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Post No.: 0560girls


Furrywisepuppy says:


As far as we can currently tell, there seem to be no fundamental neurological or structural differences between the brains of newborn boys and girls, thus some people contest whether gender identities are largely innate or culturally shaped? But, especially as children grow, there are statistically significant differences, such as, on average, males have larger brains whilst females have thicker cortices. There are certainly biological differences between boys and girls, and the external physical differences become clearly apparent after puberty. Experiencing different levels of various hormones, such as during puberty, will affect one’s thoughts and behaviours (e.g. attitudes towards risk), and luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone during puberty work on different parts of the body for girls and boys to produce different levels of testosterone or oestrogen. (Post No.: 0513 explored some more brain myths in general.)


So we could say that girls and boys have different bodies and different brains – but the question is whether these biological differences are strong enough to cause important differences in their academic achievement?


Indeed, there’s a tendency for more males to take more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs than females, but the current data cannot reveal for sure why because there are many other factors, such as cultural expectations, as to why males and females perform differently and choose different careers.


Looking at international data – boys and girls aged 9 perform, on average, roughly the same as each other on standardised maths tests, but by age 13, girls tend to outperform boys in these subjects. The most liberal democratic countries show no gender differences at all, whilst those that show the biggest advantages for one gender or another tend to be mostly poor countries or small countries. (This could potentially be due to the law of small numbers? A very simplified illustration of this law (or perhaps fallacy) is when a person who plays a particular game only once will end up with either a ‘100% win average’ or a ‘100% lose average’, which will seem like an extreme record – but the fewer the samples, the more extreme the averages may appear.)


So what the international data shows is that if there is a biological edge for boys then it doesn’t show up in the data, despite any influence from other factors like discrimination or stereotypes. If there is a biological difference then mathematics performance appears to be swamped by other cultural factors.


People tend to gift more pink objects to girls and more blue objects to boys. Parents tend to treat baby boys as if they ought to be tougher and baby girls as if they ought to be more delicate. So we tend to bias the upbringing we give to girls and boys right from birth, and this then becomes self-fulfilling and is reinforced in the wider surrounding culture in a bi-directional feedback loop i.e. boys will themselves, generally, start to demand ‘boys stuff’ and girls will themselves, generally, start to demand ‘girls stuff’, perhaps when exercising their ‘pester power’; hence the markets respond to this supply and demand too.


Being brought up with construction toys is more predictive than one’s gender when it comes to the ability to solve construction-related problems. But manufacturers will make, and retailers will stock, what sells. If gendered toys sell more than non-gendered toys then they’ll stock the former more than the latter, hence we cannot just blame them – we must also blame consumers in general in this free market; if blaming anyone is necessary at all. Well – apart from when dolls or characters are gendered perhaps – parents still have a choice because even if some toys are marketed for girls and others for boys, they can still buy a ‘boy’s toy’ for a girl and vice-versa. There’s no law against it! It’s not as if product designers must make something pink first before a girl can play with it, or blue first before a boy can play with it. Any child of any gender identity can play with pink or blue toys, or hard or soft toys, etc..


Cultural stereotypes are picked up from very young, such as seeing whether mummy or daddy cleans up or looks after the baby – what children are exposed to early on and throughout their lives matters to shape their attitudes and behaviours, which in turn shapes the culture in return.


For reading, girls tend to be slightly faster to learn words so have an advantage from the start, and girls dominate internationally here. So girls seem to pick up languages better than boys. Girls repeatedly tend to achieve better grades than boys in Secondary/High school, on average again, including in maths.


At college level, culture likely plays a large role in shaping who decides to take maths at an advanced level because while Caucasian boys tend to major in maths more than Caucasian girls, Asian boys and Asian girls tend to major in maths equally.


At the moment, the literature is messy and inconclusive about much else relating to the sexes, despite the amount of studies in this area. But what we can say is that the stereotype that more men are in STEM-related jobs simply because they’re better at these subjects than women is a classic example of how erroneous stereotypes can chronically stick in the collective social consciousness despite the contrary evidence. It also demonstrates the dangers of extrapolating data from one culture (e.g. from US studies) to form general claims about the world.


It’s trickier to assess creativity in an objective or standardised manner but I’d say women are just as creative as men. The main reasons why there aren’t as many celebrated historical female scientists, philosophers, artists and writers as male ones are because of historical cultural gendered roles that affected their opportunities, a wodge of prejudice, and even when women did discover or create great things – they sometimes used pseudonyms (for various reasons), or men just took the credit for it!


