How Much Do Biological Sex Differences Explain?

Whether sex differences are social constructions or biological facts is an old and contentious question. It has mostly been feminists (but by no means all feminists) who have pushed the former idea and “conservatives” who have pushed the second. If you believe that sex differences when it comes to, for instance, choice of career or lifestyle are the result of social construction then you might believe that children should not be brought up so as to be socialized into traditional gender roles; if you believe the opposite then, perhaps, you see no harm in reinforcing what is “natural” anyway.

Now how can we know which view is correct? Many people probably go by experience, observing that men and women seem to make different kinds of choices and to think and act differently. It is not easy, however, to know whether these observed differences are the result of “innate” sex differences if most people have been brought up in a way that encourages gender differentiation from the earliest childhood. One would have to make new observations on people who have been deliberately brought up in a non-traditional way (when it comes to gender differences), and this might be hard to do in a systematic way, since very few children can be brought up in this “sheltered” way. After all, gendering processes are so pervasive that it is hard to avoid its influences.

But there are some who believe scientific studies have proven that there are biological sex differences. There is, for instance, one study – “Sex differences in human neonatal social perception” by Connellan et al (Infant Behavior & Development, vol. 23) – which has been mentioned quite often. The study tested whether there was a sex difference when it comes to interest in looking at a face and a mobile among neonates – i.e., persons “who by definition have not yet been influenced by social and cultural factors”. The study showed that male infants had a higher preference for looking at the mobile, while female infants preferred more to look at the face. The exact figures for males were 25% preference for looking at the face, 43.2% for the mobile and 31.8% with no particular preference. For females the figures were 36.2% for the face, 17.2% for the mobile, and 46.6% for no preference.

It seems clear that the study proves something, namely that “[m]ale infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face”; but it is hard to see that this proves something very significant. I think one must concede that there are some innate differences between the sexes that may determine the shapes of lives of men and women, but it is hard to see how studies like these can prove that the extent and pervasiveness of differentiation we observe today is innate. After all, the study showed that 31.8% of the males and 46.6% of the females showed no preference for either of the objects in the study. If these numbers were extrapolated to adults and, for instance, career choice, we should be able to see far less sexual segregation in work places than we see today (although a 50/50 distribution for all occupations may never materialize because of the biological differences that actually exist).

Another study (which unfortunately had a rather small sample size) looked at children’s interest in different toys – specifically a doll and a toy truck – during the first year of life. The authors found that the infant girls showed a large spontaneous preference for a doll, whereas infant boys showed no significant visual preference for either the doll or the truck. But the female interest in the doll cannot be described as overwhelming, since they seem to have been interested in the truck about 35% of the time (Alexander et al, “Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual interest in Toys”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 38). Yet another study found that both girls and boys aged 12 months chose to look at a doll approximately 57% more than at a toy car, although when the boys get older (24 months) the interest in the car is raised to about 51 to 55%, while the girls’ interest in the doll drops to about 51 to 55%. In addition they found that there were no significant sex differences regarding the color of the toys. This, again, seems to point to relatively minor sex differences (Jadva et al, “Infants’ Preferences for Toys, Colors, and Shapes: Sex Differences and Similarities”, Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 40).

The truth is probably that there are some biological differences that may affect life choices among women and men, but that these rather limited differences are reinforced (by parents, kindergarten teachers, other children etc.) when the children are brought up. So if one wants to look to each individual’s potential and let them develop in their own way, the least one can do is not to force children into certain categories early on. If a boy does not show any clear preference for playing with cars or building blocks or a girl does not show a clear preference for playing with dolls, then don’t buy these things for them anyway.


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