Gender Past, Present, and Future - Summary and Reflection

The Psychology of Sex and Gender - Jennifer Katherine Bosson, Joseph Alan Vandello, Camille E. Buckner 2022

Gender Past, Present, and Future
Summary and Reflection

Where has the field of gender psychology been, where is it now, and where is it heading?

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Gender Past: Where Were We (in the 19th and 20th Centuries)?

Gender Present: Where Are We Now (in the 21st Century)?

· Theme 1: Critical Thinking and Systematic Research

o “Male” and “Female” Hormones

o Effect Sizes of Psychological Sex Differences

o Transgender, Agender, and Intersex People

· Theme 2: The Interconnectedness of Nature and Nurture

· Theme 3: Status, Power, and Intersectionality

Gender Future: Where Are We Going?

· Methodological Advances

· Unanswered Questions

Revisiting Our Challenge to You: Critical Thinking


Students who read this chapter should be able to do the following:

· 15.1 Identify how past developments in gender psychology have shaped the present field.

· 15.2 Evaluate central themes in the present field of gender psychology, particularly in terms of critiquing the sex and gender binaries.

· 15.3 Identify gaps in our current understandings of gender and important questions that face the field of gender psychology as we move forward.

· 15.4 Demonstrate the habit of critical thinking about gender and carry this practice forward in their daily lives.


As we wrap up this textbook, it is worth considering the state of the field by asking: Where has gender psychology been in the past, where is it now, and where is it heading? Note that these questions are not new. Many times over the years, gender researchers have paused to take stock of the field. In 1935, Catherine Cox Miles published perhaps the first major review of sex and gender research, covering psychology’s first 50 years. What were the hot trends in sex and gender at that time? Miles (1935) identified four: (1) the development of sex-typical behaviors and expressions in boys and girls, (2) marriage and sex norms across cultures, (3) sexual behavior, including acts considered “deviant,” and (4) psychoanalytic views of sex (see Biernat & Deaux, 2012). Some of these topics, like the development of sex-typed behaviors and attitudes, are still central themes in sex and gender research. Others, like Freudian psychoanalytic theories of sex, have lost influence among many research psychologists. Now, almost a century after Miles’s review, we once again assess the current trends in sex and gender research and identify the unanswered questions that promise to shape the future of this field.

In this chapter, we prompt reflection on the past, present, and future of gender psychology. We ask you to consider what you learned throughout this book, draw conclusions, and generate ideas. Understanding the past and present of gender psychology serves important functions. Reconsidering the past gives us some perspective in assessing the current state of the field, and evaluating both past and present understandings of sex and gender helps us identify important questions that may guide the field in the years ahead. Here, we offer a framework for looking forward, along with a purposeful summary of the big picture themes that run throughout the field and this book. As a rough demarcation, we will consider the “past” as including both 19th- and 20th-century gender psychology and the “present” as running from the beginning of the 21st century through today.

What important questions do you think will shape the field of gender psychology in the years ahead?

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What were the major methods and findings of gender psychology in its beginning? In the 19th century, researchers who studied gender sometimes used science in questionable ways, to reinforce the gender stereotypes of the time rather than build genuine understandings of sex and gender. As the study of gender evolved over time, it coincided with and was informed by real-world movements of individuals who advocated for women’s rights and gender equality. Gender psychology also became a more coherent field in the 20th century as researchers pushed for more careful and self-aware research methods. In this section, we will recap psychological research on gender in the 19th and 20th centuries, tracing the threads that brought us to the field as we know it today (see Table 15.1 for an overview).

As discussed in Chapter 7 (“Cognitive Abilities and Aptitudes”), influential gender researchers in the 19th century often focused on identifying structural brain differences that could explain women’s intellectual inferiority and thereby justify their lower-status social roles (Shields, 1975). In many cases, researchers’ preexisting beliefs (in the intellectual superiority of men) guided and biased the research process, shaping both the methods used and the conclusions drawn. Some pioneers pushed back, noting the misuse of science for social and political ends. As you may recall from Chapter 2 (“Studying Sex and Gender”), Helen Thompson-Woolley (1903)—one of the first women to receive a doctorate in experimental psychology—found only negligible sex differences in intellectual abilities in her dissertation research. Thompson-Woolley’s frustration with the field of gender research was evident when she remarked: “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here.”

Table 15.1


Although scientists strive to be objective, human biases can shape the questions asked, the methods used, and the interpretations given. Since our understandings of sex and gender are continually evolving, what seems like “fact” today may seem like “bias” tomorrow. What assumptions made by gender researchers today do you think may come across as biased when evaluated 10 or 20 years from now?

In the mid-19th century, women did not have full voting rights anywhere in the world, and those who pursued higher education routinely faced discrimination (Rutherford & Granek, 2010). For example, U.S. universities such as Harvard and Princeton did not grant women doctoral degrees until the 1960s. In North America and Europe, women—and especially White women of middle and upper classes—were generally expected to marry, have children, and remain in the domestic sphere. Further, as discussed in Chapter 10 (“Interpersonal Relationships”), the institution of marriage granted more authority to men than women, as married women legally transferred their identities, property, and earnings to their husbands (Coontz, 2006). Many women during this era were viewed as fragile, weak, and emotional, and they were often confined to bed during pregnancy (Malone, 2000), as you read in Chapter 12 (“Gender and Physical Health”).

Women marching for voting rights in New York City in 1912. In 1920, the United States passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged...on account of sex.”

