How men and women, and girls and boys, differ from each other has been the focus of much study in developmental psychology. Numerous newspaper and magazines articles on the topic of gender differences attest to their importance outside developmental psychology as well. Gender refers to the societal, social, and behavioral ways that are associated with being male or female. This entry considers issues pertinent to the study of gender differences, examines gender differences and their causes from a variety of theoretical perspectives, and concludes with the social and political implications of these differences.
Discussion of gender differences entails many research issues. Foremost among them is the debate centered on whether the study of gender differences should continue. Arguments against continued study posit that cataloging of gender differences does not reveal their origins and, instead, reifies gender distinctions. Others charge that social scientists accept new discoveries, despite the possible discomfort such politically charged information may cause. Regardless of the validity of these arguments, many researchers argue that research into gender differences, especially with a focus on context, may begin to elucidate origins of these differences. We will return to this issue in greater depth in the conclusion of this entry, during the discussion of the political and social implications of gender differences.
Given the highly political nature of this topic, a few caveats are worth mentioning. First, when there are differences between girls and boys, the differences tend to be small. In fact, girls and boys are more alike than they are different. There are also large individual differences. For example, a particular girl may not act in a feminine-stereotyped manner. Second, gender differences vary depending on the context in which they are measured. For instance, when playing with same gender peers, boys are more assertive than girls. Playing with girls, however, boys are no more assertive than girls. Thus, the answer to whether boys are more assertive than girls is contingent on their partner. Third, many sex differences, such as differences in math ability, are disappearing over time. The second two points suggest that gender differences may be magnified and perpetuated more by the cultural context of development than by biology alone. Finally, transgendered and some intersex individuals choose not to identify with either gender. As research continues to evolve on the topic of gender differences, the degree to which gender differences are maintained by the cultural milieu will be understood better.
Differences Between Males And Females
Cognitive and Intellectual Achievement
Developed in the late 1970s, meta-analysis enables the statistical combination of the findings of different studies to find an overall effect size. Psychologists have used meta-analyses of previous research to facilitate compilations of gender differences across many studies. Using meta-analytic techniques, Janet Shibley Hyde argues that males and females do not differ in general intelligence. However, Hyde and colleagues found differences in mathematics, verbal performance, and spatial rotation skills.
In most cases, Hyde and colleagues found that females were slightly superior to males in mathematics achievement, but this difference is small.
Depending on the particular type of math achievement studied, there are gender differences. For example, girls outperform boys in computation once children enter school until they finish high school, but there is no difference between girls and boys after high school. Until high school, there are no gender differences in problem-solving ability. Beginning in high school, however, boys outperform girls in problem-solving ability. In highly selected samples of gifted children, boys tend to surpass girls. Gender differences in math achievement have become smaller in recent years; this change suggests that as girls and boys are given equal access and encouragement in school, gender differences may eventually disappear.
Analogous to mathematics performance, Hyde found that females surpass males in verbal performance. Again, these differences are small. In fact, there is more overlap in scores between girls and boys and women and men than there are differences. Performance differences do not become apparent until age 26, when women surpass men in general verbal performance. When different types of verbal performance are examined, patterns diverge. For example, boys score higher than girls on vocabulary tests in early elementary school, but the difference reverses, with women performing better on vocabulary tests than men after age 19. In early elementary school, girls surpass boys in verbal ability with higher scores on early reading comprehension tests. As is the case with mathematics, differences between the genders are becoming smaller over time.
Marcia Linn found one cognitive difference that is more sizeable, which is the difference in spatial ability. Males surpass females in spatial ability tasks, such as rotating objects in space.
Focusing specifically on gender, the American Association for University Women examined academic progress. Girls consistently earn better grades than boys across different subject matters. Additionally, girls are less likely to repeat a grade than boys. Women are more likely to go to college than men and earn 56% of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States.
Contrasting with their achievement in good grades, however, girls sometimes perform more poorly on standardized tests than boys. The National Assessment of Educational Progress measures children’s school performance via standardized assessments. In reading and writing, girls tend to score higher than boys, whereas in math, science, and geography, boys tend to score higher than girls.
