Gender Roles

Gender Roles the Result of Biological
or Psychological Influences an Evaluation.

By Helen Denney-Stone

This essay will show how inherited biological genes play a part in the developing child and how hormones, in particular, those associated to the sex chromosomes, affect the child in such a way as to influence the gender role that the individual will display. Evidence will be given to explain how these androgens in particular testosterone cause behavioural differences in male and females. In rebuttal to the above argument the social, cultural and familial influences will be discussed and evidence given to show how these factors are also a cause of the behaviour of the individual and their gender roles.

At conception the child inherits either an X or Y chromosome from the farther, this determines the sex of the child and distinguishes the male (XY) from the female (XX), this is the child’s biological identity. Every cell therefore in the human body is marked with this male or female identity. (Shaffer & Kipp). It has been shown by children who have sex chromosome disorders, such as additional X chromosomes, that they are affected intellectually and that development of the certain areas of the brain is altered, thus showing a link between brain structure and the sex genes. (Berk 8th) Once the gonads in the fetus form it is the presence, or not, of this Y chromosome that determines the development of testes, and the resultant release of hormones. (Shaffer & Kip) It is these hormones which regulate sexual development and growth, they affect brain development and neural activity, all this is occurring whilst in utero before there can be any notable, social or cultural influences.

Additional support showing that these hormones have significant biological influences on development and the future gender role, was found through the study of children who were either exposed to the incorrect hormones during pregnancy or those children found with genetic defects that cause the wrong amount of hormones to be produced by the body. In both cases too high a level of the male hormone, testosterone, was present in the fetus resulting in androgenized females some of whom had external genitalia similar to that of the male whilst still having female internal organs and XX chromosomes. Several of these females were studied, they had the external genitalia removed and were raised as girls. The study showed that even though their gender identity was female and they were raised as girls with strongly encouraged stereotypical female role play, a large proportion of these androgenized girls still preferred to play with boy’s toys and preferred playing with the boys instead of their own sex further it was found that when they became adults a high proportion described themselves as homosexual or bisexual. (Shaffer & Kipp) This study shows a firm link between the hormone testosterone and the subsequent male gender role play being biologically dominated and not psychologically influenced as these girls had been psychological influenced towards female play. Hines (2003) also found that even variations within a normal range in prenatal androgen exposure was linked to the behaviour in girls and their gender role.(Berk)

Genetic biological differences between the sexes account for boys being stronger, taller, more active and often more aggressive than the girls and these physical differences contribute to the different physical and mental activities, their behaviour and the roles they play.

However in contrast it should be noted that Gottlieb (2000,2003) and Rutter (2006) have explained that the relationship between genes and environment is bidirectional suggesting that whilst inherited genes affect children’s  behaviour and experience, experience and behaviour also affects gene expression and can trigger gene activity, that environmental factors can stimulate the release of hormones and therefore affect

behaviour (Berk). Cognitive neuroscience has also shown that although genetic coding seems to be involved with the brain development it does not take into account the plasticity of the brain and the “wiring”, which are influenced by experiences and thus psychology. (Shaffer & Kipp)

Biologically, puberty and the release of male and female hormones also has an influential part to play in the developing gender roles in particular the higher levels of androgens in both girls and boys greatly increases their sex drive with this they are poignantly aware of their sexuality and is a further basis for  formulating their gender roles.

David Reimer is another example that shows how inherited biology is a major factor in our behaviour. Even though David was born a normal boy, he was given a sex reassignment as an infant of 22 months, due to an accident at circumcision. His testicles were removed and his genitals sculpted to look like a girl, named Brenda she was then brought up as a girl her parents giving and installing every feminine stereotype they could. However with all these psychological influences Brenda still preferred boys toys, boys company and had boyish behaviour. Brenda was rejected by her female peers as not being like them. During early adolescence she was given female hormones and even as her body physically changed she remained ostracised by her peers and still boy like in her behaviour. After being told the truth she immediately returned to his biological sex, called himself David and went on to marry. This case highlights the strength of our inherited genetic genes and prenatal hormones on an individuals natural behaviour and beliefs even though his experience and influences were to the contrary.(Berk)

Alternatively to the biological perspective, however, there is considerable evidence that environment, social and familial interactions and cultural influences also play an important part in forming gender roles. From the moment a child is born, from the moment that parents know if it is a boy or girl, parents communicate differently with each sex, they install the child in a bedroom decorated with specific themes or colours, they create environments with different toys each suited to gender stereotyped beliefs. These environments alone prosper the nurturing, caring and sensitive side of the girls and the assertive more independent active side of the boys. Gender type play, the trucks for the boys and the dolls for the girls further emphasis gender roles. The language that parents use is a presupposition to their gender identity, even their intonation with phrases like “go Tiger” for the boy and “sweetie” “cutie” for the girl are also gender stereotyping. (Berk) All these factors contribute to the psychological ingraining of the young infant  as parents and care givers teach their children gender stereotypes.

Furthermore children’s preferences for same sex play mates starts at a very young age by 2 or 3 they prefer to play with their own sex. Maccoby (1998) states that “by the time children are six and a half they spend ten times as much time with the same sex as they do with the opposite”, however Maccoby (1998) also goes on to suggest that this is due to play styles which are due to the higher level of androgens in males then this is reflected in more physical, verbal and  boisterous behaviour and play, girls shy away from that behaviour and boys are attracted to the same play. (Shaffer & Kipp). Thus showing the link between hormones and behaviour and then that behaviour  affecting others in the same environment.

As the children progress through school they begin to identify with their gender and label themselves as boys or girls adopting the gender stereotypes taught to them by their parents and teachers, now they actively reject opposite sex playmates and children who do not adhere to their gender roles are often rejected by there peers. Psychologically this is forming a definite pathway, both boys and girls are expected and rewarded sometimes with friendship and adult recognition for doing the same as their peers and punished by expulsion or indifference for doing something different from their same sex.

Furthermore there is a ongoing natural need in both sexes to socialise, they observe, experience and learn from their same sex groups they are also learn   from the comparative differences between these groups always reinforcing the child’s same sex gender pattern and beliefs, their schema. They even process social understandings and remember information based on their same sex schema in addition they forget, distort and delete that which is not consistent with their schema. Together with this observing typical gender roles as seen in the media and on television continually strengthens these schemas and gender beliefs. (Shaffer & Kipp) These are all influential psychological factors that affect gender role development.

Biological factors do play a major part in gender roles, genetically by defining sex and those hormones associated with the male or female biology having a direct correlation to the behaviour of the individual and therefore the associated gender role. However this biological theory of influence on gender roles can not completely account for all the variations and complexities of males and females and their gender roles cannot be solely explained by biological influences.  Psychological factors, that of  families, social influences and cultural persuasions have a profound role to play. Individuals need socialisation and experience to grow and develop however as soon as this happens psychological factors are permanently present. Biological and psychological influences both play a part in gender roles. Biology cannot be denied as the foundation of inheritance, development, and structure all contributing to the individuals gender role, however it is the psychological influences that affect the “wiring” and expression of these structures  through experience and environment . The two are inextricably integrated.


Shaffer, D.R, & Kipp, K.  Eigth edition  (2010) Developmental Psychology – Childhood and Adolescence.     Wadsworth. USA

                 Berk, L.E. (2009) Eigth edition. Child Development Pearson International Edition. USA.