Gender and Sexual Orientation

Gender and Sexual OrientationMany cultures perceive gender and sexual orientation as major defining characteristics of an individual. Psychologists also find gender and sexual orientation to be important and interesting aspects of human psychology, and they have developed theories to explain how these aspects shape our lives. Yet, gender and sexual orientation are characteristics not just of the individual but also of the culture; others perceive and act toward us depending on whether they believe we are male or female and gay or straight. Each of us has stereotypes and beliefs about how males differ from females and how gays and lesbians differ from straight individuals. How accurate are these stereotypes? How different are we, really? Are these differences important? How did we develop these differences and similarities? These are a few of the questions that researchers seek to answer, and we will review them throughout this article.

Clarification of Terms

Although we often refer to males and females as being of “opposite” sexes, the topic of gender is much more complex. Social scientists have traditionally used the term sex to refer to an individual’s state of being male or female based on chromosomal (XX or XY), hormonal (levels of estrogens and androgens), and gonadal (testes or ovaries) characteristics. In contrast, the term gender is often used to refer to the social, cultural, and psychological experience of being male or female, and gender identity refers to the psychological sense of one’s maleness or femaleness. Yet, not all contemporary researchers make use of this categorical distinction. The term gender became more prominent following the feminist movement of the 1970s. It was favored because it emphasized a social and cultural distinction that was bound less by biology than by sex (Unger, 1979). As research indicates that the biological and psychological aspects of being male or female are difficult to tease apart, the distinction between sex and gender becomes increasingly hazy. In addition, chromosomal, hormonal, and gonadal sexes are not always congruent (as is the case in intersex individuals). Some individuals are identified as transgender, which is a third gender category composed of people who, for a variety of reasons, have a gender identity that does not match their biological sex.

If we examine the topic of gender in different cultures, we see even more variations than researchers in the United States typically acknowledge. Some cultures recognize more than just two genders. For example, in the Balkans, some women may take on a traditional male role to serve the needs of their family. In some Native American cultures there is a third gender referred to as Berdache, which is a man or woman who takes on the social role of the other sex. In the case of the Berdache, members of a third gender may be seen as endowed with spiritual powers and higher status in the community. Yet, in the United States, we tend to get uncomfortable or anxious when gender and sex do not appear to be consistent with our cultural definitions of male and female.

An individual’s sexual orientation introduces another dimension to the topic of gender, further expanding the range of experiences of being male or female. It is tempting to use a straight/gay dichotomy, to think of sexual orientation as having two distinct forms. However, it is rare for individuals to engage in exclusively homosexual behavior; more commonly, individuals engage in a combination of homosexual and heterosexual behaviors. Cross-cultural research reveals a diverse range of socially sanctioned homosexual behaviors. Although there is a tendency in some cultures to assume that heterosexuality is the accepted and appropriate norm for sexual orientation, there is a wide spectrum of sexual orientations in human psychology. Sexual orientation (sexual preference is considered inappropriate) refers to a person’s erotic and emotional orientation toward members of his or her own gender or members of the other gender (Hyde & DeLamater, 2006). Individuals who identify as gay or lesbian have a sexual orientation toward members of their own gender, and bisexual individuals have a sexual orientation toward members of both genders. Recently, individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender have begun to embrace the term queer to refer to the broad range of sexual orientations that humans experience. Although this term was once considered offensive and used in a derogatory manner, it is becoming more widely accepted as a label of pride. Some use the abbreviation LGBTQ to refer to the spectrum of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered, and queer individuals. LGBTQ will be used throughout this article to refer to this spectrum.

Researchers have yet to agree on an operational definition of sexual orientation, in part because it is characterized by several components (Savin-Williams, 2006). These components include sexual or romantic attraction, sexual behavior, and sexual identity. Sexual or romantic attraction refers to the desire to have a sexual relationship with one or both sexes. It is not always consistent with an individual’s sexual behavior or sexual identity. Sexual identity refers to personally chosen labels that are culturally bound to the perceptions and meanings we have about our sexuality. Thus, a man may be sexually attracted to males, engage in sexual behavior with males and females, but identify as straight. How should we define the sexual orientation of such a man? Depending on how we measure sexual orientation, estimates of incidence vary and it is difficult to assess group differences between straight and LGBTQ individuals.

