Where Gender Differences Come From

Paul Ausick

Do Americans believe that gender differences are the result of biology or social expectations? That is, nature or nurture, in an argument that traces its roots back to the late 17th century philosopher John Locke who argued that humans acquired the majority of their behavioral traits from nurture (Locke called it “tabula rasa,” or blank slate).

The “humans” Locke was talking about were almost certainly all male, and that fact has likely colored the discussion for the past 300 years. In today’s world it’s possible to ask lots of “humans” of both genders where they think gender differences come from and it is further possible to quantify the results, something Locke probably wouldn’t have been interested in doing in any event.

The Pew Research Center published on Tuesday the results of its latest survey on gender differences based on a nationally representative survey of more than 4,500 U.S. adults conducted online in August and September of this year.

An interesting overall result is that women who perceive gender differences generally attribute the differences to social expectations (nurture) while men tend to see the differences as biological (nature).

Perhaps we don’t need to point this out, but changing biology is hard, if not impossible. Changing social expectations is also hard but since it is human-made it can be changed. All it requires is will and effort.

According to the survey, 76% of respondents said men face a lot of pressure to provide support for their families and 68% think men feel pressure to be successful in their job or career. More than 70% of respondents say women feel a lot of pressure to be an involved parent (77%) and to be physically attractive (71%).

More than half of respondents (53%) said society looks up to men who are manly or masculine while just 32% said that society looks up to feminine women. Pew did a qualitative test to define “masculine” and “feminine” that asked 200 men to define “masculine” and 200 women to define “feminine.” For masculinity the most common definitions included the words “strong,” “assertive” and “muscular,” among others. For femininity, common terms were “graceful,” “beautiful” and “nurturing.”

Here are some of Pew’s key findings:

  • Americans are divided along gender and party lines over whether differences between men and women are rooted in biology or societal expectations.
  • The public sees similarities between men and women in the workplace
  • Millennial men are far more likely than those in older generations to say men face pressure to throw a punch if provoked, join in when others talk about women in a sexual way, and have many sexual partners
  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say society values masculinity – and also more likely to see this as a bad thing
  • Race and educational attainment are linked to how people see their own masculinity or femininity
  • When it comes to raising children, more see advantages in exposing girls than boys to activities typically associated with the other gender
  • Americans differ over what should be emphasized in raising boys vs. girls

The full report on the survey, “On Gender Differences, No Consensus on Nature vs. Nurture,” includes much more detail and supporting data.