Boys tend to overestimate and be more boastful about their own abilities, whilst girls tend to underestimate and be more modest. This may reflect or result in more boys seeking leadership roles and hierarchical relationships than girls. (Hierarchies have their advantages and disadvantages – they can reduce squabbles because everyone knows their place rather than are constantly competing for the limelight, but they can reduce equality and empathy for members who are lower in the hierarchy.)


People aren’t born straightaway with an awareness of what their own sex or gender is, but by the age of 3 – whether this is all mostly down to nature or nurture – most boys prefer blue and trucks to pink and dolls, and vice-versa for girls, and would expect other boys and girls to fit these perceived norms too. Most adults are (currently) more accepting of girls who dress in simple t-shirts and jeans (‘tomboys’) but are less accepting of boys who dress in frilly dresses. Both boys and girls are equal in their ability to empathise with others, but maybe boys are more encouraged to express their physical prowess and girls are more encouraged to express their empathy. Cultures can change though so these generalisations could change over time. Indeed, supply and demand has been slowly culturally shifting as more parents expect more gender-neutral toys or at least more inclusive ranges, and manufacturers have been increasingly considering how to supply these. More TV programmes and videogames are made to appeal to all genders. Clothing remains somewhat gender differentiated though, but males have worn frilly, ruffled garments in history.


Children and adults pick up gender and other categorisations and stereotypes because it’s efficient when learning. It’s like it’s more efficient to learn that every solid inanimate object with four legs and a flat top is a table, instead of needing to learn about every specific example of a table. However, this can at times lead to false positive and false negative errors (or in this case supposed ‘errors’, such as large four-legged benches for sitting on, or tables with three legs – why not?) So children soon learn that they are themselves girls or boys, and that there are supposedly toys for girls and toys for boys, such as based on what’s fluffy or angular. There are exceptions of course, such as with those with gender dysphoria, but these are the overall patterns.


On average, boys and girls start off as physically equal, but then girls physically develop sooner (including reaching puberty earlier on average than boys; although puberty age is also affected by nutrition). But then boys will catch up, and will eventually, on average, overtake girls in physical terms. It’s incontrovertible to point out that adolescent and adult males tend to be physically stronger than adolescent and adult females, but there is an overlap because some women are physically stronger than some men because, like intelligence, strength is not just genetically determined – you can personally work on it to improve it. Woof!


All in all, boys and girls are born to be different in some ways – we cannot say they are exactly the same biologically, physiologically or therefore psychologically without being unscientific, because for a start their sex chromosomes are different. Although this doesn’t mean they cannot be treated equally well.


Thus a gender-neutral upbringing – although difficult to perfectly achieve in the prevailing present culture at least – is still worth trying. However, a counterargument could be that if one raises a girl more like a boy or gender neutral, for instance, we might ask what’s wrong with girls being girls? Soft ‘female’ qualities are incredibly useful and valuable in society too (and are arguably in short supply right now, even if these qualities pay financially less than ‘male’ qualities in general). ‘Soft powers’ are important too in this world. A woman in a position of power may exaggerate a deep, haughty voice or laugh or ‘power dress’ to appear more ‘masculine’, for example, but shouldn’t we by now start to culturally learn to accept a woman being powerful and feminine at the same time i.e. judge people based on their actual talent and deeds rather than how they appear or sound?! The same with boys being boys.


Well, however parents raise their children, as a boy, girl or gender neutral, it won’t ultimately (solely or primarily) be the child’s choice because they won’t be raised in a vacuum. To decide to raise a child as gender neutral would be a parent’s choice as a parent because parents inevitably make these choices – and other such choices like whether they’ll be offered a vegan diet or not, be raised as non-religious or not – for their children; and this includes the decision for them to be born in the first place because the child definitely didn’t decide this for him/her/their self(!) (This isn’t a moral judgement – just a statement of indisputable fact.) And unless parents shield them from all wider culture (which could be potentially abusive) then their highly absorbent minds are going to inevitably be influenced by the wider culture they’re surrounded by too.


Woof. My personal view is that one doesn’t need to stress about gender. It’s not that there aren’t (still) social injustices against certain sexes or gender identities in certain domains, hence it’s not about being ‘gender-blind’ or ‘gender-ignorant’ – but in an intrinsic sense there are favourable attributes for being any gender. Plus cultures can change, and typically at a much faster rate than meaningful genetic evolution can. And if you be you instead of following cultural expectations and perpetuating existing stereotypes, then others will feel more comfortable being themselves too, and, slowly, that’s how a culture can change. (This includes there being no right or wrong way to be gay, lesbian, transgender or whatever in terms of how you dress, your political opinions or whatever.) But you can share with us what you think about this subject too by using the Twitter comment button below.


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