Alfred Kinsey, in his groundbreaking sexuality research during the mid-20th century, devised a one-dimensional scale to assess sexual orientation. Kinsey conceptualized sexual orientation as a seven-point continuum ranging from exclusively heterosexual (0) to exclusively homosexual (6), with equally heterosexual and homosexual experiences as a midpoint (3). Kinsey emphasized a focus on behavior, thus his scale does not take into account the components of attraction or identity. The scale is still used by many researchers today.

Psychological Theories of Gender and Sexual Orientation

A number of psychological theories have been used to explain gender differences and sexual orientation differences as well as the development of gender and sexual orientation. Here we will review the major theories on these issues.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud is considered the founder of psychoanalytic theory. His theories about personality and psychosexual development, although largely rejected by modern psychologists, have made an impact on the field of psychology and the thinking about gender and sexual orientation development. One of his major contributions was to emphasize the role of early experiences in shaping human development. He theorized that there are five stages of psychosexual development, each based on the pleasure derived from different erogenous zones on our body. The first stage is the oral stage, in which infants derive sexual pleasure from using the mouth, particularly from sucking and nursing. The second stage is the Anal stage, in which toddlers, who are learning to control their bowels, derive sexual pleasure from defecating. Up to this point, all children are developing similarly. In the third stage, the phallic stage, Freud theorized that boys and girls begin to develop differently. Here in early childhood the focus is on the penis, which boys prize and girls envy. Boys in this stage develop an intense sexual and romantic love for their mother and a hatred for their father, whom they see as the primary obstacle to a sexual relationship with the mother. Yet, the boy also recognizes that the father is powerful enough to take away his beloved penis (this fear is called castration anxiety), so he encounters what Freud termed the Oedipus complex. To resolve the Oedipus complex, the boy must realize he should reconcile with his father by renouncing his love for the mother and identifying with his father. How do girls go through the phallic stage? According to Freud, they must recognize that they have already been castrated— they have no penis. This recognition develops into jealousy of masculine superiority—that is, females develop penis envy. Then, a girl will see her mother as responsible for the castration and develop an intense sexual and romantic love for her father, in what Freud termed the Electra complex. The resolution of this complex lies in identifying with the mother. After the phallic stage is the latent stage, in which there is a period of psychosexual latency. That is, sexual urges are suppressed during middle childhood. In adolescence the genital stage develops, though only for those who have successfully traversed each of the previous four stages. In the genital stage, we reach psychosexual maturity by having “appropriate” heterosexual desires on which we act only within the context of socially sanctioned relationships.

The major criticism of Freud’s theory is that it is androcentric—that is, it considers the male as the normal, healthy ideal and the female as nothing more than a castrated male. Freud proposed that women are never fully mature and that they are inferior to men. A theory that attempts to explain gender differences by setting up one gender for failure or inadequacy or by viewing that gender as necessarily deficient is biased and therefore unsound. Freud also maintained that humans are naturally heterosexual, and that a homosexual orientation only develops out of a failure to appropriately identify with the same sex parent or out of a fixation in one of the earlier psychosexual stages. That is, he believed homosexuality was abnormal and unhealthy. In this way, his theory is heterosexist. Freud’s strong focus on the penis (to the exclusion of the female genitals) is also androcentric. Do girls and women really want to have penises? Probably not.

Karen Horney, also a psychoanalytic theorist, restructured Freud’s theory and proposed that penis envy is actually a manifestation of female jealousy of male power. That is, the penis is a symbol of male domination and power in a patriarchal society. Horney also argued that males can have womb envy, in which they are jealous of women’s reproductive potential and the power to create and sustain another human life.

Nancy Chodorow is a modern psychoanalytic theorist and feminist. She theorized that gender differences in parenting behaviors, such as empathizing and nurturing a child, develop in childhood. Chodorow argued that children view mothers as self-sacrificing, existing solely to take care of others. In turn, they begin to see all women as fulfilling this maternal role and to devalue women. Daughters, who identify with their mother, define themselves in terms of their relationships to others and grow up feeling a need to fill the maternal role. In contrast, sons, who reject the female role as different, grow to be independent and desire a woman who fills the maternal role. She maintains that if men become more involved in parenting, boys will grow up to define themselves in terms of relationships and to value women more. Others have criticized Chodorow’s theory for being heterosexist—that is, they find fault with her theory because it does not describe the experiences or development of LGBTQ individuals. This is an important criticism in that it illustrates the limited scope of Chodorow’s theory and reminds us that not all individuals grow up to develop a romantic attraction to an individual of the other gender.

