Ariel Ashcraft Alice EaglyPsychology of Gender October 17, 2003 War Against Boys: Fact or Fiction One of the oldest debates in psychology is the nature versus nurture debate. Its roots extend far beyond the nineteenth century psychologists such as Freud and Skinner into the beginnings of scientific thought. Even Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato addressed the issue of how personality is formed. Today, a relative consensus has been reached that nature and nurture work in tangent with one another; one can have many biological possibilities of which the environment determines the development. In any area involving gender however, this debate is still strong. In the War Against Boys: How misguided feminism is harming our young men, Christina Hoff Sommers points out that some feminists still support the nurture side of the debate without acknowledging any possibility of a biological influence.
Sommers insists on examining the growing number of studies indicating that gender differences are not all socialized but are biological sex differences, just as differences in physiology between the sexes are biologically based. However, in her efforts to show how misguided feminism has become in its search for gender equality, Sommers takes the other extreme of the debate and discounts any differences formed during socialization. Although literature for the biological explanation of gender construction is growing, one cannot discount the environmental influences as Sommers does. A Biological Explanation If there is one aspect of research in sex differences to which Sommers does justice, it is the research supporting the differing biology of males and females. She convincingly summarizes the evidence for the biological influence in a clear, concise manner. First, she addresses the cognitive abilities with which a large difference has been shown to favor males or females.
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Males are on the whole superior to females in abilities, especially mental rotation tasks (Halpern, 1992).
In fact, Sommers doesn’t mention this, but the effect size found in this area of sex differences is one of the largest that psychologists study in any field with an effect size of d = 0. 9 (Halpern, 1992).
While not the best at skills, females are superior in their verbal skills especially “writing, retrieval from long-term memory, and verbal articulation tasks” (Halpern, 1992).
These cognitive differences do not suppose a cause however. They could arise not from biology, but from socialization as the feminists argue. To prove a biological cause is implicated, Sommers has to draw on research that connects biology such as hormones or structural differences to related behaviors and preferences. Sommers somewhat addresses this issue by using girls afflicted with congenital adrenal (CAH) as an example.
During their time in the womb, these girls were subjected to an abnormally large amount of androgen’s. They usually grow up with more male-favored preferences and abilities. They tend to play more with male sex-typed toys than girls without the disorder, and they are better at spatial rotation tasks (Berenbaum, 203-6, 1992).
This research would indicate that biology not socialization determines the gender identity; however, the parents could be treating the children differently because they know of the disorder. This could present a difference in socialization in the CAH and non-CAH girls and thus account for the behavioral differences, so Sommers still needs to provide more biological support. Unfortunately, Sommers uses only that one example as support and thus fails to use the full amount of research available to her.
She could have reviewed the psychology literature and found a plethora of research on how hormonal levels affect cognitive sex differences as Hampson and Moffat do. It seems that men perform better on spatial tasks when their testosterone is low, but women perform better when they have a high level of testosterone indicating this ability is tied to a perfect level of this sex-differentiated hormone. In terms of another sex-specific hormone, women tend to perform better on memory and verbal tasks when they are taking estrogen then when they are low in estrogen. This also indicates that their verbal superiority is interconnected with the amount of estrogen they have in their body (in press).
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All these research findings strongly suggest that biology has an influence over cognitive abilities. Sommers does present several studies which focus on structural differences in the male and female brains rather than hormonal differences. Sommers quoted one neuro anatomist, Laura Allen, from an ABC special as saying, “Seven or eight of the ten structures we measured turned out to be different between men and women” (Sommers, p. 89).
Sommers brings to attention the fact that sometimes women have shown to have a larger corpus, the pathway between the two hemispheres through which information travels, than men which could account for their ability to retrieve information more easily than men (p.
This sex difference is hardly significant and many studies fail to recognize that a difference even exists (Allen, Richey, Chai, & Gorski, 1991; Bishop & Wahlsten, 1997).
Sommers also brings up a study involving a simple language task. The brain activity during the experiment was measured, and the researchers found that although the same area in the front left cortex lit up for both men and women, an area in the right hemisphere also lit up in some of the women and none of the men (Shaywitz et al. , 1995).
Differences in the size of brain structures and the way, in which each sex uses those structures, points even more towards a biological predetermination of behavior based on sex. Sommers is clearly right when she argues that gender is not completely a social construct. The research she provides does sufficient justice to the biological explanation of sex differences. It is not in this area where she is lacking in support but in the socialization point of view. A Socialization Model Anytime one wants to counter the opposing view, one must first present it in its entirety without leaving out any important points. This Sommers does not do.
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She attacks the feminists’s socialization model without fully addressing the research in that field. Instead, she focuses only on the feminists’ faulty and incomplete information. While collecting the evidence upon which the feminists rely, Sommers focuses mainly on seminars intended to inform teachers of ways to avoid sexual discrimination and gender socialization, on the programs created by feminist organizations, and books written by feminists with an ideological rather than empirical approach like Carol Gilligan. Several of Sommers’s examples relating the feminists’ view are merely examples of classrooms taught by feminist teachers such as Ms. Logan. An author observed her classroom interested in how feminists are responding to the supposed confidence crisis of adolescent girls.
Ms. Logan fills her room with images of women and leads class discussions in the direction of gender stereotypes in order to overcome them. She encourages boys to become women during speeches and basically glorifies women (Sommers, p. 80-3).
Sommers does certainly make a point by bringing this example up. It shows how feminists can overcompensate for the previous gender stereotypic roles, by shortchanging boys for a change; however, this is only one educator.
