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Theories of Gender differences and identity

Biological factors play an important part in determining and categorizing us as male or female. Our sex depends on whether we are born with distinct male or female genitals and a genetic program that released male or female hormones to stimulate the development of the reproductive system. Gender involves masculine and feminine feelings, attitudes and behaviors identification with a particular sex-biologically, psychologically, and socially. When we behave according to widely shared expectations about how males or females are supposed to act, we adopt a gender role.

There are two prominent views about the origins of gender differences in human behavior. Some theorists see gender differences as a reflection of naturally evolved tendencies and society must reinforce those tendencies if it is to function smoothly. Sociobiologists call this perspective as essentialism. That is because it views gender as part of the nature or essence of one's biological and social make-up. The second group of sociologists sees gender differences as social constructionism, mainly as a reflection of the different social positions occupied by women and men. They view gender as constructed by social structure and culture.

According to essentialism, humans instinctively try to ensure that their genes are passed on to future generations but men and women develop different strategies to achieve that. Women ensure survival of their offspring by seeking out mate who can best help support and protect them. Whereas men can maximize their chance of passing on their genes to future generations by having many sexual partners. In this regard, men compete with other men for sexual access to women creating competitiveness and aggression. According to Buss these are universal features of our evolved selves that contribute to the survival of human species. Thus, from the point of view of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, gender differences in behavior are based in biological differences between women and men.

Functionalists reinforce the essentialist viewpoint by saying that traditional gender roles help in integration of the society. According to Talcott Parsons, women traditionally specialize in raising children and managing the household. Men traditionally work in the paid labor force. Each generation learns to perform these complementary roles by means of gender role socialization. For boys, the masculinity is defined by the traits such as rationality, self-assuredness, and competitiveness. For girls, the femininity is nurturance and sensitivity to others. Boys and girls first learn their respective gender traits in the family as they see their parents going about their daily routines. The larger society also promotes gender role conformity. In the functionalist view, learning the essential features of femininity and masculinity integrates society and allows it to function properly.

Conflict and feminist theorists have criticized the essentialism. According to them, essentialists ignore the historical and cultural variability of gender and sexuality. Wide variations exist in what constitutes masculinity and femininity. Moreover, the level of gender inequality, the rate of male violence against women, and the criteria used for mate selection, and other gender differences that appear universal to the essentialists vary widely too.

This variation negates the idea that there are essential and universal behavioral differences between women and men. In societies with low levels of gender inequality, the tendency decreases for women to stress the good provider role in selecting male partners, as does the tendency for men to stress women's domestic skills. Women have become considerably more assertive, competitive, independent, and analytical in the last four decades. The gender differences are not constants and they are not inherent in men and women. The essentialism tends to generalize from the average, ignoring variations within gender groups. On average, women and men do differ in some respects. For example, one of the best-documented gender differences is that men are on average more verbally and physically aggressive than women are. However, essentialists make it seem as if this tendency is true of all men and all women. Further sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have not identified any of the genes that cause male jealousy, female nurturance, the unequal division of labor between men and women, and so on. Finally, essentialists' explanations for gender differences ignore the role of power. Essentialists assume that existing behavior patterns help ensure the survival of the species and the smooth functioning of society. However, as conflict and feminist theorists argue, their assumption overlooks the fact that men are usually in a position of greater power and authority than women and may therefore impose many gender differences.

Conflict theorists locate the root of male domination in class inequality. According to Engels, men gained substantial power over women when preliterate societies were first able to produce more than there members needed for their own subsistence. At that point, some men gained control over the economic surplus. They soon devised two means of ensuring that their offspring would inherit the surplus. First, they imposed the rule that only men could own property. Second, by means of socialization and force, they ensured that women remained sexually faithful to their husbands. As industrial capitalism developed, Engels wrote, male domination increased because industrial capitalism made men still wealthier and more powerful while it relegated women to subordinate, domestic roles.

Feminist theorists doubt that male domination is so closely linked to the development of industrial capitalism. They note that gender inequality is greater in agrarian than in industrial capitalist societies. The male domination is evident in the societies that call themselves socialist or communist. These observations lead many feminists to conclude that male domination is rooted less in industrial capitalism than in the patriarchal authority relations, family structures, and patterns of socialization and culture that exist in almost all societies.

Symbolic interactionism is a type of social constructionism too. They focus on the way people attach meaning to things in the course of their everyday communication. One of the things to which people attach meaning is being a man or a woman.

Robert J Brym & John Lie, Sociology: Pop Culture to Social Structure, Third Edition, Wadsworth

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