In sum, psychoanalytic theorists have had a lot to say about gender and sexual orientation, but the theories have been strongly criticized on the grounds that they are both androcentric and heterosexist. However, these theories must be understood in their historical and social context: Freud developed his theory of psychosexual development in the early 20th century, when attitudes about gender and sexual orientation were much more conservative than they are today. These theories have also played an important role in the development of stronger, more comprehensive psychological theories on gender and sexual orientation.

Learning Theories

Albert Bandura built upon B. F. Skinner’s learning theory by adding a social component. He argued that behavior was not just the response to reinforcement and punishment, but that processes such as imitation, modeling, and observational learning also were important. Traditional learning theory would maintain that gender differences develop because boys and girls are rewarded for gender-appropriate behavior and punished for gender-inappropriate behavior. Social learning theory adds to this by arguing that children imitate others’ behaviors if they see that they are reinforced. For example, a girl learns to play with dolls because she observes that other girls are rewarded for playing with dolls, but a boy does not play with the dolls because he sees that other boys are not rewarded (and may even be punished) for such behavior.

Bandura then further expanded social learning theory by adding a cognitive component. Cognitive social learning theory includes the mechanisms of reinforcement, punishment, imitation, modeling, and observational learning, as well as attention, self-regulation, and self-efficacy (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). In this theory, attention refers to the process by which children attend to same-gender models, imitating them more than opposite-gender models. For example, a girl pays more attention to her mother’s behaviors (such as cooking) than her father’s behaviors (such as changing the oil in a car), and she then imitates those behaviors. Children regulate or guide their own behavior by monitoring and behaving in ways that are consistent with their internalized gender norms. For example, in a mixed-gender group, boys monitor their own behavior and do things they perceive to be masculine, such as playing rough and competing with other boys. Also, cognitive social learning theory argues that we set goals for ourselves based on our self-efficacy, which is the belief that we have the ability to accomplish a given task. For example, an adolescent girl attempts tasks that she perceives as being consistent with her gender role, such as wearing makeup or choosing nursing classes over engineering ones.

Each of the learning mechanisms discussed with regard to gender also applies to sexual orientation. Learning theories assume that all humans are innately bisexual and capable of homosexual as well as heterosexual behavior. Rather than focusing on individual psychological characteristics or biological factors, learning theories argue that cultural and social forces encourage individuals to express or become straight or LGBTQ. In this way, learning theories are not heterosexist in the way that psychoanalytic theory is. Yet, some argue that if sexual orientation is learned, we should be able to teach people to conform to social norms and be straight. This perspective, of course, has important ethical implications.

In sum, learning theories emphasize the importance of environmental influences on gender and sexual orientation. Although learning theories do not appear to completely explain gender and sexual orientation, research supports many of the proposed mechanisms. It is likely that a combination of internal and external factors contribute to gender and sexual orientation.

Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology

First proposed by E. O. Wilson in 1975, sociobiology is a theoretical perspective that applies Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to the social behavior of animals and people. Darwin theorized that evolution is a product of the process of natural selection, in which animals that produce viable offspring pass on their genes to the next generation. Assuming that social behavior is influenced by genetics, sociobiology maintains that traits that are advantageous (insofar as they improve an individual’s reproductive success) will be passed on through our genetic material. Yet, this does not mean that all social behaviors are healthy or even adaptive.

Evolutionary psychology, proposed by David Buss, is similar to sociobiology. Buss’s theory of mate selection argues that women seek mates with resources to increase the likelihood that their children will have a high quality of life, and that men seek mates who are physically attractive to increase the likelihood that their sperm fertilize eggs in a healthy and reproductively viable woman (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Some have argued that theories of evolutionary psychology are offensive to women because they tend to be androcentric and reinforce gender stereotypes and gender inequities. Feminist sociobiologists such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have presented alternative theories in evolutionary psychology that are not sexist. For example, she argues that for a woman to be reproductively successful, she needs to be resourceful and able to balance childrearing with many other demands (Hrdy, 1999).