When ethnicity is examined as well as gender, some of the gender differences disappear. For example, Latina girls score higher than Latino boys in reading as well as in math. African American girls score higher than African American boys in reading as well as science. These findings suggest that gender cannot be considered apart from other factors, such as ethnic background. They also underscore the variability that is found between girls and boys of different ethnic backgrounds and the need to understand gender in the context of other variables.
In summary, there are few gender differences in cognitive or intellectual achievement, and there are variations based on ethnic as well as gender differences. Although there are few differences in children’s intellectual ability and achievement, there are differences in how children rate their abilities. For example, Jacquelynne Eccles found that girls are more likely than boys to attribute their success in math to effort than ability, whereas boys are more likely to attribute their success in math to ability rather than effort.
Social and Personality Differences
Few differences in personality arise between boys and girls. Some believe that boys are more physically active than girls. However, Eleanor Maccoby argues that activity level is context dependent. Playing alone, boys and girls are equally active. Playing with a same gender pair, however, boys were more active than girls. That children’s behavior changes so dramatically with a peer suggests that children may be constructing gender. Another difference when children play together is that boys are more likely than girls to engage in what Maccoby calls “rough-and-tumble play.” That is, boys often wrestle together and will play physically.
In addition to observing larger gender differences, another important reason to study children playing in same-gender pairs is that children segregate based on gender at a young age. Watching children on a playground or in a classroom, a casual observer notices that children tend to gender-segregate at an early age. Campbell Leaper argues that by the time children are 3 years old they select same-gender peer playmates. In same-gender pairs, girls’ talk can be characterized by a collaborative style. Girls focus on social sensitivity and conflict mitigation while interacting with other girls. In other words, girls seem to prefer smooth social interactions with each other. Leaper finds that girls often use suggestions and begin sentences with “let’s.” In contrast, boy pairs are apt to have a dominant style. Boys tend to be assertive and heavy-handed during conflict. Boys use commands to control other children. However, when girls and boys play together, some of the differences disappear. For example, children are less controlling and domineering when they play with girls than with boys. Girls tend to be more assertive when paired with a boy than with a girl. Thus, children’s perceptions of their partner mitigate some of the gender effects.
Some early research suggested that boys were more aggressive than girls. However, more recent research conducted by Nicki Crick and Jennifer Grotpeter suggests that levels of aggression are related to how psychologists operationally define aggression. Boys tend to display their aggression through physical means, whereas girls tend to display their aggression through verbal means, which is called relational aggression. For example, girls tease and exclude peers from a social activity with the intent of causing harm.
Exploration of gender differences in emotion has focused on differences in experience and expression. Although the research on emotional experience and expression contains many methodological problems, Leslie Brody’s review finds that theorists believe that females, in comparison with their male counterparts, may be more emotionally expressive, shameful, envious, and helpless, and experience and express less anger and guilt. These suppositions are congruent with the widely held stereotype that women are more emotional than men. However, the empirical literature has not always upheld this stereotype.
In general, Brody reviews a sizeable amount of research showing marked differences in the emotional expressiveness of females compared with males. For example, work by Caroline Saarni has shown that girls are better at hiding negative emotions and are more likely to regulate their expression of emotion to keep in line with the display rules, or cultural standards, of the situation than are boys. Robin Fivush and colleagues suggest that girls place negative emotions, especially anger and fear, in a more interpersonal context than do boys. Consistent with this suggestion is the argument that males are less interpersonally oriented when compared with females. Moreover, Brody finds that males are less likely to express sadness and withdraw more from sad situations, whereas females exhibit their sadness in a more outward way, such as by crying. Fivush consistently finds that girls elaborate more when talking about emotions and generally talk more about emotions than do boys. As adults, women continue to talk about emotions more, and exhibit more intense emotional facial expressions than do men. In contrast, Brody suggests that as infants, boys express emotions–both facially and behaviorally– more intensely than do girls. Although differences in emotional experience and expression are found, these differences do not support the stereotype that women are more emotional than men.
Self-report measures reveal that males and females differ in the intensity and frequency in which they experience emotion. The specific emotions mentioned and the degree to which males and females differ, however, varies from study to study. Generally, females report more intense and more frequent emotional experiences when compared with their male counterparts, especially those associated with negative emotionality according to Stephanie Shields and Fivush. Notably, Brody finds that several studies have reported no significant sex differences in the experience of anger despite its stereotypical association with men.