Source: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

In response to these inequities, women began to organize and advocate for their economic, educational, and political (voting) rights during this era. Recall from Chapter 6 (“Power, Sexism, and Discrimination”) that collective action is behavior enacted on behalf of a group with the goal of improving conditions for the entire group. Also recall that cultural ideologies—such as benevolent sexism, which portrays women as weak but warm—can undermine collective action by encouraging members of subordinate groups to justify their lower status. For example, the less structural power women have relative to men across cultures, the more they accept cultural ideologies that perpetuate their relative lack of power (Glick et al., 2004). Before people will disrupt their lives and engage in collective action, they must perceive enough unfair treatment and group disadvantage that it triggers anger (Wright, 2010). This began to happen across the 19th century as women around the world mobilized to push for voting rights, leading many countries to grant women full voting rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, New Zealand was the first country to grant voting rights to women in 1893, and the United States was the twelfth in 1920 (Hjelmgaard, 2018). Note, however, that the struggle for women’s voting rights in the United States did not end in 1920. Following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, voter intimidation and state laws such as poll taxes left many Black women disenfranchised, as officials applied the same tactics used to suppress the Black male vote to Black women. The work to enfranchise all Americans continues to this day (Jones, 2020).

The focus and methods of gender psychology shifted across the 20th century, with mainstream gender psychologists engaging primarily in systematic sex difference research. See Table 15.2 for some of the most notable works on sex differences that shaped and focused the field during this period (Biernat & Deaux, 2012). Evidence emerging from systematic research did not support earlier conclusions about women’s intellectual inferiority (Halpern, 2012), which then opened more educational doors for women. In contrast to the prior century, research in this era began to counter—rather than promote—gender bias and misconceptions, as the practices of critical thinking and careful science increasingly took hold.

In the second half of the 20th century, the push for civil rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and women’s rights began to change the shape of U.S. society and gender psychology as well. Feminists seeking equal rights and opportunities for women focused on domestic violence, sexual harassment, pay equity, and reproductive rights, topics that also became the focus of gender researchers (Rutherford & Granek, 2010). Through these collective action efforts, women gained greater legal protections against domestic violence and gender discrimination in educational and financial domains. Women’s overall rate of workforce participation steadily increased between the early 1960s and late 1990s (Toossi & Morisi, 2017); the gender wage gap narrowed, although it still varies by race (American Association of University Women, 2017); and men gradually invested more time in housework and childrearing, although they still do not match women’s contributions to these domestic tasks (Parker, 2015).

Table 15.2

Source: Biernat and Deaux (2012).

The work of scholar and professor bell hooks has been influential to feminist and intersectional psychologists.

Source: Getty Images / Anthony Barboza / Contributor

Despite these advances, many criticized 1970s mainstream gender psychology for being too simplistic in its almost exclusive focus on sex differences. Feminist scholars argued that a focus on merely documenting sex differences ignored the complexity of gender. They emphasized that differences within sex groups were just as meaningful as those between sex groups, and that gendered attributes and behaviors were often influenced by factors such as status, context, and social interactions (Curtin, Cortina, Roberts, & Duncan, 2016; hooks, 1981; Lorde, 1984). Over time, gender researchers increasingly focused on studying people with varying identities and backgrounds, not only considering gender but also race, social class, physical ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. As discussed throughout this book, contemporary gender psychologists still wrestle with these issues today (for more on this, see the “Gender Present” section of this chapter).


Though the earliest studies in psychology examined male-only samples and generalized to all humans, some gender scholars argue that boys and men—especially low-income, working class, gay, bisexual, and ethnic minority boys and men—are currently underrepresented in gender research compared to their female counterparts (McCreary & Chrisler, 2010). Why might this be the case? What specific problems does this cause for the field of gender psychology, and how can these problems be addressed?

Across the 20th century, gender psychologists increasingly recognized the complexity of sex and gender. Instead of viewing gender as a stable quality residing within individuals, some conceptualized it as a more dynamic system of behaviors, shaped by societal institutions and practices, that emerges through social interaction (Deaux & LaFrance, 1998; Deaux & Major, 1987). This understanding of gender helped researchers explain inconsistent findings across different studies because context plays an important role in whether or not sex differences emerge. At this time, social and contextual explanations for sex differences and gendered phenomena seemed to dominate the field.

Yet this same period saw evolutionary theorizing grow more influential in psychology in general and in research on sex and gender specifically (Lewis, Al-Shawaf, Conroy-Beam, Asao, & Buss, 2017). As discussed in Chapter 3 (“The Nature and Nurture of Sex and Gender”) and other chapters throughout this book, evolution by natural and sexual selection provides a theoretical framework for understanding sex differences across a wide range of behaviors (e.g., mating choices, aggression and risk-taking, caregiving, occupational preferences). Some criticize the evolutionary approach as sexist and reductionist because its emphasis on genetic and biological explanations can promote the notion that sex differences are “natural” and thus unavoidable. Nonetheless, the rise of evolutionary psychology brought biology back into conversations about sex and gender during a time when many psychologists favored social explanations. Today, many contemporary gender researchers acknowledge that biological and sociocultural factors must interact to produce sex-related attributes, behaviors, and experiences (Eagly, 2018).

As this recap of the past shows, gender researchers gradually shifted over time from using methods that reinforced gender stereotypes to relying more on systematic methods and complex theories about sex and gender. Let’s turn now from the past to the present and assess the current state of the field. You will see that many of the themes and approaches that emerged in 20th-century gender psychology—such as the increased focus on careful scientific inquiry and within-sex diversity—remain pervasive today.


What is the state of gender psychology today, in the 21st century? One exciting trend is that scholars are increasingly questioning the usefulness of the sex and gender binaries. In 2019, Janet Hyde and several other influential gender researchers wrote an article encouraging the field of psychology to move “beyond the binary” in both research and clinical practice (Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate, & van Anders, 2019; see also Meyer-Bahlburg, 2019; Schellenberg & Kaiser, 2018; Thorne, Yip, Bouman, Marshall, & Arcelus, 2019). To build a case for this position, Hyde and colleagues summarized several sets of empirical findings that fundamentally undermine the assumptions of the sex and gender binaries. Here, we use some of the findings summarized by Hyde et al. (2019) to highlight three central themes that reflect the present state of sex and gender psychology. As shown in Figure 15.1, these themes are (1) critical thinking and systematic research, (2) the interconnectedness of nature and nurture, and (3) the roles of status, power, and intersectionality in shaping sex and gender. As you read this section, try to identify some of the gaps in our current understandings of sex and gender because this will help you articulate important questions that the field should address in the future.