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Based on the work of Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, Lawrence Kohlberg devised cognitive developmental theory to explain the changes in children’s thought processes related to gender. Children’s thinking about gender develops throughout childhood as their cognitive abilities change. Around 18 to 24 months, for example, children develop the knowledge that they are either male or female (known as gender identity) as well as the ability to identify the gender of others. However, they do not yet understand that gender is a permanent and unchanging trait, known as gender constancy. For example, a male toddler may think he will be a mother some day. Children do not develop gender constancy until 4 to 6 years of age, at which point they begin to perceive behaviors as being appropriate or inappropriate according to gender. This thinking forms the basis of gender roles. Although research indicates that this process exists, it is unlikely that the mechanisms proposed by Kohlberg are as strong as he originally argued.

Gender Schema Theory

Another cognitive approach to gender includes Sandra Bem’s (1981) gender schema theory. Schemas are cognitive structures or knowledge frameworks that help to process and organize new information. Gender schemas are schemas that process and organize information on the basis of gender-linked associations, leading to the development of gender roles and gender-typed behaviors. They develop from our observations of differences between males and females, such that we filter new information by ignoring schema-inconsistent information and remembering schema-consistent information. For example, we observe that women are typically responsible for caring for children; when we see a man caring for children we tend to filter out or ignore that observation and attend to observations that confirm or fit into our existing schemas. Based on how well individuals fit their own gender schema, self-concept as a male or female develops. In this way, individuals can differ in their schemas (depending on what they have observed), self-concept, and behavior. Generally, we find that the evidence supports gender schema theory.

Feminist Psychology

Feminism refers to a theoretical perspective that favors political, economic, and social equality of women and men, and therefore favors the legal and social changes necessary to achieve that equality (Hyde, 2007). Feminist psychological theories integrate the ideals of feminism into psychological research and practice. They tend to emphasize several major ideas, some of which are consistent with other theories in psychology. Feminist theories emphasize cultural factors in the development of gender and sexual orientation, much like learning theories. The role of cultural norms and socializing forces are of central importance in human behavior. Gender and sexual orientation are seen as status variables in our culture. That is, there is inequality between males and females as well as between straight and LGBTQ individuals. A focus on this power or status difference is an important feature of feminist theories, such that stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are recognized as pervasive in our culture. The dominance and power of men and straight individuals is seen in political, academic, economic, and interpersonal domains, and is often the focus of psychological research.

Feminist theories also encourage the use of nonsexist, gender-fair, and feminist research methods. Nonsexist and gender-fair methods tend to avoid using measures that may put a specific gender group at a disadvantage. Feminist research methods generally aim to empower research participants and respect their autonomy, and may include specific research attention to the concerns of women. Similarly, such methods may include observing people in their natural environments without any manipulation or deception. Nonsexist and gender-fair methods are increasingly common among research that is not explicitly feminist, reflecting the influence of feminist theory.

Alpha Bias and Beta Bias

Each of the theoretical perspectives discussed is imperfect, characterized by strengths as well as weaknesses. In evaluating these theories, it is important to consider two types of bias—alpha bias and beta bias. Alpha bias refers to the perspective that males and females are different and the associated tendency to exaggerate gender differences; beta-bias refers to the opposite perspective (that males and females are similar) and the associated tendency to minimize or ignore gender differences (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988). Some perspectives, such as psychoanalytic or sociobiological theories, tend to be prone to alpha bias by emphasizing gender differences; beta bias is less common in the research literature but is still a relevant concern. Both alpha and beta biases are problematic because they prevent a balanced interpretation of the data. Similarly, policy decisions—such as those related to affirmative action programs—can be misinformed if research is influenced by one of these biases.

Methods in the Study of Gender and Sexual Orientation


Researchers are often interested in measuring psychological differences between two groups, such as between males and females or straight and LGBTQ individuals. Because of methodology differences, biases, research error, and chance, studies will sometimes contradict one another. Thus, it can be difficult to make conclusions from the many studies that have been conducted. One solution to this problem is conducting a meta-analysis. A metaanalysis is sometimes referred to as a quantitative review because it integrates the statistical findings from many studies to provide a more comprehensive conclusion from the research.

The process of conducting a meta-analysis is fairly simple, but it can be time-consuming. Once the researcher has decided on a research question (for example, do boys and girls differ in shyness?), he or she searches the research databases to find all of the studies that have asked the same question. Next, the statistics of the studies are examined and effect sizes are computed. Effect sizes are statistical terms that refer to the magnitude of the effect. Often, the effect size d is computed.

d = (Mean males–Meanf emales) / Standard deviation within groups

Thus, positive values of d represent higher scores in males than in females, whereas negative values represent higher scores in females. Generally, we interpret d such that effect sizes of d = 0.20, 0.50, and 0.80 are considered small, medium, and large, respectively. After researchers have computed d for all of the studies, they combine them to determine the average effect size. In this way, meta-analysis is a useful method for making a conclusion based on many studies.