Why do sex differences occur? Fivush has attributed these differences to various factors, such as the socialization of emotions by parents and peers, emotions being influenced by the culture and society in which one lives, and the situational context. For example, Judy Dunn found that mothers spoke more about emotions with girls than with boys.
Self-esteem refers to how highly an individual evaluates oneself. Although researchers had hypothesized that males would have higher self-esteem than females, Brenda Major’s meta-analytic review finds that males have only slightly higher self-esteem than females. Moreover, this gender difference seems to occur with females of European American ethnicity only. The American Association of University Women reports that compared with boys, girls’ self-esteem drops after age 9. In contrast to European Americans, there is no difference between African American females and males. The lack of a difference in African American participants underscores that culture influences self-esteem and its expression.
Anecdotal records suggest that children differ in their toy preferences. Researchers, such as Melissa Hines, have found that girls like to play with dolls and kitchen sets. Boys like to play with trucks and construction sets. These preferences are established by age 2. Similarly, girls and boys like to do different things. Boys prefer to play more actively than girls. Perhaps, the difference in preference for higher activity levels drives boys’ preferences for certain toys.
Children endorse gender-typed behaviors and beliefs at a young age. Not surprisingly, boys uphold these beliefs more than do girls. Part of the reason boys may endorse the gender norms to a high degree is that males have more power than females in the society. Moreover, informal observations suggest that boys are more harshly criticized for failing to uphold gender norms than are girls. Consider, for example the negativity associated with the epithet, sissy, compared with its relatively less censuring counterpart, tomboy.
Theories Of Gender Differences And Development
Many theories have been proposed to explain gender development and why girls and boys may develop differently. These theories include biological, social learning, and cognitive approaches.
Many biological theories of gender differences focus on hormonal influences. For obvious ethical reasons, we cannot experimentally manipulate individuals’ hormonal levels simply to test the effects of hormones on gender development. However, there are “natural” experiments in which genetic conditions alter the amount of hormones to which fetuses are exposed. One such condition is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). In this condition, genetic males (i.e., possessing XY chromosomes) and genetic females (i.e., possessing XX chromosomes) are exposed prenatally to excess amount of androgen. As a result of the excess androgens, the genitalia of girls with CAH are often masculinized. At birth, a girl’s enlarged clitoris may appear to be a phallus. Before the advent of routine genetic testing, girls with CAH were raised as boys. Presently, however, girls with CAH tend to be raised as girls. Some parents opt for medical interventions to change girls’ genitalia. (However, surgery is controversial because it can destroy orgasmic function.) Studying genetic females with CAH enables researchers to examine hormonal influences separate from biological sex. In her studies of girls prenatally exposed to androgen, Hines has compared girls with CAH, boys with CAH, unaffected girls, and unaffected boys. Although unaffected boys often engage in more rough-and-tumble play than unaffected girls, girls with CAH do not engage in more rough-and tumble play than unaffected girls. However, Sheri Berenbaum and Hines find that girls with CAH prefer more masculine-stereotyped toys (e.g., playing with balls or guns) than unaffected girls. Hines suggests, thus, that hormonal influences may play a role in children’s toy preferences. Of course it is difficult to tease apart social and cognitive factors. Girls with CAH may be aware that they are different from unaffected girls and think that they are more masculine than their unaffected peers. Moreover, that they do not demonstrate more rough-and-tumble play suggests that hormones do not control behavior. However, this is not meant to propose that hormonal influences do not contribute to gender differences. It seems that hormones may act in concert with the social environment to produce differences.
According to social learning theorists such as Albert Bandura, children learn behaviors through modeling, reinforcement, motivation, and behavioral enactment. Children learn from modeling by paying selective attention to same-gender models that they imitate. For example, a daughter may decide to wear makeup after watching her mother apply makeup. A son may decide to pretend to shave after watching his father shave. Supporting social learning theory, experimental studies find that children imitate people of the same gender more than the other gender.
Another component of social learning theory posits that children receive reinforcement for performing behaviors that are stereotyped for their gender and receive punishment for performing behaviors that are stereotyped for the other gender. A study conducted by Beverly Fagot and colleagues revealed reinforcement of gender stereotypical behavior in young children. Day care providers were more likely to respond to gestures, gentle touch, and talk from girls than boys. In contrast, they were more likely to respond to physical action, screams, and whining from boys than girls. When the researchers returned to the day care site 11 months later, girls talked more than boys, whereas boys engaged in more negative behavior than did girls. From their findings, Fagot and colleagues maintained that the children developed their behaviors as a direct result of positive reinforcement from caregivers.
