The Case for Nurture

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

The Case for Nurture

She wanted a son. He would be strong and dark, and his name would be Georges. This idea of giving birth to a male was like a hope of compensation for all her past frustrations. A man, at least, is free; he can explore the whole range of the passions, go wherever he likes, overcome obstacles, savor the most exotic pleasures. But a woman is constantly thwarted. Inert and pliable, she is restricted by her physical weakness and her legal subjection. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat with a cord, quivers with every wind; there is always some desire urging her forward, always some convention holding her back.

The baby was born at six o'clock on a Sunday morning, at sunrise.

"It's a girl!" said Charles.

She turned her head away and fainted.

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert (1857)

Like many great writers, Flaubert had the uncanny ability to get inside the head of his characters. With a leap of empathy, he imagined the world from the viewpoint of a common, middle-class woman—Emma Bovary—and in so doing, he described how the life of a 19th century women was constrained by a host of social conventions and legal restrictions. With a cynical irony, Flaubert understood too that sexism can be lodged in a woman's as well as in a man's mind, and that vanity, frailty, and self-delusion are human characteristics that know no gender. Flaubert helped us understand the complexities of gender by portraying the myriad events that mold the lives of individual women and men.

Scientific research provides another, complementary route to understanding the ways in which society molds men and women. By collecting and analyzing empirical data, researchers have methodically dissected the social pressures that produce both sex differences in behavior and individual differences in masculinity and femininity.

This chapter summarizes research evidence on how various social factors influence gender. The central argument is as follows. Girls and boys are reared differently by parents, they are treated differently by teachers and peers, and they imitate different models in the mass media and in society at large. More broadly, the argument is that social roles and institutions channel the lives of boys and girls and of men and women. In short, this chapter argues that social pressures enforce and reinforce many differences between the sexes.

Throughout much of the 20th century, social scientists believed that parental rearing and social learning held the key to understanding sex differences in behavior and individual differences in masculinity and femininity. A huge amount of research focused on how parents treat girls and boys differently and how society—in the form of teachers and the mass media—provides different models for girls and boys (Huston, 1983; Mischel, 1966; Ruble & Martin, 1998; Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957; Sews, Rau, & Alpert, 1965). This socialization perspective tended to portray children as blank slates, ready to absorb the gender lessons provided by their surroundings.

Starting in the 1960s, psychologists increasingly realized that children engage in a kind of self-socialization as well (Kohlberg, 1966; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). Children do not simply respond to outside pressures when they act like girls and boys; they also actively try to understand gender as best as their developing minds will allow (Martin, 2000). According to this cognitive perspective, children label themselves as female or male, they try to understand what these labels mean, and they often act in accordance with their developing knowledge of gender (see Chapter 3). The cognitive perspective notes that human beings, unlike lower animals, are conscious creatures with self-concepts. Once children develop gender self-concepts, they try to act in accordance with them. The question then becomes; How do children acquire gender self-concepts and other sorts of knowledge about gender, and how do children's self-concepts and gender knowledge guide their behavior as boys and girls? Certainly, a central source of information about gender is the social environment: family role models, teachers, peers, and the mass media.

The 1980s witnessed another extension to socialization theory when psychologists realized that, even after including self-socialization in their theories of gender development, they still did not fully understand how girls and boys come to differ in their behaviors (Maccoby, 1990; Martin, 2000). Research increasingly suggested that peer socialization was also important. Researchers honed in on an important phenomenon of early and middle childhood—sex segregation—the strong tendency for children to interact and play mostly with members of their own sex. Childhood sex segregation is strictly enforced in some cultures, and thus it may result sometimes from parental rearing and social rules (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). However, sex segregation also occurs in cultures that do not directly encourage it, including much middle-class culture found in the United States.

Regardless of their rearing, children the world over segregate by sex, and this suggests that girls and boys respond to one another in ways that are not always dictated by their parents or cultures. Children have their own cultures, which differ from adult cultures, and children may often be more influenced by peers than by adults (Harris, 1995). Obvious examples are when children learn obscenities, slang, games, fashions, and Internet skills from other children, sometimes to the despair of their parents.

Because parents start the process of gender socialization, I start by describing how they sometimes treat their daughters and sons differently. Next I turn to how children learn gender lessons at school, from peers, and from the mass media. Then I consider the self-socialization of gender, that is, how children acquire knowledge about their own and others' gender. Such knowledge includes stereotypes about the two sexes—beliefs about how male and females differ—and attitudes about what is appropriate for the two sexes.

Once gender stereotypes come into being, they influence behavior in predictable ways. First, they act as standards that guide people's actions (e.g., when a woman acts in "feminine" way on a first date). Second, they cause people to encourage gender-stereotypical behavior in others (e.g., when a manager reins in an aggressive female employee more than he reigns in an equally aggressive male employee). Finally, negative stereotypes about the relative abilities of women and men sometimes serve to undermine individuals' performance (e.g., when a girl experiences doubts about her math ability because of the stereotype that girls aren't really good at math).

I conclude with a discussion of broad social factors that lead men and women to behave differently. These factors include restrictive gender roles, status differences between women and men, and patriarchal social structures that empower men and devalue women. Overall, the evidence will suggest that social and environmental forces have a potent impact on the various phenomena we label gender.