Behavior Genetics

Behavior genetics is the study of the genetic origins of psychological characteristics; genetic origins are not necessarily fixed or unalterable. Researchers have used behavior genetics methods to understand and quantify the genetic basis for sexual orientation. For example, behavior geneticists estimate concordance rates, which refer to the percentage of pairs of people who match in a specific trait. Researchers may conduct twin studies, in which they estimate concordance rates for homosexual orientation among monozygotic twins (i.e., identical twins who share 100 percent of their genes) and dizygotic twins (that is, fraternal twins who share 50 percent of their genes). Such studies suggest that the concordance rate for homosexual orientation is 48 to 52 percent in monozygotic twins and 16 to 22 percent in dizygotic twins (Hyde, 2005). So, although monozygotic twins share 100 percent of their genes, in only about half of identical twin pairs do we see that when one twin is homosexual, the other twin is also homosexual. They may also conduct adoption studies, in which they estimate concordance rates for homosexual orientation among siblings who were raised in different environments, when one sibling was adopted by a different family. Adoption studies of sexual orientation indicate concordance rates of 6 to 11 percent. That is, when one sibling is homosexual, in 6 to 11 percent of cases the other sibling is also gay. Findings from behavior genetics indicate that there is a strong genetic component to homosexual orientation, but that it is not entirely influenced by genes or environment.

Applications of the Study of Gender and Sexual Orientation

Coming Out

For LGBTQ individuals, the process of coming out is an important component of their psychological development. Coming out refers to the process of acknowledging to oneself and others that one is LGBTQ. During this process, the individual’s self-esteem is particularly vulnerable, as he or she faces potential rejection from family and friends. A major aspect of coming out is the development of one’s LGBTQ identity. This development can be conceptualized as occurring in six stages (Cass, 1979). The first stage involves identity confusion, in which the individual begins to question whether he or she might be LGBTQ, based on same-gender attraction. The person asks, “Who am I?” Following this stage, the individual goes through a stage of identity comparison, in which he or she begins to think, “I may be homosexual.” Next, the individual begins to seek out and make contact with other LGBTQ individuals to find affirmation with the potential LGBTQ identity, in a stage of identity tolerance. He or she thinks, “I probably am homosexual.” In the fourth stage, identity acceptance, the individual accepts rather than simply tolerates the new identity, thinking, “I am homosexual.” The individual then moves on to the stage of identity pride, in which he or she thinks of the world as being composed of people who are LGBTQ (who are good) and straight (who are not good), identifying strongly with the LGBTQ group. In the final stage, identity synthesis, the individual moves away from this dichotomized thinking and recognizes that there are both homosexuals and heterosexuals who are good and supportive. The individual synthesizes his or her public and private sexual identities.

Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination

Why do we stereotype? Some argue that we stereotype to save cognitive energy; it’s easier to categorize and make quick judgments rather than think carefully about what we perceive. Others argue that we stereotype in order to exert power over others, which helps to maintain the status quo (Fiske, 1993). When we stereotype, we ignore information that is inconsistent with our stereotypes but acknowledge information that conforms to our stereotypes. Insofar as stereotyping restricts our behavior to socially sanctioned roles, it exerts control over people. Individuals with power tend to stereotype the most; it is generally adaptive for individuals with low power to pay close attention to others with more power. The more knowledge we have about people, the less likely we are to stereotype them.

Gender stereotypes are a set of shared cultural beliefs about males and females. In the United States, women are stereotyped as being more emotional than men. That is, many people tend to assume that women feel more emotions than men and that they feel them more intensely than men do. Some specific emotions are stereotyped as being particularly masculine or feminine. Women are stereotyped as experiencing and expressing more awe, disgust, distress, embarrassment, fear, guilt, happiness, love, sadness, shame, shyness, surprise, and sympathy; men are stereotyped as experiencing and expressing more anger, contempt, and pride. These stereotypes vary somewhat according to ethnicity, such that black women are stereotyped as expressing as much pride as do black men.