Theme 1: Critical Thinking and Systematic Research

As discussed in Chapter 2, scientists follow a process of systematic investigation to discover rules and patterns in the world. You may recall that scientific positivism refers to the position that objective and value-free knowledge can be attained through empirical investigation. In contrast to this position, postpositivism is the view that science, while useful, is inherently flawed because researchers inevitably bring bias to their work. Most gender psychologists today work within a postpositivist frame, viewing systematic scientific investigation as the best means of understanding sex and gender, while at the same time acknowledging and critiquing its limitations. In their review article, Hyde et al. (2019) argued that critical thinking and systematic research lead to serious challenges for the sex and gender binaries in psychology. Here, we examine several of the critiques that Hyde and colleagues raised, spanning three different topic areas (see the summary in Table 15.3).

Figure 15.1 Three Overarching Themes in Sex and Gender Psychology Today

“Male” and “Female” Hormones

Many people—both inside and outside of psychology—think of testosterone as a “male” hormone and progesterone and estradiol (an estrogen) as “female” hormones. Before reading this book, you may have thought of these gonadal (produced by the gonads) hormones in a similar manner. Because these hormones are biological factors that contribute to sex differences, some point to them as evidence that the sex binary is a natural, biological reality. But people of all sexes and genders have testosterone, progesterone, and estradiol, and these hormones play important roles in all human bodies: They spur blood cell development, contribute to bone and reproductive tissue health, facilitate libido and mood, and affect cardiovascular, kidney, respiratory, and immune system functioning, among other things. So why do people often view these gonadal hormones in a binary, male—female manner? And how can critical thinking and systematic research illuminate problems with this tendency?

Images like this reinforce the notion of male and female hormones as binary, opposite, and nonoverlapping. In fact, all human bodies have both estrogens and testosterone, and for much of life, there are no sex differences in average levels of these hormones.

Source: Evgeny Gromov / Alamy Stock Vector

As you read in Chapter 3, testosterone plays a role in masculinizing male (XY) fetuses. It increases prenatally in male fetuses and drives the development of the internal genitalia (testes, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens) and external genitalia (penis, scrotum). Moreover, testosterone levels increase during adolescence in both girls and boys, but they rise more dramatically in boys than in girls (Gillies & McArthur, 2010). From adolescence on, males of many species maintain higher average testosterone levels than females do (Nelson, 2011). In contrast, progesterone plays important roles in menstruation and pregnancy, physiological processes that are unique to women. Thus, even though all people have both testosterone and progesterone, the fact that these hormones have certain sex-specific functions leads people to view them in a binary, male—female manner. In fact, as Sari van Anders (2013) notes, the tendency to equate testosterone with men and masculinity is so profound that many researchers only include male participants in studies of testosterone. Likewise, the tendency to equate progesterone with women and femininity leads many researchers to examine this hormone only in female participants (Oettel & Mukhopadyay, 2004).

Figure 15.2 Between-Group and Within-Group Variance

When researchers more systematically examine the levels of testosterone, progesterone, and estradiol across people of different sexes, the sex and gender binaries begin to break down. For example, outside of menstruation and pregnancy, women and men do not differ in their average levels of progesterone and estradiol (e.g., Liening, Stanton, Saini, & Schultheiss, 2010; van Anders, 2010). Even though men, on average, have higher levels of testosterone than women do, sex differences in adult testosterone levels are not as large as widely assumed. Just as importantly, there is a lot of within-sex variability in testosterone levels, for both women and men. Think back to Chapter 2 when we discussed within-group variability, which is the extent to which scores within a group differ from each other and from the group mean (see Figure 15.2 for a visual reminder). In addition to large within-group variance, testosterone levels within individuals vary a lot across different contexts and situations (see “The Interconnectedness of Nature and Nurture”).

Thus, according to Hyde et al. (2019), a systematic and unbiased examination of variability in the gonadal hormones reveals that it is not meaningful to view them as “male” and “female” hormones. Instead, there are gonadal hormones present in all human bodies that occasionally regulate specific functions in only one sex. This is inconsistent with the binary belief in two separate and nonoverlapping sexes and genders. The first row of Table 15.3 summarizes how critical thinking and systematic research lead to a clearer understanding of the role of gonadal hormones in regulating basic functions across people of all sexes and genders.

Table 15.3

Effect Sizes of Psychological Sex Differences

Popular narratives and stereotypes that emphasize the psychological differences between women and men contribute to mainstream acceptance of the sex and gender binaries. These narratives often portray a maximalist interpretation of sex differences in traits, interests, hobbies, cognitive abilities, communication patterns, and attitudes. In Chapter 2, you read about the distinction between maximalist and minimalist approaches to sex difference research. Whereas maximalist approaches emphasize differences between the sexes, implicitly assuming that male and female scores are nonoverlapping, minimalist approaches emphasize similarities between the sexes, implicitly assuming overlap between male and female scores.

Which approach more accurately reflects the data? Meta-analyses and meta-syntheses can shed light on this question. Recall that meta-analyses summarize across the results from multiple individual studies, while meta-syntheses summarize across the results from multiple meta-analyses. Both of these methods allow researchers to compute effect sizes (or d values), which statistically estimate the magnitude of sex differences. As Hyde et al. (2019) summarize, meta-analyses and meta-syntheses reveal that most psychological sex differences are trivial (close-to-zero, or d ≤ 0.10) or small (0.11 ≤ d ≤ 0.35) in size. The largest published meta-synthesis combined data from 106 meta-analyses (representing over 20,000 studies and more than 12 million participants) and found that 85.5% of all sex difference effect sizes were in the close-to-zero or small ranges (Zell, Krizan, & Teeter, 2015). As an exception to this general rule, a small set of variables shows medium to large effect sizes (d values ranging from 0.36 to 1.00). These include physical aggression, mental rotation ability, and pornography use (boys and men score higher than girls and women), and attachment to peers, interest in “people” professions, and depression (girls and women score higher than boys and men; Hyde, 2005; Zell et al., 2015).

