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Gender vs. Sex Differences June 21, 2009

Posted by thedukeofurl in "Gender".
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Let me first set out my stall. Sex differences are produced by biological processes.  Gender differences are produced by social and cultural programming otherwise known as socialization.  Sex differences refer to male- female biological differences. Gender differences refer to masculinity- femininity, that is, social role differences. Differences between males and females are due to both sex and gender. When you are asked on a form to specify whether you are male or female, you are being asked what sex you are, not what gender. Yet the form will categorize this as a gender distinction. The current conflation of these two terms, “sex” and “gender”, is due to sociologists of culture whose contribution to knowledge is a matter of debate.

In 2007, the New York Times published an article, “Pas de Deux of Sexuality Is Written in the Genes” (10 April 2007). Discussion of this issue are flawed because they focus on averages when they should focus on the differences in the two distributions. For example, a study of history achievement shows that, on average, girls do better than boys. BUT, about 50% of boys are both worse than and better than the girls. The same seems to be true for math.

Possible explanation? I would go for subtle brain differences as an initial hypothesis. But Sam Savage (son of the famous statistician Jimmie Savage) in his The Flaw of Averages (2009), and his wife, “a professional writer who did not get Ds in English”, put it this way.

“Interpretation for men only by Sam Savage. Guys it’s pretty much what you knew all along. If you define a genius as someone who is in the top 1st percentile, men in this category significantly outnumber women.

Interpretation for women only by Daryl Savage. Hey, ladies, don’t listen to my husband, it’s pretty much what you knew all along. If you define a moron as someone who is in the bottom 1st percentile, men in this category significantly outnumber women.”

Unfortunately, his discussion of sex differences does not make it into the book’s web site – The Flaw of Averages, but the book itself contains a few references.

While I did suggest brain differences as a cause of sex differences, social and cultural programming can not be ignored. A number of years ago, girls were doing better in single sex schools than mixed sex schools compared to boys in some subjects. The reasons seemed to be due to peer influences – either they did not wish to or did not feel confident enough to compete with the boys, but with the boys “out of the picture”, these influences were significantly mitigated with the result that the girls began to do better than the boys in those same subjects.

In the intervening years, girls have become more empowered, which is a good thing. Could it be that the subsequent relative lackluster performance of the boys is a byproduct of this empowerment thereby placing the boys in a similar position the girls were in not so many years ago? Could the difference we see be socio-cultural in origin as it was then?

In putting forward explanations touting brain differences, which seem to exist, we have a problem. Just as, in general, explanations of differences in terms of genetics make no sense in the absence of a mention of the environment – it is always genes + environment, so in this case, it is brain structure and function + social and cultural programming. Moreover, we know that conditioning alters brain function.

Is one more important than the other? I don’t think we know for certain and the question may be misguided. What we do know is that compatibility between biology and the social and cultural environment and its associated programming is helpful. But this does not tell us very much unless we are more specific across the board.