This stereotyping can be problematic when communicating emotions in interpersonal relationships, such that our perceptions of emotions are influenced by stereotypes. Some studies have shown that, even when men and women show identical facial expressions of anger, women are perceived as expressing less anger and more sadness than men. We even stereotype infants’ emotions according to gender. For example, a classic study had participants view a video of a baby playing with a jack-in-the-box. Half of the participants were told the baby was a boy; the other half were told it was a girl. The participants who thought the baby was a boy said that the baby expressed anger, but the participants who thought the baby was a girl said that the baby expressed sadness and fear. Gender is an important piece of information that people use when interpreting emotions.

Related to the gender stereotyping of emotions are a culture’s display rules, which dictate which emotional expressions and behaviors are appropriate for males and females. For example, in some cultures display rules dictate that men cannot express sadness or women cannot express anger. Research indicates that men and women differ in their emotional expressiveness, such that women are more emotionally expressive. Similarly, some research using physiological measures of emotion indicates that women experience more emotional intensity. Women also talk more about their emotions and use more emotion words than men do. This may be related to the fact that women are more aware of their emotions than men are. If our cultural display rules allowed men and women to express the same emotions, some of these gender differences might be different.

Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality have become more accepting and less hostile during the past few decades, though heterosexism and homophobia (a strong irrational fear of homosexuality) are still widespread. Hate crimes are the most extreme examples of such prejudice, though other, more subtle forms also exist. For example, in many states it is legal to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals with regard to housing, employment, and child adoption. Similarly, more and more states are adopting constitutional amendments that define marriage as a legal union only between a man and woman. Typically, LGBTQ partners, sometimes referred to as domestic partners, are not recognized as spouses with regard to child custody, health insurance, power of attorney, or Social Security benefits. Much of this prejudice and discrimination is grounded in the widespread cultural assumption that it is “normal” to be straight and abnormal to be LGBTQ. This assumption is called compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1980). Compulsory heterosexuality sets the stage for heterosexism and stereotyping of LGBTQ individuals. When an LGBTQ individual internalizes compulsory heterosexuality and heterosexism, he or she is likely to experience shame and lower self-esteem. Yet, compulsory heterosexuality has negative effects for straight individuals as well, insofar as it restricts their sexuality and reinforces strict gender roles.

Psychological Differences Between Males and Females

Temperament and Personality

Temperament reflects biologically based emotional and behavioral patterns that appear early in life and is composed of three major traits: effortful control, negative affectivity, and surgency. Personality reflects social and emotional individual differences and is often framed with a five-factor model (known as the “Big Five”): extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. Temperament is related to the development of personality, so we consider gender differences in these domains together.

The factor of effortful control is composed of attention-regulation dimensions (for example, paying attention when one needs to or being easily distracted) as well as inhibitory control. Effortful control is linked to the Big Five personality factor of conscientiousness, which is very similar in men and women. Generally, girls tend to be better than boys at regulating their attention and controlling inappropriate behaviors. The ability to regulate attention is considered a major developmental task in childhood, so it is notable that a difference exists. Elementary school teachers may find this difference particularly noticeable, such that they may need to help boys pay attention in class or find that boys are more disruptive than girls in the classroom.

Negative affectivity comprises dimensions such as anger, frustration, emotional intensity, and fear. The factor is associated with the Big Five trait of neuroticism, on which women tend to be higher than men. Yet, girls and boys are generally similar on negative affectivity, despite stereotypes that girls are more fearful or that boys are more prone to being angry.

Surgency represents a cluster of several dimensions, including approach (i.e., the degree to which a child approaches or withdraws from new experiences), high intensity pleasure, smiling and laughter, activity, impulsivity, and shyness. Some researchers think of surgency as positive affectivity. Surgency is linked to the Big Five trait of extraversion, which shows a mixed pattern of gender differences. Boys tend to score higher on the factor of surgency, reflecting their higher activity levels and enjoyment of rough-and-tumble play.


Aggression refers to behaviors that are intended to harm another person. We can distinguish two major types of aggression, physical and relational. Physical aggression refers to aggressive behaviors that involve a physical attack on another person, such as kicking or pushing. Relational aggression refers to aggressive behaviors that involve insults or social rejection and are aimed at harming social connections, such as spreading rumors. At around two years of age, when children begin playing with one another, gender differences in physical aggression emerge. Boys tend to be significantly more physically aggressive than girls are. Regarding relational aggression, girls may be more likely to resort to relational aggression than physical aggression, in part because there are strict prohibitions against physical aggression for girls. Similarly, some theorists believe that girls use relational aggression because interpersonal relationships and social connections are particularly important to girls.

