and persistent interest in the vehicles whilst the females didn't show any preference for either.20

A fifth study of apes showed that the males to a greater extent picked up cars from the ground whilst females to a greater extent picked up dolls.21

Experiments have also been conducted on rats. Females who were injected with testosterone at birth learned faster how to navigate through labyrinths than other females. They also achieved a higher final proficiency in this than the females that didn't get the male hormone. The labyrinths tested spatial aptitudes.22

In conclusion, one can ascertain that the claim that 'gender is a social construction' is a myth. Sorry if I upset you in your heavenly peace, Simon de Beauvoir, but you were wrong. You're born to be a woman!

Which gender has genius?

Before ending this chapter, I'd like to touch on a genetic difference between the sexes which bears greatly on the equality debate. As mentioned, men and women have the same average intelligence, but intelligence is more disperse with men. This means that there are more dolts and geniuses amongst the men, whilst the women are gathered more at the middle of the scale.

The spread can be thought to be of little interest from an equality point of view - for isn't the important thing that the average intelligence of the sexes is the same? But consider that there are many situations where focus is completely on the extremes and particularly on the high extreme - the geniuses. The greater spread of men connotes with merciless mathematical logic that there are more male geniuses than female geniuses. What does this mean for the gender makeup, for example, of Nobel Prize laureates?

From a purely statistical viewpoint it's in other words natural to have more male laureates in the areas where there are greater demands on intelligence. This has also been pointed out in articles by, amongst others, Annica Dahlström23 and Germund Hesslow,24 which in turn provoked violent responses. But reality is as it is, regardless of how one feels about it.

That women are compensated by having fewer dolts in their midst - yes, this isn't seen so often in the media because the dolts aren't often in the spotlight. But this possibly contributes to the fact that there are fewer women than men in the lowest groups in society such as prison inmates and the homeless.

Copyright © Pär Ström/Stiftelsen Den Nya Välfärden. Translation copyright © Rixstep. All rights reserved.

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