Gender dimensions

August 6th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

When I think about gender issues, I always try to touch base with four different basic dimensions. I find that it’s very easy to become lost in one of them, so I consider it a good practise to keep coming back to all four of them. In this post, I’ll simply describe the four different dimensions I work with.

I. Culture

One important aspect of culture is that men and women have different value spheres, from having had different gender roles for thousands of years (quite possibly innate factors affect these values spheres as well):

  • Female value sphere: nurture, create deep relationships (needed for children, and to make sure the father doesn’t leave), focus on raising children, keeping the children and yourself safe.
  • Male value sphere: take risks, be disposable, cooperate in a “shallow” way with other men to get things done, compete with other men to be successful.

Gender roles thus have a strong culturally constructed component, that cannot be ignored.

II. Society

Society’s institutions were created by men, as feminists often point out. But these institutions were also created to be staffed by men – disposable men as it were – which also had consequences (men being killed or hurt, or men having to spend most of their lives away from their families). If we want to reform these institutions, one way may be to bring in perspectives from the female value sphere (a process that started when women first entered the workforce, but which still has some way to go). We also need to remove the structures that keep men disposable, a process that probably could be helped by applying some of the female value sphere to men as well.

III. Innate factors

Modern research shows us that gender roles and gender patterns are influence in a very real way by brain differences, hormonal differences and body differences (such as women giving birth and breast feeding, while men have superior upper body strength).

While body differences and hormonal differences have been accepted for a long time, brain differences are more controversial. However, research has accelerated during the past couple of decades, and we now have ample proof of these differences:

IV. Inner psychology

Examples of this dimension include:

  • How do women feel knowing that most men have the physical strength needed to overpower them?
  • How do men feel about becoming a man, when manhood means disposability?

How many dysfunctions in either gender are related to these facts?


Gender issues cut across disciplines, and any intelligent discussion around gender needs to include at least these four dimensions.


17 Responses to “Gender dimensions”

  1. Chris Marshall Says:

    I applaud the way you try to map out the assumptions and touch points that guide your thinking. That’s a very powerful discipline to have.

    Your “innate factors” point reminded me of something.

    Summers (the president of Harvard) a few years ago famously wondered if women might not be as good at math as men are, and took a lot of heat for so doing.

    It occurs to me that, in any given subject someone might study, people can have quite different tripping points (ideas that their minds need to see laid out in great detail before they can move past them), and areas that can be covered quickly with minimal practice required to “get it”. Someone who is a natural at a given subject would have fewer tripping points relative to the average person.

    You might think that given that, the focus of education would be on identifying as many of the different tripping points among the population as possible, writing articles that discussed those tripping points in great detail, discovering each student’s personal tripping points and guiding every given student toward the articles addressing their personal points.

    While I do think we are moving in that direction, we have only recently started. I suspect that the tripping point approach to education is a vast untouched territory filled with low hanging fruit.

    For the longest time, the “teachers” people encounter at a higher level in collage (professors), rather than trying to discover the tripping points at large in their student populations, and guiding their students past them, try to discover the students that are naturally talented at their subjects by taking them through a path similar to the ones they went down (in other words, past their own particular tripping points they encountered first hand) and encouraging the students that make rapid progress to become their graduate students. In other words, they view the classroom as a filter to discover the really talented students so they can recruit them to further their research, instead of as an opportunity to push the bulk of their students as far as they can go.

    Now, back to Summers. He was trying to explain a lack of women at the highest levels of achievement in math and science. Relatively few people make it much past one pass through calculus in their collage careers. Many people who try to get past that (because they have the interest, and some talent, but not great talent) stop when they hit some of their harder tripping points, and their teachers don’t see their tripping points for what they are, or simply have no interest in trying to help.

    I wonder if the most talented women in math don’t simply have different tripping points than the most talented men in math, and if a serious effort toward uncovering those might not succeed.

  2. Gilesy Says:

    LOL Pelle did I not just lecture you on the difference between innate & biological? :P

    The only reason I bring this up again is cos the references provided are largely biological – they are largely not saying whether they got to those biological differences via innate factors (genes, gene expression, hormonal differences etc etc etc) or social factors (extra practice as maths due to assumption of being better = better developed and expanded parietal area).