Contextual and Social Theories
Alice Eagly developed role theory, which suggests that personality differences arise from the different roles assigned to women and men. Most of these roles developed as a function of child rearing. She argues that were roles to become similar for men and women, gender differences in personality would disappear.
Social Psychological Theory
Kay Deaux and Major argue that the display of gender differences is predicated on how gender is negotiated between the perceiver and the target. All people bring beliefs about gender into their interactions that contribute to how gender is perceived and enacted within the interaction. A self-fulfilling prophecy results in the perpetuation of gendered behavior in social interaction. Moreover, perceivers may interpret behavior as conforming to gender norms more than it actually does.
Separate Cultures Theory
Play segregated by gender facilitates the development of gendered norms in play. Maccoby suggests that these norms perpetuate separate cultures for males and females, which lead to gender differences in behavior.
Cognitive Developmental Theory
Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a cognitive development theory in which children go through various stages in their development of gender-typed behavior and identity. In the first stage, gender identity, children are able to label themselves, which typically occurs when children are 2 years old. Between 3 and 4 years of age, children begin to understand that gender is stable over time. For example, children realize that when they grow up, they will remain the same gender. Entrance into the third stage, gender constancy, is predicated on the gender constancy or the belief that gender remains constant across situations. For instance, children understand that even were they to engage in cross-gender typed behaviors (e.g., a boy playing with baby dolls), their gender would not change. Kohlberg believes that it is not until children have achieved gender constancy that they engage in gender-typed behaviors. At this point, children identify with their same-gender group and try to act like other members of their gender group.
Critiques of cognitive developmental theory are many. One important criticism is that children act in a gender-stereotypical manner long before they have achieved gender constancy.
Gender Schema Theory
Building on prior schema theories, Sandra Bem, Hazel Markus, and Carol Martin proposed gender schema theory in the early 1980s. Gender schema theory emerged from cognitive developmental theory and information-processing theory. It applies gender to more general schema theories. Simply put, a schema is a conceptual network that helps people reason more effectively and quickly. Schemas allow people to interpret their experiences, understand their past, and make inferences about behavior. Consequently, in gender schema theory, peoples’ theories about gender allow them to simplify a large body of knowledge and to apply this knowledge easily to themselves and to others.
Martin posits that through involvement and observation of cultural practices, children begin to understand that gender is a dichotomous organizer of cultural activities, forming the basis for their gender schema. Once these schemas are internalized, children and adults sort traits, behaviors, and activities into two categories: one for women and one for men. After sorting these traits, behaviors, and so forth, individuals select the ones that are consonant with their gender stereotype. In an experimental study, Martin and colleagues showed individual children novel objects that were placed in boxes labeled “for girls,” “for boys,” or “for both girls and boys.” The researchers took the objects out of the box and taught children three things about the objects. Children were left alone in a room to explore the objects. A week later, children returned to the university laboratory and were tested about the objects. As expected, children were more likely to explore objects that were labeled for their own gender. Moreover, children remembered more about the objects labeled for their gender. Simply labeling an object for one’s gender is enough to make children prefer an object.
Social learning and cognitive theories similarly agree that children learn about gender stereotypes from interacting with others. Most people accept that children do not develop in isolation, but instead learn in relationships with important others. Thus, it is important to examine what children might learn about gender in their daily lives both by observing others and through actual interactions with others.
Children’s earliest and arguably most important relationships begin with their parents. Beginning in infancy, parents treat girls and boys differently. How different, however, is debatable. For instance, a meta-analysis conducted by Hugh Lytton and David Romney found that the only way in which parents treated girls and boys differently was that they encouraged children’s gender stereotypical preferences. Most of the articles they reviewed relied on self-report measures, such as questionnaires asking parents how they treated their children. Leaper and colleagues reviewed studies that actually examined mothers talking with their children. In their review, they found larger differences. For instance, mothers talked more to girls than to boys. Parents may also speak differently to sons and daughters. For example, Harriet Tenenbaum and Leaper examined parents’ scientific explanations to their children during everyday science conversations. Girls and boys did not differ in their math or science grades, interest, or confidence. Despite the lack of differences between girls and boys, fathers used more scientific explanations with their sons than with their daughters. In contrast, fathers asked more questions of daughters than of sons while discussing an interpersonal conflict. Fathers’ talk may help boys develop more in-depth knowledge about science and help girls develop interpersonal skills.
