Whenever gender roles and gender issues are discussed, one of the most controversial questions is whether biological hardwiring affects the behavior of men and women. Are gender specific neurohormonal factors significant enough to affect the everyday behavior and choices of each sex? Are men’s and women’s brain constructed differently, or are the differences negligible or even completely absent?
There are a few different stances that people tend to adopt when discussion biology and gender issues, and unfortunately most of them are pretty polarized:
Biological determinism. This is the belief that human beings are animals who are basically controlled by instincts and hormones. Let’s forget about the higher functions of the human brain, at our core we are simply animals who are preoccupied with survival and reproduction.
Sociocultural determinism. Everything is a cultural construction, you were born as a blank slate and then your upbringing and your culture formed you into who you are today. This is a seductive stance since it gives you a very “clean” worldview of gender issues. You remove a lot of complexity by making everything culturally constructed, and that is an attractive option if you want fast results.
Paying lip-service to multiple factors. Some people pretend to take both biology and sociocultural factors into account, but it’s obvious that they have chosen sides pretty emphatically. These people will say things like:
“I believe that biology may affect human beings in some ways but it is completely out-shadowed by our upbringing and cultural programming”.
“Of course we must take culture into account, but at our core our choices are determined by biological hardwiring”.
Seeing the truths of all research fields. In my opinion this is the only defensible stance for anyone who believes that academic science is a good thing. There is undeniable research that demonstrates the importance of sociocultural programming in shaping gender roles. On the other hand, there is undeniable research that highlights the differences in brain structure and function between men and women (and how these differences affect choices and behavior). So who is right? Both are. We are biological creatures living in a culture and environment that shapes us extensively.
Pros and Cons of Acknowledging Biology
Even if we ignore the scientific findings, proof stares us in the eyes. When looking at gender roles in different cultures we see a myriad of differences and some universal features. The differences represent sociocultural factors and the universal patterns represent biological programming. This kind of simple cross-cultural overview is a direct demonstration of how culture and biology co-create the fabric of a community or a country.
Many progressives want to avoid addressing the whole issue of gender specific biological differences, since they feel that it limits constructive social reform by sowing doubts about whether change is truly possible. After all, if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes? It certainly can be, and people who want to preserve traditional gender roles often do use biology as an argument for keeping men and women trapped in very constricted life conditions.
In light of these potential downsides to acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, what are we supposed to do? How do we deal with this fairly new information that has come to us through the huge strides that science has made in the past 20 years? Do we suppress it or bring it into the gender discourse? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons…
What are the pitfalls of acknowledging biology?
- Neurohormonal differences between the sexes can be used as an argument for reverting to traditional gender stereotypes. As we just saw, this is already being done.
- Even nuanced thinkers can easily over-emphasize the influence of biology and forget about the huge importance of the sociocultural factors. This is unfortunate since we can change culture and make it more friendly for both sexes, while it’s much harder to manipulate biology.
- The research about biological differences could lead to pre-judging individuals, for example those who are looking for a job.
What are the consequences of banning research and pretending that biology doesn’t exist?
- This would be intellectually dishonest and overly controlling. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where scientists are controlled in such a way by the state!
- If we do not pursue this avenue of research, we will miss precious opportunities to develop better drugs to treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.
- Trying to change sociocultural trends while denying a key variable is likely to be unsuccessful. Paradoxically we will probably be more successful in transcending gender stereotypes if we acknowledge brain differences. If we instead perpetuate the myth that men and women have identical brains, then the reforms will automatically focus on eliminating gender roles completely, and having 50 percent men and 50 percent women at all workplaces. Such a vision is almost certainly incompatible with biology, and we shouldn’t waste time and money on trying to achieve an impossible goal.
My Own View
I believe that it’s our job to create a society where we’ve transcended gender stereotypes, and where everyone is allowed to make the choices that they want. Truly allowing each kid to play with the toys that he or she wants, and truly allowing each young adult to purse the career (or homemaker) path that he or she wants, will be a difficult challenge – but it’s nevertheless what we need to achieve.
Biology will take care of itself, and once stereotypes aren’t as dominating (their influence is already receding), gender differences tied to biology will shine through. Then and only then will we know the exact relative importance of biological differences between the sexes.