Sommers takes longer to tell of this one teacher who takes this belief in socialization to an extreme than to relate all the support for a biological influence, which was verified by a multitude of additional tests to make sure it was representative. This one teacher’s classroom can never be generalized to represent the whole as the biological research can, yet she focuses on several such examples as the feminists’s support. This certainly does them no justice. Plus, these examples are all only ways chosen to address the problem, not procedures performed to determine its validity. By focusing on individuals who spend more time correcting the socialization influences than proving their existence, Sommers is not disproving the socialization theory, but only proving its corrective measures can be taken to a dangerous extreme.
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In reality, much research has shown that socialization plays a significant role in a child’s development of gender identity. When growing up, several factors can influence a child’s picture of what gender is. Parental influence is the first factor. Block found that parents treat boys and girls significantly different, such as expecting boys to conform to gender stereotypes more than girls (1978).
Siegel found that fathers in particular respond differently to their sons than to their daughters unlike mothers (1987).
Even the physical environment for children has been shown to be sex-typed by the parents.
Boys were provided with more aggressive toys and surrounded with blue while girls were given more dolls, pink clothing, and yellow bedding (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990).
Peer groups are important sources of information for gender stereotypes also. Many children copy typical adult stereotypes when playing in a group with other children (Pitcher & Schultz, 1983).
Even media can play a role in influencing the children’s environments by running children’s programs with gender stereotypes in them as documented by Durkin (1985).
These experiments showed distinct gender differences in the environments in which males and females grew up, but they do not prove that these environments influenced children to form their opinions one way or the other. However, other experiments do show that an idea of gender is formed fairly early in a child’s mind, and these environments may be an influence on this early distinction between sexes. Studies have shown that although children learn both the female and male response to a task, they only express the gender appropriate one. It is not a question of whether the child can learn to perform a task, but whether they will perform it. In a study done by Hargreaves, children were given a paper with circles on it and told to complete the picture. Boys and girls typically drew pictures associated with their sex, but later, when they were asked to draw what the opposite sex would draw, they had no difficulty predicting the responses of the opposite sex (1977).
Obviously some behavior that is appropriate for the other sex is learned; children simply do not express it without being asked. The gender appropriateness of a task plays a large role in whether a child will perform well in that task or not. In a British study, three groups of children participated in a task with two gender labeled conditions. They were to thread a wire through a metal loop without touching it. In one condition, the children were told it was a needlework task, and in the other, a measure of electronic ability. Girls outperformed the boys in the first condition, but boys excelled in the second although it was the same task both times (Davies, 1986).
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This shows that the gender appropriateness of a behavior will affect a child’s performance in it. It is evidence such as this that makes one wonder where or when the child learns to differentiate gender, and thus qualifies the earlier research on gender-differentiated treatment in childhood. How do children learn the roles they must play? Parents, peers, and media play a significant influence; thus, in at least some sense, gender is socially determined. Sommers conveniently left out this qualifying research for the socialization of gender and focused only on the vague statements made by the feminists she studied. It is true that not enough psychological research exists to claim socialization is the only way children learn gender stereotypes as the feminists do; however, enough does exist that it cannot be discounted completely. Moral of the Story When writing a response intending to debunk a theory, the author should take all aspects of the argument into account.
Sommers has obviously not done her homework. The biggest mistake Sommers makes is she does not fully research the opposing argument. At one point, Sommers insists “if all gender differences were culturally determined, you would expect to find some societies where females are the risk takers and males play with dolls… the social constructionists have no plausible explanation for the absence of such societies” (Sommers, p.
Sommers spoke too soon when she said that no such societies existed. Margaret Mead, one of the leading supporters of cultural conditioning, performed a study on three primitive cultures in New Guinea still untouched by communication with other cultures, and Mead found just what Sommers rashly brushed away as nonexistent. In one tribe, the Arapesh, both the male and female sexes strive to achieve what is considered merely feminine and not to be pursued by men: mildness and responsiveness to others needs.
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Equally aggressive females as well as males characterize the Mundugumor tribe; whereas, in the third tribe, the Tchambuli, Mead found a complete role reversal of the sexes (2001).
This is a total contradiction of Sommers’s statement, which makes one wonder what other information she overlooked in the writing of her book. She focuses on how feminists take extreme examples to show how society is destroying girls, and then proceeds to say boys themselves are being harmed by this feminist movement while only highlighting the extreme outlooks herself. If she failed to find out even the most fundamental concepts behind the social constructionist theories, how can we know she researched the entirety of the feminist movement and its affect on boys? She accuses feminists’ information to be incomplete when hers is also.
Are boys drowning, or is it girls? Or maybe no one is? Conclusion Psychology has come a long way from asserting that only one developmental theory is the key. Now the focus is on which theory holds the most influence. The feminists Sommers cites in this book are clearly wrong in their view that children are as malleable as clay and as easily filled as a blank slate. Enough research has been done to prove that at least some sex differences are biologically determined such as spatial and verbal abilities, and some play preferences.
However, Sommers does not acknowledge that perhaps there is some truth behind their extremist thinking. Sommers relies almost totally on the biological influence forgetting that some behavior is influenced and formed by the environment. Just as feminists now are trying to shape a child’s behavior, at one time children’s behaviors were shaped in the opposite direction by society. We are no longer in the past when little empirical research existed, and a theorist could say without doubt that gender is either socially or genetically determined like Mead did after finishing her study of primitive cultures. Today, too much evidence exists to discount one theory entirely as the feminists do but also as Sommers does. Biology is important, and what the feminists are trying to do is as wrong as when society tried to shape children into gender stereotypic roles.
However, socialization does play a role in development, and the feminists are only trying to counteract the stereotypes that have been in place for centuries. Sommers is completely right when she says, “Mother Nature is not a feminist” (Sommers, p. 88).
Someday maybe, boys will be boys, and girls will be girls as Mother Nature intended, but right now, society still shapes gender concepts, and feminists are only trying to combat formerly existing ones.
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