Thus, the bulk of the research, when evaluated using meta-analytic methods, does not support the notion that psychological traits fall into a binary sex or gender system (see the summary in the second row of Table 15.3). Instead, systematic research indicates that women and men are quite similar, with large overlap in their score distributions on most psychological variables that have been studied. This conclusion is important not only because it highlights the similarity of people of different sexes and genders, but also because it paves the way for a more scientifically grounded understanding of the actual causes of important psychological outcomes.

For example, consider the traits and skills that will contribute to success in the future U.S. job market. In 2016, the Pew Research Center interviewed over 1,400 education experts and technology leaders, asking them to report on the skills necessary for employee success in the workforce of the future (Rainie & Anderson, 2017). Table 15.4 lists frequently mentioned skills. One important theme underlying these traits and skills is that they reflect critical thinking abilities. Due to the increasing automation of many tasks and jobs (including advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which you learned about in Chapter 3), computers will soon be able to do many jobs that are now held by humans. Thus, to succeed in the workforce, people will increasingly need to differentiate themselves from machines by demonstrating uniquely human skills. This essentially boils down to critical thinking, as seen in skills such as problem solving, creativity, perspective-taking, and innovation. Note that, while some of the traits and skills in Table 15.4 are stereotyped as more female or male typical, the actual size of sex differences associated with them ranges from zero to small. Thus, the worker of the future will need to go beyond the binary to achieve success. Likewise, researchers interested in improving young people’s critical thinking skills will likely benefit from ignoring the sex and gender binaries and focusing instead on other predictors of these skills.

Table 15.4

Source: Rainie and Anderson (2017).

Transgender, Agender, and Intersex People

Anthropological and historical records indicate that transgender, agender, and intersex people have existed throughout time and across cultures. Recall that transgender individuals experience a mismatch between their gender identity (their sense of belonging to a sex category) and their assigned sex at birth, whereas cisgender individuals experience a match between their gender identity and assigned sex. Some transgender individuals identify as nonbinary or genderqueer (their gender identity is neither male nor female) or gender fluid (their gender identity shifts over time). In contrast, agender individuals do not identify with any gender. Finally, intersex individuals are those for whom the biological components of sex (chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external sex organs) do not consistently fit the typical female or male patterns at birth. Intersex individuals are often raised within the binary as female or male and experience varying degrees of identification with and conformity to their assigned sex/gender.

Many non-Western and indigenous cultures recognize third sex/gender categories that reflect the experiences of people who do not fit into the binary. Recall from Chapter 3 that people who embody third sexes/genders are recognized in Thailand (kathoeys), Native American societies (two-spirit individuals), India (hijras), and Samoa (fa’afafine), among others. The cultural narratives surrounding these third sex/gender categories differ widely, and some third sex/gender categories include individuals who are agender as well as those who are intersex or have a minority sexual orientation (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual). As Hyde et al. (2019) note, systematic research into these individuals and their experiences can illuminate the limitations of the sex and gender binaries.

Alec Butler is a Canadian two-spirit (Métis of Mi’kmaq heritage) playwright and filmmaker, pictured here in 2010 in front of a presentation he created.

Source: Getty Images / Paul Irish / Contributor

Throughout the history of Western psychology, gender researchers have primarily focused on identifying male—female sex differences or studying male and female gender roles, stereotypes, and experiences. This means that most psychological research on sex and gender tends to assume the binary in its methods, only collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data from individuals who are male or female. Nonbinary and agender people are thus largely absent from Western psychological research. For instance, researchers usually label participants as “female” or “male” based on outward appearance, or they ask participants to self-identify into one of these two categories. Responses that fall outside the binary—such as when participants select a third gender option, write in their own self-descriptions, or leave questions about sex and gender blank—are typically excluded from analyses. Finally, researchers usually ask participants to report either their sex assigned at birth or their gender identity, but not both. By failing to ask about sex and gender separately, researchers lose potentially important information about transgender and intersex individuals who identify with a binary male—female gender that does not match their anatomical sex. These practices of ignoring data from transgender, nonbinary, agender, and intersex individuals are so standard in research that they go unacknowledged and unquestioned (Hyde et al., 2019). Although research in clinical psychology is an exception (as you read in Chapter 13, “Gender and Psychological Health”), the emphasis within clinical psychology was historically on diagnosing and treating transgender identity as a disorder rather than on understanding it as a natural variant of gender.

When researchers critically examine their assumptions and rethink how to measure sex and gender variables with greater precision, the sex and gender binaries break down. For example, researchers who assess gender identities beyond the binary find evidence of a small but consistent minority of nonbinary and agender people. Recently, Natasza Kosakowska and her colleagues collected data from over 29,690 university students in 55 countries around the globe (Kosakowska, 2020). To measure sex/gender, these researchers offered options of “female,” “male,” “nonbinary/third gender,” “I do not identify with a gender,” and “other.” Overall, 131 respondents (0.4%) identified as nonbinary/third gender, and 175 (0.6%) did not identify with any gender. Similar to these percentages, data collected in the United States suggests that approximately 0.6% of U.S. adults are transgender (Flores, Herman, Gates, & Brown, 2016). Given that there are approximately 209 million adults in the United States, this means that about 1.25 million U.S. adults are transgender. These numbers of nonbinary, third gender, agender, and transgender individuals may be relatively small, but they indicate that a binary, male—female system is inadequate for capturing the full range of human sex and gender possibilities.