Why do males and females differ in physical aggression? The root of gender differences in aggression is not entirely clear. Some think it is the result of testosterone, but research does not provide strong support for this view. Others believe that, because the male gender role involves being physically aggressive and powerful, boys behave aggressively because they are allowed or even encouraged to do so. We see many male characters in the media— including films, television, and video games—use physical aggression and violence to solve problems or achieve goals. In this way, a social learning theory perspective on physical aggression is useful. Boys not only observe role models engaging in physical aggression but also are often reinforced for imitating those aggressive behaviors.


Self-esteem refers to the overall positive regard for the self. Although there is a popular belief that women have substantially lower self-esteem than men, meta-analysis indicates that the difference is actually rather small (Kling, Hyde, Showers, & Buswell, 1999). Self-esteem may change throughout the life span; for example, it typically drops during adolescence for both boys and girls, though slightly more for girls. In older adulthood, the gender difference in self-esteem no longer exists. Interestingly, the difference seems to exist primarily in white samples—that is, other ethnic groups show no gender difference in self-esteem. Generally, males and females do not differ in their self-esteem.

Abilities and Achievement

The stereotype that males are better than girls at math is persistent, pervasive, and inaccurate. Despite evidence that boys and girls do not differ substantially in math abilities or aptitude (Spelke, 2005), many people continue to believe that boys outperform girls in math. Girls tend to be better at computation until high school, and there is no gender difference in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Interestingly, girls tend to take fewer math and science courses in high school and college, which may lead to their slightly poorer problem solving during that time. Further, there is no evidence of gender differences in general intelligence or verbal abilities. Boys tend to have stronger spatial abilities, which are important in engineering, yet they can improve their spatial abilities with practice.

Girls get better grades and make better progress than do boys at every grade level and in every subject, and women attend college at higher rates and receive as many or more college and business degrees as men do. Yet, women tend to work in substantially lower-paying and lower-status jobs than men do. Some people argue that job discrimination contributes to this discrepancy, others maintain that our culture devalues women’s work, and still others contend that gender differences in motivation for certain kinds of jobs are responsible. Although it is unclear what causes the gender difference in wages and job status, academic abilities and aptitude are not likely contributors.

Mental Health

There are several mental disorders that show gender difference. Men are three times more likely to experience alcoholism. Yet, women are nine times more likely to be anorexic and twice as likely to experience depression. The theories of each of these disorders are the subject of much research and are too lengthy to discuss here; in this article we will focus on the gender difference in depression.

During childhood, boys and girls have very similar rates of depression. Yet, around age 13, girls’ rates of depression jump to twice those of boys (Hankin et al., 1998). We see this gender difference in depression throughout adulthood and across cultures. Regardless of how we measure depression, twice as many girls and women are depressed than are boys and men.

Why do girls and women show more depression than boys and men do? There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the gender difference in depression, and all have strengths. Some of these theories argue that there is a gender difference in the cognitive vulnerability for depression—that is, something about the way that girls and women think about and interpret their experiences makes them more likely to be depressed when bad things happen to them. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s theory of rumination and Lyn Abramson’s hopelessness theory of depression both argue that there is a cognitive vulnerability for depression. Some research indicates that women and adolescent girls are more likely to display such vulnerability.

Some theorists have argued that more girls and women are depressed because they experience more negative life events than boys and men do. For example, women are more likely to experience childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, poverty, and discrimination. Thus, even if there is no gender difference in cognitive vulnerability to depression, simply experiencing a greater number of negative life events should increase one’s likelihood to be depressed.

How we feel about our bodies is related to our mental health. To some extent, the gender difference in depression is explained by girls’ greater dissatisfaction with their bodies, or poor body image. This is particularly noticeable during adolescence, during the time of gender intensification, which refers to the increased pressure to conform to gender roles. During adolescence, appearance is central to conforming to gender roles just as puberty causes the body shapes of boys and girls to undergo major changes. The increased attention paid to appearance will likely lead to a girl feeling shameful and depressed if she feels she does not fit the beauty standard of her culture.

