Sex Vs. Gender: Overview

Sex Vs. Gender: Overview
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  • 0:00 Biology: Sex and Gender
  • 1:12 Differences Between…
  • 2:06 The Gender…
  • 2:39 Gender Roles and…
  • 4:11 Gender and Culture
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Robert Turner
Sex refers to our biology. Gender refers to social norms, values, and beliefs that establish gender roles. In this lesson, we will explore the differences between sex and gender and examine the amazing variety of gender roles across cultures and the broad span of human history.

Biology: Sex and Gender

In nucleated human cells, we find 46 chromosomes arranged in pairs. Twenty-two of these pairs are called autosomes. The 23d pair, the sex chromosome, features either two X chromosomes or one X and one Y chromosome. If your sex chromosome is 'XX' you are female. If your 23d chromosome is 'XY' you are a male.

Of course, variation happens. There may be chromosomal aberrations. For example, some girls are born with an extra female chromosome: XXX. Some boys have an extra Y chromosome: XYY. Both of these aberrations are associated with learning difficulties.

In other cases, intersex anomalies appear in which a child will have both male and female sex characteristics. The term hermaphrodite refers to these cases. Intersex anomalies may arise from chromosomal, environmental, or hormonal disorders, but often, the causes are simply unknown. In any case, as you can imagine, people who are born part male and part female may face difficult gender role difficulties. How should the child be dressed? Should little Shana be raised as a boy or a girl?

In this lesson, we will focus on the far more common cases of distinctive male or female sex traits.

Differences Between Girls and Boys

During the 1970s, various researchers concluded that there were four common biologically determined differences between boys and girls.

  1. In adolescence and adulthood, although not in childhood, males tend to have an advantage in performing visual-spatial tasks. Just think about the common (often erroneous) assumption that 'girls have no sense of direction.'
  2. As they develop into puberty, at around the age of 11, girls tend to have better developed verbal abilities than boys.
  3. Boys tend to best girls in mathematical ability as they approach adolescence at about age 12 or 13.
  4. Males are more likely than girls to be aggressive.

And, of course, it is also the case that boys and girls tend to develop distinctive secondary sex characteristics. Boys have better defined musculature and greater upper body strength. They sprint faster and throw a ball further than most girls. Meanwhile, girls tend to distribute fatty tissues to bring about the soft curves of hips, thighs, and budding breasts.

The Gender Similarities Hypothesis

More recently, Janet Shibley Hyde came up with another point of view. Based on meticulous reviews of massive amounts of prior research, she discovered a very interesting pattern. Namely, about 78% of the traditional gender differences, like those summarized above, were either very small, or virtually zero. And thus her gender similarities hypothesis proposed, in effect, that males and females are far more alike than different.

On the other hand, Hyde and her colleagues did not dispute the fact that most males have superior motor skills. And they did endorse the finding that males are, indeed, more aggressive than females.

Gender Roles and Gender Identities

Gender roles are culturally approved norms and attitudes ascribed to males and females. Gender identities are the way anyone feels about being either male or female. For example, some girls and women resent being excluded from masculine sports or dangerous work, like fire-fighting or law enforcement. Meanwhile, some males are secretive about hobbies like knitting or flower arranging.

Here are lists of 'ideal' feminine and masculine qualities common to our culture. See if you recognize them.

Women should be:

  • Submissive
  • Cooperative
  • Emotional
  • Dependent
  • Intuitive
  • Unintelligent
  • And the standard for female achievement is physical appearance.

Males should be:

  • Dominant
  • Rational
  • Assertive
  • Brave
  • Competitive
  • Insensitive
  • Sexually aggressive
  • And the standard for male attractiveness is achievement.

Taken together, these traits can be thought of as gender stereotypes. At best, stereotypes are widely adopted oversimplifications. For example, a common stereotype is that people from South Carolina speak with a Southern drawl. At worst, stereotypes are hurtful expressions of common ignorance. For example, as Irish immigrants poured into America during the great potato famine of the 1840s, a common stereotype was that all Irish were shiftless, lazy, and inclined to alcoholism. In fact, ideas like that were still around when Irish-Catholic John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States.

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