Given the social stigma surrounding transgender, nonbinary, and agender identities, some researchers propose that surveys underestimate the true prevalence of individuals who fall outside the binary. How can research shed light on this? One possibility is to examine the frequency of nonbinary and agender responses that people give as a function of the presumed stigmatization they face. For example, in Kosakowska’s (2020) data, we can compute correlations of nation-level gender equality—the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI; World Economic Forum, 2019)—with percentages of people reporting nonbinary/third gender and agender identities. The GGGI indexes women’s and men’s national equality in domains of health, education, economic opportunities, and political participation. Countries higher in gender equality tend to have more relaxed gender role norms, greater acceptance of feminist movements, and less prejudice toward LGBTQIA+ individuals. As you might expect, there are positive correlations between national gender equality and the percentages of people who identify as nonbinary/third gender (r = .35) and agender (r = .33) in Kosakowska’s (2020) data. Thus, people may feel more free to report an identity outside the binary when they live in a more gender egalitarian country. From this, we can perhaps infer that surveys underestimate the true numbers of people with these identities because some people likely feel unsafe being honest.


Danica Roem made political history in November 2017 by becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. She defeated the 13-term incumbent, Bob Marshall, a delegate who called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and consistently referred to Roem with male pronouns (Olivo, 2017). Since beginning her term in 2018, she has sponsored or cosponsored around 50 bills and joint resolutions that were signed into law. In this prominent position, Roem is a significant role model for transgender individuals.

Danica Roem, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, made political history in 2017.

Source: By Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA - 2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA 7684, CC BY-SA 2.0,


This section discusses the importance of gender researchers going beyond the binary to include transgender, nonbinary, and agender individuals in their research. Given that these identities tend to be stigmatized and underrepresented due to privacy or safety concerns, what steps can gender researchers take to increase the participation of transgender, nonbinary, and agender individuals in their research?

Recently, gender researchers have developed methods for measuring a fuller spectrum of sex and gender possibilities. Some measure the extent to which people’s sex and gender are experienced as binary versus nonbinary, central versus noncentral to identity, and fixed/stable over time versus fluid (van Anders, 2015). Others measure people’s felt gender identity, contentment with their gender, and compliance with gender norms (Joel, Tarrasch, Berman, Mukamel, & Ziv, 2014). Using nuanced methods like these, researchers have discovered some unexpected diversity. For instance, Daphna Joel and colleagues found that 33%—46% of cisgender women and men reported feeling like (a) the other gender, (b) both genders, and (c) neither gender, at least once in the past year (Joel et al., 2014). Thus, even cisgender people feel gender fluid and agender at times, suggesting once again that the sex and gender binaries are too limited to reflect the full range of human possibilities.

When research psychologists assume that sex and gender operate in a binary fashion, they will likely use methods that end up confirming this assumption. These methods include using overly simplistic measures with limited response options and ignoring responses that fall outside the binary. As summarized in the third row of Table 15.3, however, systematic efforts to investigate the experiences of transgender, agender, intersex, and cisgender individuals reveal that sex and gender do not operate as binary systems.

Theme 2: The Interconnectedness of Nature and Nurture

Psychologists and nonpsychologists alike often think of nature and nurture as separate sets of factors that contribute to differences among people. Nature refers to biological variables such as genes, hormones, nervous system activity, and physical features (e.g., size, strength), whereas nurture refers to social and environmental variables such as culture, life experience, family dynamics, educational background, and immediate contexts. Although nature and nurture are conceptually different from each other, they are often interconnected in ways that make them hard to separate. Hyde et al. (2019) propose that the interconnectedness of nature and nurture poses a fundamental challenge to the sex and gender binaries in psychology.

To illustrate how, Hyde et al. (2019) consider common understandings of testosterone. As we discussed earlier (in the section on “’Male’ and ’Female’ Hormones”), people tend to view testosterone as the ultimate or “true” cause of certain sex differences (e.g., in aggression, dominance, and sexual drive). Because testosterone is a biological substance with genetic origins, it is often assumed to be fixed and unchanging. These beliefs perpetuate the sex and gender binaries by fostering the notion that testosterone-related sex differences are natural, real, and stable over time and situations. In fact, as Hyde et al. note, researchers have mostly examined testosterone as a cause—rather than an outcome—of social patterns and behaviors. However, this research focus limits our understanding of how flexible testosterone really is and how responsive it is to social contexts. Just as nature (e.g., testosterone) affects nurture (e.g., social behavior), so too does nurture affect nature.

To be sure, testosterone levels are partly determined by genes. In fact, testosterone has a heritability estimate of .56 to .60, meaning that approximately 56%—60% of the population variance in testosterone is driven by genetic differences between people (Harris, Vernon, & Boomsma, 1998; Kuijper et al., 2007). But this means that the remaining 40%—44% of the population variance in testosterone is due to nongenetic, sociocultural factors. In fact, testosterone is far from stable, showing great variability across days, years, relationship contexts, and social situations.

How do social situations and behaviors influence testosterone levels? Research by Sari van Anders and her collaborators sheds some light on this question. Among women, both engaging in an athletic competition (Hamilton, van Anders, Cox, & Watson, 2009) and wielding power over a subordinate (van Anders, Steiger, & Goldey, 2015) lead to increases in testosterone. Among men, soothing a crying infant (a life-like doll) leads to decreases in testosterone (van Anders, Tolman, & Volling, 2012), and ending a committed romantic relationship is associated with increases in testosterone (Dibble, Goldey, & van Anders, 2017). Among women and men, being in a polyamorous relationship (i.e., having multiple committed romantic and/or sexual partners) predicts higher testosterone than does either being single or in a monogamous relationship (van Anders, Hamilton, & Watson, 2007). Note that these latter findings regarding the links between relationship status and testosterone are correlational, and not experimental. Therefore, we cannot conclude that changes in relationship status cause changes in testosterone levels.