    BUUUUUUUUT I do agree with your premise so thought I’d hand out some references for everyone that do deal with INNATE differences (or at least as far along that spectrum as possible).

    Quoted from Baron-Cohen (1999) on prenatal sex differences – see pages 26 onwards

    “Evidence that the male and female brain are determined prenatally

    Post conception, the embryo undergoes cell differentiation. In a male embryo, the XY genotype controls the growth of testes, and at approximately 8 weeks gestational age, the testes are not only formed but release bursts of testosterone. Testosterone has frequently been proposed to have a causal effect on subsequent foetal brain development, such that by birth, clear sex differences are evident. In rats, the ‘masculinizing’ effects are confined to a critical or sensitive period of testosterone release, around gestational day 17 and postnatal days 8-10 (Rhees, Shryne, and Gorski, 1990). In humans, at birth, female babies attend for longer to social stimuli, such as faces and voices, whilst male babies will attend for longer to non-social, spatial stimuli, such as mobiles (Goodenough, 1957; Eibl-Ebelsfeldt, 1989; McGuiness and Pribam, 1979). Levels of prenatal testosterone (as
    assessed during amniocentesis) predict spatial ability at follow-up at age 7 (Grimshaw, Sitarenios, and Finegan, 1995/6). One suggestion is that the release of testosterone at this stage of foetal life may determine aspects of brain development, leading to either the male or female brain type.”

    It goes on to cover biologically different starting points in terms of region sizes (both absolute and relative dimensions), make-ups of various types of neurons etc etc all with evidence and references.

    Now definately don’t agree with everything this guy says (hes very innate-heavy on everything *sigh* so I used to deconstruct some of his bollocks for fun), but hes put easily accessed innate difference evidence in one space thats entirely accessable if need be.

    As science advances, the dichtomony of Male vs Female brain will surely subside with discoveries of better ability predictors “Levels of prenatal TESTOSTERONE (as assessed during amniocentesis) predict spatial ability”, as men and women all fall along the spectrum of testosterone and the benefits / hiderences this may bring, this allows a far more individualistic approach to people then the rigid ‘men do this, women do that’ stuff I hear so often in the media.

    All the best,


  3. Gilesy Says:

    Oh and after my rant,

    I liked this entry quite a lot Pelle, you make some good distinctions that are required before the interaction between these dimensions can be considered.

    I’m looking forward to any additional dimensions your readers might think of

  4. Mark Davenport Says:

    Good translation, Pelle. But I’m not talking about English or Swedish. (Feel free to delete this comment.)

  5. Pelle Billing Says:

    Yes, it’s hard to tease out what is innate and what has to do with society/culture.

    I actually use Baron-Cohen’s research a lot. I used it in an article for a Swedish newspaper. But I didn’t quote it this time, I know…
    OTOH, the “biological” research isn’t useless, because if a pattern of brain differences is cross-cultural, then it is likely innate.

    Yes, the four dimensions are translated from Ken Wilber’s four quadrants :) (a k a integral theory)

  6. Gilesy Says:

    “the “biological” research isn’t useless, because if a pattern of brain differences is cross-cultural, then it is likely innate.”

    Not if similar social structures / patterns exist in other cultures – if the cultural structures and assumptions are completely different and the same biological patterns exist then yes that would be good evidence for innateness – just need a matriarchy where women fight / hunt and men take care of children as standard for instance… might take a while to find. Since matriarchies like that are extremely rare, it doesn’t mean biological evidence of ADULTS is the best substitute for finding out about innateness, when child evidence exists.

    But this being the case also doesn’t mean innate psychological differences always creating Patriarchy, cos it could be a normal reaction to differing physical attributes / reproductive strategies (the inner psychology dimension here). Interestingly a predisposition to certain psychological styles (i.e. women and a greater fear of danger) would be a evolutionary pressure from this – which I believe we talked about on a previous post :)

    Baron-Cohen is a great reference because hes in a unique position of trying to explain childhood autism – something that disproportionately affects Male infants, which is also at the smallest scale of social influence.

    Cool thanks for the Ken Wilber reference – just wiki’d him

    oh btw I take this biological stuff quite seriously cos I study neuropsychology / cognitive neuroscience which is where a lot of the evidence here is coming from.