Much research suggests that girls receive less of teachers’ attention within classrooms than do boys. Allison Kelly’s meta-analysis of 81 studies found that, in general, boys received more teacher attention than did girls. For example, it was found that boys received more praise, criticism, and response opportunities. The only exception to boys’ advantage was that girls were more likely to receive a second chance to answer teachers’ questions. In general, it seems, boys receive more teacher attention than do girls. Moreover, many schools perpetuate children’s differences through practices such as having children forming separate lines or teams during class work.
By playing with same-gender peers, children create sex differences. For example, children’s play with same-gender peers may follow gender-appropriate behaviors more strictly than when playing with other gender peers. Moreover, children police each other’s adoption of gender-appropriate behaviors. Throughout childhood, children may more strictly enforce adherence to gender than other socializing agents.
Social And Political Implications
Lively debate attests to the social and political implications of the study of gender differences. Foremost amongst the debate is the concern that attention to difference will depict women as inferior to men. This concern stems from women’s societal oppression. Effects of women’s inferior societal position include, but are not limited to, women’s lower wages than men, women’s increased risk for sexual and physical abuse at the hands of men, and that girls are less likely to be educated in much of the world than are boys.
Resulting from this concern, some feminist scholars have argued for the discontinued study of gender differences. For example, Bernice Lott posits that compilation of sex differences will increase men’s power. These concerns are not unfounded. According to Eccles, mothers’ endorsement of the cultural stereotypes favoring boys over girls in mathematics ability correlated with mothers’ lower perceptions of their daughters’ mathematics abilities.
According to Eagly, feminist scholars studying gender differences historically have followed two main research agendas. The first was to render differences as minimal to demonstrate that women and men are basically the same, and thus equal. In this way, psychologists could demonstrate that cultural stereotypes are not based in reality. Because men are viewed as the norm, any difference from men is deficient. The second main feminist agenda allowed for differences between men and women, but viewed women as superior (e.g., more caring, nurturing) than men. These two approaches are so common in scientific psychology that Rachel Hare-Mutin and Jeanne Marecek termed the first a beta bias, which is a preference to minimize differences. In contrast, an alpha bias is the desire to exaggerate gender differences.
Viewing gender as constructed in social interaction, Marecek debates whether gender is a stable, internal, individual difference characteristic. Moreover, given that generic men and women, girls and boys, do not exist, how can knowing about average characteristics uncover understanding of behavior? Instead, Marecek argues that gender needs to be understood in its sociocultural historical context. Indeed, as mentioned throughout this review, gender differences are not stable across different ethnic and cultural groups.
Another concern raised by feminists, such as Carol Tavris, is that documenting sex differences will not enable understanding of the power differential. For example, given women’s higher academic achievement, why do they earn less money than men? Eagley counters with hopes that continued study of gender differences will give rise to an understanding of the causes of gender inequities. This information will then aid feminists in decreasing women’s unequal societal status.
There are small gender differences in specific cognitive abilities, personality attributes, and emotional expression. Gender differences in preferences are larger. The antecedents and causes of gender differences are not yet fully understood. Continued research on gender differences, as well as the political implications, will enable a greater understanding of gender in context.
- American Association of University W (1998). How schools shortchange girls. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
- Bland, (1998). About gender: Differences. Retrieved from http://www.gender.org.uk/about/00_diffs.htm
- Brody, R. (1985). Gender differences in emotional development: A review of theories and research. Journal of Personality, 53, 102–149.
- Eccles, J. S. (1994). Understanding women’s educational and occupational choices: Applying the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 585–609.
- Leaper, (2002). Parenting girls and boys. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting: Vol. 1. Children and parenting (2nd ed., pp. 127–152). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Lott, , & Eagly, A. H. (1997). Research priorities: Should we continue to study gender differences? In M. R. Walsh (Ed.), Women, men, & gender: Ongoing debates (pp. 15–31). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Maccoby, E. E. (1998). The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University