When considering all of these findings as a whole, van Anders (2013) concludes that testosterone does not explain sex differences between women and men so much as it explains differences between competitive and nurturing contexts and behaviors. Specifically, high levels of testosterone prepare people of all sexes and genders to act competitively, face challenges, pursue mating partners, and defend resources and loved ones when the situation calls for these behaviors. Conversely, low levels of testosterone prepare people to nurture, soothe, bond with, and support others, when the situation calls for it. This interpretation of testosterone undermines the sex and gender binaries because it suggests that testosterone regulates important, survival-related behaviors for people of all sexes and genders, not only (or even primarily) for men.

If competitive and nurturing contexts can influence people’s testosterone levels, perhaps this partially explains why men have higher average testosterone levels than women do. Given that people in most cultures teach boys to play competitive and defensive roles and girls to play nurturing and caretaking roles, perhaps these socialization patterns lead boys and men to have higher testosterone than girls and women. This points to the difficulties of separating nature from nurture—in fact, nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined, each causing and being caused by the other. This point may remind you of our discussion of epigenetics in Chapter 3. Recall that epigenetic factors are biological mechanisms—which can be influenced by environmental conditions and life experiences, such as famine, stress, and pollution—that determine whether or not certain genes get activated.

One theory proposes that testosterone prepares people for competition and challenge, regardless of their sex and gender. If so, then these people likely experience increases in testosterone while completing the “Tough Mudder” obstacle course.

Source: Scott Boulton / Alamy Stock Photo


Why do researchers so often frame the nature—nurture question in either-or terms? Why is this type of thinking appealing if it does not match how nature and nurture interact in reality to shape human behavior? What are some advantages of thinking of the interactive effects of nature and nurture over thinking of the effects of nature and nurture separately?

Gender psychologists today are increasingly taking integrative approaches to questions about sex and gender that acknowledge the interconnectedness of nature and nurture. For example, you may recall that Halpern’s (2012) biopsychosocial model proposes that biology and environment mutually influence each other in shaping sex differences and similarities in cognitive abilities. Similarly, Wood and Eagly’s (2012) biosocial constructionist theory suggests that biological sex differences (nature) lead to a division of labor between the sexes, which in turn leads cultures to socialize girls and boys differently (nurture). This combination of biological and social factors produces sex differences in occupational roles and personality traits.

Another example in the area of sexual desire is the dynamical systems approach, which views sexual orientations as patterns of experiences that are shaped by ever-changing interactions between genes, hormones, social interactions, cultural norms, and other internal and external factors (Diamond, 2018). Recall from Chapter 9 (“Sexual Orientation and Sexuality”) that most people tend to view sexual orientation in a categorical manner, distinguishing only between heterosexual, gay/lesbian, and bisexual orientations. But this categorical system inevitably oversimplifies what is actually a complex and multidimensional phenomenon (Herek, 2000). The dynamical systems approach views sexual orientations not as fixed, categorical, and stable tendencies, but instead as unique patterns that emerge from ongoing interactions of individuals with their changing environments. By turning attention to the ways in which social and biological factors interact with each other, these theories highlight the inadequacy of the sex and gender binaries.

Theme 3: Status, Power, and Intersectionality

As you may recall from Chapter 6, human societies are arranged hierarchically, with some groups having higher status and power than others (Pratto, Sidanius, & Levin, 2006). Whereas status refers to qualities that garner respect and prestige from others, power is the capacity to determine outcomes for oneself and for others. Most societies around the world have a patriarchal social structure, which means that men as a group have more status and power than women (Brown, 1991). Although we lack evidence of any true matriarchal societies in which women as a group have more status and power than men, there are several matrilineal societies—such as the Tuareg of Northern Africa—that trace family relationships and ancestry though the mother’s line (Williams, 2015). Furthermore, while men typically control how society operates and how resources get distributed on a large scale (structural power), there is a lot of variance both across and within cultures in terms of how much power women have within family relationships (dyadic power). Women’s dyadic power in realms of housework, childcare, and sexual activity varies based on factors such as their age, ethnicity, education level, and income (Albarracin & Plambeck, 2010).


When people experience enough anger about group-based inequalities, they may become motivated to join collective action efforts. The Me Too movement, started by Tarana Burke in 2006, has inspired a lot of outrage by calling attention to the prevalence of sex-based harassment and assault. It is difficult to examine whether exposure to Me Too messages directly caused increases in people’s collective action efforts. Still, researchers can get at this question indirectly. One recent set of studies found that women who reported more personal experiences of sexual objectification and harassment—such as being whistled at on the street, or being grabbed or pinched without their permission—also reported more anger on behalf of women. In turn, anger predicted increases in women’s willingness to act collectively against the objectification of women by signing petitions, joining Facebook groups and email lists, and buying and wearing badges (Shepherd & Evans, 2020). What about you? If and when you feel anger about unfair group-based treatment, does it inspire you to act?

Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano appeared together on the Today show on December 6, 2017, to discuss the Me Too movement. Burke first started the movement in 2006, and Milano brought increased attention to it in 2017 when she tweeted about it in response to sexual harassment claims made against Harvey Weinstein.

Source: Getty Images / NBC / Contributor

The theoretical framework of intersectionality offers a lens through which scholars and activists can identify and push back against the systems of status and power that maintain group-based inequities. Intersectionality refers to the idea that people’s experiences are shaped by multiple, interconnected identities as well as by the power and privilege associated with these identities (Collins, 2015; Crenshaw, 1991; McCall, 2005). According to this view, it is not useful to examine single identities in isolation—for example, by comparing “women” as a group to “men” as a group—because everyone is shaped in nonadditive ways by the many different social groups that they occupy (Parent, DeBlaere, & Moradi, 2013).