A related factor is the timing of puberty—that is, whether puberty begins earlier or later can impact our mental health. Boys and girls tend to approach puberty with different attitudes, and the timing of puberty further shapes those attitudes. For girls, early puberty is particularly problematic; if a girl grows breasts before her peers do, she is likely to be the target of sexual harassment and sexual advances from others. Because she is young, she may also lack the coping skills necessary to manage such unwanted attention to her body, which she is likely to feel self-conscious about. This type of girl is at an increased risk for feeling anxious and depressed, as well as for engaging in risky sexual behaviors. For a boy, reaching puberty later than his peers can be stressful. Because boys tend to enjoy and look forward to their pubertal changes, which are often perceived as a marker of their masculinity and bring them closer to the cultural ideal, experiencing such changes at a later age may precipitate harassment from peers.

Peer harassment has become a major area of research in recent years. Peer harassment includes sexual harassment, bullying, and verbal, physical, and sexual aggression. Although roughly the same number of boys and girls experience peer harassment in high school, girls are more likely to be upset about it or feel self-conscious, embarrassed, and less confident because of it. For this reason, peer harassment may help explain girls’ greater incidence of depression.

Another factor that appears linked to the gender difference in depression is violence and poverty. Both violence and poverty are clearly linked to the experience of depression, for obvious reasons. Women and girls are more likely than men and boys to be victimized by childhood sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment, and partner violence. In addition, women appear at increased risk for negative outcomes related to this violence. Some theorists have argued that violence against women is the product of a patriarchal culture in which male dominance and female subordination are central to our social structure (Koss et al., 1994). Similarly, women are increasingly overrepresented among the poor, a trend referred to as the feminization of poverty. The feminization of poverty is related to a number of factors, including the gender differences in wages and childcare responsibilities.

Each of these factors appears to play a role in the gender difference in depression, as none completely explains the discrepancy. It is likely that a combination of these factors contributes to the higher incidence of depression in females beginning at adolescence.


There are several areas of sexuality in which men and women differ. Regarding the immediate effects of the first sexual experience (that is, the first intercourse), women tend to report more guilt and men tend to report more physical pleasure. Among women, feelings of guilt regarding the first experience are more likely when the first sexual experience occurred under the influence of drugs or alcohol or at a younger age. The gender difference in emotional reactions to the first experience may be linked to the gender difference in the ways that we think about sex. Although women are likely to have sex to strengthen relationships and increase intimacy, men are likely to have sex to gain physical pleasure. These gender differences are consistent with men’s more permissive attitudes toward premarital sex. Men are much more likely to have masturbated to orgasm, both in terms of prevalence and incidence, and they are also more likely than women to experience orgasm during intercourse and masturbation (Oliver & Hyde, 1993). Yet, there are also aspects of sexuality in which men and women are very similar. The gender differences in attitudes toward casual sex and in reported sexual satisfaction are very small.

Psychological Differences Between Straight and LGBTQ Individuals

The problem of operationally defining and consistently measuring sexual orientation makes it challenging to interpret research findings on the psychological differences and similarities between straight and LGBTQ individuals. In addition, researchers have given much less research attention to this topic than to the question of psychological gender differences. With regard to the mental health of LGBTQ individuals, research findings from population studies indicate that they are more likely than straight individuals to experience depression and to attempt suicide (Meyer, 2003). These mental health problems may be related to LGBTQ individuals often being the target of prejudice, discrimination, hate crimes, and the stress of concealing one’s sexual orientation for social acceptance. Psychologists agree that LGBTQ individuals are not inherently mentally ill or deviant. Similarly, there is now consensus among psychologists that a sexual orientation toward members of one’s own gender is not a mark of mental illness, though it has not always been understood in this way. Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a psychiatric disorder.

Although LGBTQ romantic relationships are often stereotyped as less stable or satisfactory, they are very similar to straight romantic relationships in terms of satisfactions, loves, joys, and conflicts (Hyde & DeLamater, 2006). Similarly, LGBTQ families show important similarities with straight families. Children of LGBTQ parents are just as likely to grow up to be straight as are children of straight parents (Allen & Burrell, 2002). In addition, children of LGBTQ parents are not different from the children of straight parents in terms of their social skills, mental health, or adjustment (Patterson, 1992). As a result of these research findings, the American Psychological Academy of Pediatrics officially supports adoptions by LGBTQ parents.


Gender and sexual orientation are important dimensions of diversity that, until recent history, received little research attention. This article reviewed some of the theoretical perspectives on gender and sexual orientation, as well as the major research methodologies that are prominent in the field. Findings of psychological differences and similarities between males and females, as well as between straight and LGBTQ individuals, were also discussed in the context of stereotyping and prejudice and the unique experiences that these dimensions of diversity offer.


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