  7. Jim Says:

    “just need a matriarchy where women fight / hunt and men take care of children as standard for instance… might take a while to find. Since matriarchies like that are extremely rare, ”

    Quite rare? No shit. In fact the patern is that socieities where women hold a lot of political ansd social power tend to be more warlike than normal, and the men do all the fighting. See my comments in the post before this one for one example of such a society, and there are others from the North America. The standard one to cite is th Five Nations – Iroquois, who were an absolute military machine, exterminating the Susquehanna and then the Huron – outright genocides in both cases – and where women held equal, if not primary, political power. Men did all the fighting.

    The underlying mechanism is that women hold power because they form the continuity of society. This renders men disposable, and frees them up to be risked in war, or in sea-faring, long distance trade, or long fishing and whaling trips. The pay-off in terms of power and material wealth for the society are obvious, and the pattern is not uncommon.

  8. Gilesy Says:

    Hi Jim,

    Fascinating, can’t wait to check a lot of that stuff out, that would be the posts on the ‘male sacrifice’ topic I assume. How did you learn about these cultures?

    Its a shame societies with exact 1st world role-reversals don’t seem to exist, means we can’t ethically test a series of specific innate-biological/social hypotheses :(

  9. Durwin Foster Says:

    Wanted to say I love your blog, and I read every post…

  10. Durwin Foster Says:

    Stopping by to say I love your blog, and read every post…

  11. Pelle Billing Says:

    I’m happy that you take this stuff seriously and go deeper when it’s needed. I want to keep on improving my accuracy so I’m thrilled when I learn from your comments (and from other commenters, I have some kickass readers). My background is that I’m an M.D. and even though I don’t practise medicine anymore it’s easy for me to grasp the theoretical distinctions you are making.

    As for the creation of patriarchy (women work in the home and men outside the home), have a look at my early posts (Culture Wars and Who Produces the Food).

    Thanks for the historical example. Very useful.

    “The underlying mechanism is that women hold power because they form the continuity of society.”

    A very good way of putting it.

  12. Jim Says:


    “Fascinating, can’t wait to check a lot of that stuff out, that would be the posts on the ‘male sacrifice’ topic I assume. How did you learn about these cultures?”

    I am interested in hisotry. I am just finishing a military career of close to 30 years and that gives me some perspective on these issues. During that career I saw women function as full citizens – combat service will come, if only in sgregated units initially.

    I began looking at women’s role as inciters and enablers of violence and found that it was a feature and not a bug of these cultures. It was, and is, coded into the mythologies and ethical systems, it was and is built into the political structures. It is a survival mechanism and it often greatly advantages one group over its competitors.

    It is systemic and no individual woman is to blame to participating in a system she didn’t construct, any more than a man is to eb blamed, as we have been blamed, for participating. A woman who benefits for men’s violence is as guilty as if she had committed the violence on her own, and in fact she is guilty also of a for of selfish cowardice as well. And anyone, woman or man, who defends it, or resists destroying its critical elements, or denies that women are complict in all this violence, is to blame.

    Pelle, I did know that you wrote columns for newspapers.

  13. Pelle Billing Says:


    I had one article published, working on a second one at the moment. First one was on Swedish feminism (what we call “state feminism” since it’s part of public policy) and the second one is about domestic violence.

  14. Jim Says:

    Pelle, I hope you and your point of view becomes part of the national conversation. One of the great things about living in a nation of the size of Sweden is that you can participate and make a difference without having to reach 1.3 billion, or 1 billion or 0.3 billion people.

  15. unomi Says:


    I am just finishing a military career of close to 30 years and that gives me some perspective on these issues.

    I thought you said you worked in education?

  16. Jim Says:

    I did, for about five years – secondary level. That ended about ten years ago when I found something that paid a salary I could live on. Before all that I was in the army on active duty for about 14 years, and since then I have been a reservist, and that is coming to an end. I was in the National Guard while I taught school. There were interesting parallels – teenagers respond a lot better to being treated like young adults rather than big, troublesome children. I was teaching French and Spanish at school during the week, and then during drills I was in a linguist battalion where I managed language maintenance and enhancement. The kids loved hearing that learning a language has more to do with drudgery and repetition than with brains; so if they were having a hard time, it was not because they were stupid.

  17. Pelle Billing Says:


    Thanks :)
    Your comments were stopped by the spam filter. I have no idea why but I’ve manually approved them now.