Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in Gender

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Sex and Gender[edit]

Sex (Biological Status)[edit]

An individual’s biologically-determined genetic make-up, ie. their chromosomes. Differences in the 23rd chromosome results in hormonal and anatomical differences that help distinguish the two sexes. The SRY (Sex-determining Region Y) gene on the Y chromosome results in androgen production, producing the hormonal and anatomical differences that help distinguish the two sexes. Testes develop in the presence of androgens. This gene is not present in the X chromosome and so androgens are not produced, resulting in the individual being a female.

Gender (Psychosexual Status)[edit]

Gender encompasses the attitudes, roles and behaviours associated with being a given sex. It is a more fluid concept than sex in that masculinity and femininity operate along a spectrum and that individuals are able to shift between both ends of it.

Gender Development[edit]

There appears to be no universal truth behind the development of gender. The debate is largely run between nativists and hereditarians and so theories typically compete on the basis of whether gender is developed through an individual’s environment or whether it is biologically-determined.

Biological explanations[edit]


Testosterone, a sex hormone abundant in males, is released in the womb and causes the development of male sex organs and has effects on the hypothalamus - contributing to the ‘masculinization’ of neural structures. It is also associated with behaviours such as aggression and competitiveness.

  • Van de Poll et al. (1988) illustrated that testosterone injections in female rats induced physical and sexual aggression.
  • Dabbs et al. (1995) found the highest testosterone levels in offenders who have committed violent or sexually-motivated crimes.

Oestrogen plays a key role in female development by controlling the menstrual cycle. Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) - heightened irritability and emotionality - is experienced by some women during the menstrual cycle.

Neural structures[edit]

Between males and females, differences in brain structures can be seen in the sexually dimorphic nucleus where this structure is considerably smaller in females

Social explanations[edit]

Such supporting observations in biological explanations allow for a synthetic (empirical) truth to be established. However, the extent of this would also depend on the means of operationalisation of physical and sexual aggression as well as sexual/violent motivations. There is no direct and accurate way of measuring such factors, resulting in observations being subject to a degree of interpretation and observer bias. The degree of truth in the role of biological factors (hormones specifically), therefore, would ultimately depend on the degree to which interpretations of observed behaviours were skewed.

Advocates of social explanations reject biological explanations. For instance, PMS has been said to be more of a social construction rather than a biological fact (Rodin, 1992). Feminists utilise this as an example of the medicalisation of women’s lives by using biological means to explain their emotions, thus suggesting that the impact of oestrogen (and hormones) might be exaggerated in biological explanations.

Social learning theory[edit]

Social learning theory suggests that gender is learnt through the observation and imitation of others. It therefore puts forward a focus on the environment when considering gender development, with vicarious reinforcement and punishment being the main processes involved. Vicarious reinforcement and punishment occur when a behaviours are learnt through observing others and making judgements on whether behaviours are appropriate and should be repeated based on how favourable consequences are.

Social learning theory suggests that boys and girls are differentially reinforced for different behaviours and this accounts for distinctly different gender roles, behaviours and attitudes. The child identifies with role models and imitates their behaviour. Modelling occurs in two ways - when the behaviour is first displayed for the child by a role model and when the child imitates the behaviour shown. Bandura identified 4 meditational processes in the process - attention, reproduction, motivation and motor reproduction.

Smith and Lloyd (1980) observed adults with 4 to 6 month-old babies dressed half the time in boys’ clothes and half the time in girls’ clothes irrespective of actual sex. Boys were given a hammer-snapped rattle where active and adventurous was encouraged while dolls were given to girls with reinforcement for passivity and praise for 'being pretty'. This, therefore, illustrates how gender-appropriate behaviours are engrained from a very early age, providing support for the role of differential reinforcement in social learning theory.

Explanations from Cross-Cultural Studies in Anthropology[edit]

Cross-cultural studies illustrate differences in gender roles across cultures, illustrating how gender roles might actually be formed from cultural forces. Mead (1931) studied tribal groups in New Guinea and found differences in their behaviour. People in the Arapesh tribe took on feminine roles where they were gentle and responsive while people in the Mundugumor tribe were aggressive and hostile (Western stereotype of masculinity). People in the Tchambuli tribe organised themselves along the reverse of the Western stereotypes of masculinity and femininity where women organised village life and were dominant while men held decorative roles and were passive.

Different Truths in Sex and Gender[edit]

Truth is defined as the conformity between facts and reality. There are three main theories of knowledge: Positivism, which looks at what is realist, the reality, Interpretive, which is much more about the people’s feelings Constructivism (or social constructionism), which analyses how humans create/socially construct the world they live in

While studying gender, it is crucial to approach it with these three main theories of knowledge. For a positivist, gender is determined by the sexual organ one has. In sciences, truth is empirical, and needs proof and quantitative evidence. It aims to be rational, objective and value free. Therefore, scientists, when looking at gender, will be looking at the biological status and the scientific facts and tests. However, many recognise medicine is an incomplete science, and so often cannot speak of truth. This is what criticize constructivists. For a constructivist, you are male or female depending how you were educated. Since kindergarten, children are separated by gender, for sports, games... Therefore, constructivism believes that you aren’t born male or female, but you become and grow into a certain gender. However, this construction may be affected by the people in your environment: if your parents are positivists, they will educate you according to their definition of gender. Values differ and education will follow according to these. This is what criticizes the interpretive theory. Finally, interpretive theory gives particular attention to what people actually feel, and to which gender they relate to the most. They don’t believe in the biological status, or the social construction, and think that people are the gender they feel like being. This is a much more liberal approach of gender, giving freedom to people to choose what they are most comfortable being. Therefore, gender is a truly subjective notion, giving people the opportunity to figure out who they are.


1. Hiort O. The differential role of androgens in early human sex development. BMC Medicine [Internet]. 2013 [cited 13 November 2019];11(1). Available from:

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3. Dabbs J, Carr T, Frady R, Riad J. Testosterone, crime, and misbehavior among 692 male prison inmates. Personality and Individual Differences. 1995;18(5):627-633.

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6. Smith C, Lloyd B. Maternal Behavior and Perceived Sex of Infant: Revisited. Child Development. 1978;49(4):1263.

7. Mead M. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. 1st ed. New York: William Morrow and Company; 2003.