Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior

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The behavior of women and men varies greatly depending on situations, cultures, and historical periods. This flexibility emerges as men and women tailor their division of labor to local ecological and socioeconomic demands. The resulting division is supported by childhood socialization practices that, in interaction with sex differences in child temperament, help boys and girls to develop psychologies suited to their likely adult activities. Although responsive to local conditions, the division of labor is constrained by women’s childbearing and nursing of infants and men’s size and strength. Because these biological characteristics influence the efficient performance of many activities in society, they underlie central tendencies in the division of labor as well as its variability across situations, cultures, and history. Gender roles—that is, shared beliefs about the traits of women and men—track the division of labor because people infer these traits from their observations of the sexes’ behaviors. Social percei- vers often essentialize these traits by regarding them as inherent in the biology or social experience of women and men. Gender role expectations, which tend to be consensual within cultures, influence behavior through proximal social psychological and biological processes, whereby (a) other people encourage gender-typical behavior and individuals conform to their own gender identities and (b) hormonal, reward, and cardiovascular mechanisms enable masculine and feminine behaviors. The evidence that men and women sometimes engage in gender- atypical activities suggests a flexible psychology that is not rigidly differen- tiated by sex. Flexibility refers not to random variation of behavior, but to the capacity to vary behaviors to enable reproduction and survival under changeable situational demands. For example, both sexes can be socially sensitive or aggressive, given appropriate socialization and support from social normative, self-regulatory, and hormonal processes. This responsive- ness to cultural and situational demands arises from humans’ evolved capacities to innovate and share information with others and thereby to produce a cumulative culture in which beliefs and practices are shared and subsequently modified. 

the psychological attributes of men and women vary depending on the demands of their social roles. Also, because women’s but not men’s social roles have changed greatly in most indus- trialized nations since the mid-twentieth century, the psychology of women has changed more over time within these nations than the psychology of men. As expected, these changes have taken the form of women adopting many attributes associated with men, with little complementary tendency for men to adopt attributes associated with women.

The specific roles of women and men in a society depend primarily on how the physical differences between the sexes—women’s childbearing and nursing of infants and men’s size and strength—enable or constrain the efficient performance of everyday activities. A division of labor emerges that is tailored to ecological and socioeconomic demands, and socialization practices are organized to support this division. Women tend to perform activities compatible with childcare, and men tend to perform activities less compatible with childcare, including those that require bursts of strength and force. Female and male biological attributes exert less influence in industrialized societies with low birthrates, shortened duration of lactation, and employment roles that favor brains over brawn.

People within a society observe the activities of men and women and form corresponding beliefs about their psychological attributes. From the different activities of the sexes, they infer gender stereotypes–that is, shared expectations that women and men are intrinsically different. These gender role inferences, in turn, promote sex-differentiated behavior through the range of social psychological and biological processes we reviewed in this chapter. In short, guided by gender role beliefs that are shared within a society, children are socialized for the skills, traits, and preferences that support their society’s division of labor. Also, most adults conform to these shared beliefs by confirming others’ expectations and by internalizing them as personal standards for their behavior. In addition, biological processes such as hormonal activation support gender roles. By this confluence of biosocial processes, individuals within a society dynamically construct and share gender roles tailored to their time, culture, and situation. As a result, the observed division of labor within one’s own society seems appropriate and desirable to most people, even though the specific activities of the division vary over time and cultures. 

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