A couple of key assumptions underlie intersectionality theory. First, we cannot fully understand a person’s experiences within one social group, such as gender, without reference to their other social groups, such as race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and so on. Second, because of the human propensity for social hierarchies, different social groups experience different levels of power and oppression. An individual who is White (a dominant group in the United States) but also has a physical disability and is low income (two subordinate groups in the United States) will have very different experiences from an individual who is White, does not have a physical disability, and is wealthy. For example, recall the double jeopardy hypothesis, which we discussed in Chapter 6. This hypothesis states that individuals who occupy more than one subordinate group will experience more discrimination than those who occupy only a single subordinate group. Consistent with this hypothesis, LGB people of color—who experience both racism and sexual prejudice—face a heightened risk for psychological distress relative to their White LGB peers (Szymanski & Gupta, 2009). By explicitly examining the various social groups that people occupy, intersectionality calls attention to the structural inequities that shape people’s lives (McCormick-Huhn, Warner, Settles, & Shields, 2019). In addition to sex, race/ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation, intersectional perspectives may also focus on identities related to age, religion, culture, gender identity, physical ability, and citizenship.

As Hyde et al. (2019) note, intersectionality is relevant to the sex and gender binaries in a couple of ways. First, the tendency to view the world as operating within sex and gender binaries draws attention away from the multiple different identities that combine to shape people’s experiences. Thus, gender researchers who focus on comparisons between women and men as groups may fail to recognize and communicate the fact that not all women (and not all men) share uniform experiences with other members of their gender group. Emphasizing male—female sex differences in this manner may thus reinforce the false notion that the world offers two and only two nonoverlapping classes of people.

As an example, consider objectification theory, which we discussed in Chapter 13. According to this theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Moradi & Huang, 2008), women routinely face more objectification and sexualization than men do, which yields negative consequences ranging from appearance preoccupation to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, depression, and reduced self-esteem. Most empirical tests of objectification theory take a binary approach and explore women’s experiences as a whole, without examining whether some subsets of women face different kinds or levels of objectification. However, an intersectional approach shows that Black and White women are objectified differently. For instance, Anderson and colleagues found that White viewers gazed at the sexualized body parts (breasts, hips/waists) of Black women more frequently and for longer periods of time, compared with those of White women (Anderson, Holland, Heldreth, & Johnson, 2018). Thus, sex interacts with race to shape women’s experiences of objectification, in ways that a male—female binary approach will miss. By taking an intersectional perspective, researchers can gain a more nuanced understanding of how women’s objectification can be linked to systems of oppression that differ by race. As Anderson and colleagues note, the objectification of Black women, unlike that of White women, may reflect the stereotype of them as “oversexualized seductresses” that was common during American slavery.

Second, by adopting more intersectional goals and approaches, gender researchers can make more meaningful discoveries regarding the underlying causes of gender-relevant outcomes (Cole, 2009). For example, even when researchers discover sex differences on some variable of interest, other factors that coincide with sex—and not sex itself—may be the cause of the difference. Consider the gender paradox in happiness, which refers to the finding that U.S. women’s happiness has gradually declined since the 1970s, whereas men’s happiness has remained relatively stable (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2009). This paradox primarily characterizes the happiness trajectories of White women and men, with Black women showing steady increases in happiness since the 1970s. Whereas some researchers acknowledge this race difference in happiness trajectories, they still focus primarily on explaining the paradox as a gender phenomenon. In contrast, an intersectional approach examines the interaction of sex and race, as well as the different economic realities that face members of different social groups. Taking an intersectional approach, Cummings (2020) notes that White women’s declining happiness since the 1970s might reflect the increasing role demands they have faced as more of them moved into the labor market while continuing to shoulder most domestic responsibilities at home. Conversely, most Black women have always participated in the U.S. labor market and are recently experiencing declines in parenting and marriage rates. Thus, Cummings proposes that what appear to be sex differences may really reflect differences in work—life conflict, which have tended to increase for White women but decrease for Black women over time. By shifting focus away from the sex and gender binaries, intersectional approaches can inspire new hypotheses and potentially lead to new understandings.

Are gender researchers listening to the call for more focus on intersectionality? It appears so. Figure 15.3 shows a dramatic increase in the use of the terms “intersectional” and “intersectionality” in the PsycINFO database between 2000 and 2019, and especially in the past five years or so. Time will tell if this trend continues, and if the increasing intersectional perspective in psychology produces more sophisticated ways of thinking about sex and gender.


Figure 15.3 Use of “Intersectional” or “Intersectionality” as Subjects in PsycINFO from 1996 to 2019


Recall that cultural ideologies—such as androcentrism, ethnocentrism, and heterocentrism—are beliefs about groups that justify unequal social hierarchies by promoting the interests of those in power. What are some current examples of androcentrism in the media? Of ethnocentrism? Of heterocentrism? Do these ideologies seem to be on the rise or decline? Support your response with evidence.


What does the future of gender psychology look like? Now that we have reviewed the gender psychology of the past and present, let’s think ahead. What are some of the important unanswered questions in the field? How should gender researchers address and study these questions? Beyond the field, what kind of changes do you anticipate in how the general public thinks about and embodies gender? How might these changes in society inform or shape the field of gender psychology?

Black women in the United States have been increasing in happiness since the 1970s.

Source: ©

Methodological Advances

One of the most exciting things about gender research today is the availability of increasingly sophisticated methods for unlocking the mysteries of gender. For example, consider big data methodologies, or computational methods that allow researchers to extract and analyze extremely large sets of data from the Internet. Researchers who work with big data sometimes analyze the search terms that people use when browsing the Internet. Search terms can shed light on people’s naturally occurring, spontaneous behaviors, in ways that may reveal their private motivations and desires. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2017), a data scientist and author, analyzes the search terms people use on websites such as Google and PornHub, in order to understand their sexual desires, a topic we discussed in Chapter 9. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz finds that women and men both seem to over-report how much sex they are having, based on sales of condoms, and that individuals more frequently complain on Google about a spouse not wanting to have sex than not wanting to talk. Analyzing Google data also reveals that men worry a great deal about their penis size and do more searches about their penises than any other body part, by far. As these big data research methods become more prevalent, it will be interesting to see how they change the conclusions gender researchers draw about sexuality and other gender-relevant topics.

Unanswered Questions

One of the more engaging features of gender psychology (and of any science, really) is that testing research questions and seeking answers inevitably raises more questions. In an ideal discipline for the curious, gender psychologists never run out of interesting questions to test empirically. Furthermore, surveying the past to the present shows how quickly the field of gender psychology evolves. Given this, we encourage you to identify important questions that the field has yet to tackle. Since this exercise is relatively open ended and challenging, we provide some questions here that span the scope of this book’s content and may help guide your thinking.

· What is the place for research on binary sex differences? How important is it for gender psychologists and people in general to continue to focus on and understand sex differences? What can be gained by finding ways to move the field beyond the sex and gender binaries? Are the sex differences and beyond the binary approaches compatible or incompatible? How might they be reconciled?

· What are the origins of gender identity and sexual orientation? Although scientific understanding has advanced greatly in recent decades, we still do not know what makes people identify as cisgender, transgender, or genderqueer, straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual. Researchers suspect that some combination of biological and social factors shapes gender identity and sexual orientation, but the precise mechanisms remain a mystery.

· How might big data research methods—and the increasingly digital and interconnected nature of our world—change our understandings of sex and gender?

· Gender researchers have increasingly acknowledged the complex interaction of nature and nurture in their theories. What are some topic areas that stand to benefit from an analysis through the lens of nature—nurture?

· What pressing gender-related social problems might psychologists help address? For example, how might research findings be applied to decrease gender stereotypes, gender discrimination, and sex-based aggression? How might findings be applied to improve gender-related physical and mental health?

· As we write this in 2020, we are living through a coronavirus pandemic. Social norms are becoming upended and social relationships are moving online. How might these changes influence gender dynamics? How might friendships, romantic relationships, work roles, and home roles change as a result?

These questions—and many more that you generate on your own—can help you reflect upon and identify important future directions for the field of gender psychology. As you have learned throughout this book, sex and gender are complex constructs, and there is no one right way to conceptualize them. Most individuals and societies use gender as an organizing framework to process and interpret their social worlds. The doing gender perspective views gender as a behavioral process (not an internal feature within individuals) in which gender is repeatedly practiced and negotiated in particular social interactions and contexts (Deaux & Major, 1987). In this way, we may think of gender as a verb or what someone does (Shields & Dicicco, 2011; West & Zimmerman, 1987). At the same time, many people have a strong internal sense of belonging to a gender group—that is, most (though not all) people have a strong sense of being gendered. Taking this beyond the binary, we can see that not only may some people do gender differently from one context to the next, others (such as those who are bigender or trigender) may also be different genders from one day to the next. All of this illustrates the complexity of how sex and gender operate to shape the human experience.


What challenges might the fluidity of gender pose for researchers who study sex and gender? Why do some people react negatively to the notion that gender identity may shift over time and across different contexts? What might bring change in these negative attitudes over time?

Now that we have asked you what you think the gender psychology of the future might look like, we will share some of our own reflections here. Although the particular contents of gender psychology in the future are relatively uncertain, we are more confident in the types of methods that will get us there (with the greatest levels of understanding of sex and gender). The future of gender psychology likely lies in drawing on methods and understandings from many academic disciplines because the complexity of sex and gender calls for a mixed methods approach. In this approach, researchers incorporate multiple worldviews and methods to develop a fuller understanding of a topic than can be afforded by a single-method approach (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Furthermore, because sex and gender do not operate solely on an individual level, future gender psychologists should have the most success when examining sex and gender across a wide range of levels (e.g., cellular, individual, interpersonal, societal, cross-cultural, and cross-historical). This approach involves shifting focus away from predominantly studying sex differences to studying how gender operates in context and in interaction with other factors such as age, race, ethnicity, class, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship, and so on.


In the beginning of this book, we challenged you to engage in critical thinking about the textbook material and about the beliefs and expectations you have already formed about sex and gender. As you will recall, when you think critically, you ask questions, examine evidence, evaluate underlying assumptions, avoid emotional reasoning, and consider different perspectives and other ways of interpreting findings (Wade, 2008). These are all skills that can be strengthened with practice. We thus challenged you to develop the habit of asking and answering your own critical thinking questions, such as these: How is this point consistent or inconsistent with what I already know? What is the quality of the evidence supporting or countering this point? How can this point be approached from different perspectives?


How have your understandings and beliefs about sex and gender changed by reading this book? What are the most noteworthy, surprising, and thought-provoking things you learned in reading this book? What gender-related topics do you wish to explore further on your own?

Why do we emphasize critical thinking skills so insistently throughout this book? What makes them so important? First, as mentioned in Chapter 1, the more deeply individuals think about the meaning of new material and connect it to content already stored in their long-term memory, the better they learn and remember it (Eysenck, 2011). Second, as mentioned, the U.S. job market continues to evolve, and employers are increasingly looking for employees who can solve problems, think creatively, and innovate (Rainie & Anderson, 2017), all central features of critical thinking.

We enjoyed writing this book, and we hope that you have benefited from reading it. We also hope that you will go forward in the habit of thinking critically about sex and gender. New information about sex and gender emerges on a daily basis—as we can attest from our experiences in writing this book—and it awaits your attention and evaluation. If you have developed the ability to think critically about sex and gender, you will be able to keep up with these two continually moving targets in our society no matter where they head.

Descriptions of Images and Figures

Back to Figure

The graph is described as follows:

The horizontal axis shows the timeline from 1996 to 2019 in increments of 1.

The vertical axis shows the number from 0 to 250 in increments of 50.

The approximate trend is:

1. 1996 to 2005: 0

2. 2006: 10

3. 2007: 0

4. 2008: 25

5. 2009: 10

6. 2010: 25

7. 2011: 30

8. 2012: 40

9. 2013: 45

10. 2014: 50

11. 2015: 120

12. 2016: 145

13. 2017: 175

14. 2018: 220

15. 2019: 190