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Gender and Sexual Orientation Differences: Do they really exist and should they be studied?

Jenna's picture

       Sex and gender differences have been an area of active biological and psychological research throughout history.  However, despite the possible medical and educational benefits, this research has often been used to validate the marginalization of certain groups.  For instance, early research on sex differences focused primarily on the different cognitive abilities of men and women and sought to confirm the common belief that women are a weaker sex.  For example, in his research on heritable traits such as intelligence Sir Francis Walton claimed to have found that “women tend in all their capacities to be inferior to men” (Unger, 2001).  Although the women’s movement ended the more obvious sexism in psychological research, it did not prevent the continued search for cognitive skills in which one sex is superior.  In fact, today’s society still uses skewed statistical results as evidence that men are better at certain skills.  For example, the media often falsely links the greater variability in men’s math skills to proof of their superiority in mathematics (Edge debate 2001).  Nevertheless, this finding actually only proves that there are more men at both extremes of the math ability spectrum while women tend to be more average.  This modern misinterpretation reveals that there is still a significant amount of gender bias in research today. 


       Although there may be a genetic component to certain skills, it is impossible to separate a genetic predisposition from societal expectations and influences.  Throughout our discussion in class and online it was agreed that society can easily influence someone’s aptitude for a subject.  For example, if women think they are inherently less capable at solving complex mathematical problems, they will quickly lose interest in math at the first sign of difficulty.  In this manner, women are more likely to attribute difficulty with math to an internal lack of ability rather than an outside influence such as poor instruction.  However, social expectations and biased research influence men as well as women.  For example, some research suggests that women are more attentive to their immediate surroundings and finished products while men prefer to attend to abstract and constructive tasks (Nevers, 1895).  The expectation of men to be aloof may cause them to act in this manner due to a social pressure to appear “masculine.”  Therefore, studies on the emotional and cognitive differences between men and women may not reveal an actual biological difference but instead the effect of social pressures. 


       Many researches claim to perform these cognitive studies in order to improve the education system and develop gender specific teaching methods.  However, this research could potentially hinder education if it reinforces harmful stereotypes.  On one hand, if there is a fundamental difference in the way males and females learn than it is important to recognize and explore these differences so that educational programs can be developed accordingly.  However, if this research just reinforces the social stereotypes which discourage men and women from exploring certain academic areas than it is ultimately hindering education and should be discontinued.  Overall, I think it is necessary to design different educational methods for men and women as research does seem to support the fact that they learn in differently.  Yet, it is difficult to do this research without placing a value judgment on the result, so future studies must make every effort to report their findings in a clear and objective manner.


       Although the most common research on sex differences focuses on cognitive abilities, research on biological differences in men and women have also been performed in order to discover possible sex specific treatments for certain diseases.  There is strong evidence that men and women will respond differently to certain diseases and drugs due to the significant influence sex hormones have on the body (Kimura 2002).  However, despite this evidence, surprisingly most of the research done on treatments and early signs of disease utilizes only male test subjects.  This sexist aspect of research was brought up by Rebecca W. in our online discussion and I believe it deserves further investigation.  The most common reason cited for excluding female subjects is that the changes in hormone levels which occur during the estrous or menstrual cycle would skew the results.  However, if these factors can change the effectiveness of drugs in women, than it is important to investigate them further even if it requires more time and effort from researchers.  It is unacceptable that women are not utilized in research when investigators fully understand that they may respond differently to certain treatments.  This neglect reveals that the research field still retains some of the male-centric attitude present before the women’s movement.


       On a different note, recent research has also focused on finding a biological basis for sexual orientation.  A controversial study by Simon LeVay began this search when he claimed that the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (a neural structure important to the control of male sexual behavior) is different in men and women and additionally that it is more feminine in the brains of homosexual men (Levay, 1991).  Although there are many critiques of this study, LeVay’s finding has recently been replicated in a study of a homologous structure in homosexual and heterosexual sheep, thus suggesting that a biological basis for sexual orientation may actually exist (Roselli, 2004). 


       The social implication of these sexual orientation studies is a highly debated and divisive issue.  Some believe that the discovery of a biological basis for homosexuality will decrease discrimination against homosexuals by proving that these differences are innate.  However, it is also possible that the same studies could be used to imply that homosexual brains are defective, thus comparing it to a mental illness which requires treatment.  Ultimately, this raises the question of how and if society as a whole will benefit from these studies.  To my knowledge, homosexuality does not predispose a person to any disease; therefore, this biological knowledge contains little medical value for this population.  In fact, the most probable outcome of this research is the development of a screening mechanism or “cure/treatment” for homosexuality.  In this way, I do not understand why this research is conducted when it has little medical value and the potential social harms are immense. 


       Beyond the fact both gender and sexual orientation studies may have limited value, our discussion exposed a fundamental flaw in the methodology of this research.  In particular, it is extremely problematic that these studies force people into two discrete categories (male/female or homosexual/heterosexual) when in fact gender and sexual orientation may exist on a spectrum.  For example, research on neural differences in sexual orientation found that despite a statistically significant difference in means between sexes and sexual orientations, there was a great deal of variation within groups (LeVay 1991).  Additionally, due to the infinite variables involved in determining sex there is no one person who could ever be 100% female. 


       One reason it is difficult to determine if this gender spectrum actually exists is due to the strong and often inseparable connection between research and society.  For example, due to the recent increase in awareness of people with a range of sexual orientations, we readily accepted the idea of a sexual orientation spectrum.  However, there has not yet been a similar movement to change our view on gender, therefore we were generally more hesitant to accept the existence of a gender spectrum.  Further, in order to change our views on gender, research would have to confirm the existence of a spectrum; however, in order to perform this research, people would have to first identify on a spectrum.  Since society defines male and female as two discrete categories and attaches certain values and attributes to these categories many people have incorporated this socially constructed definition of gender into their self definition.  Therefore, by forcing people into categories society may be preventing the discovery of a gender spectrum. 


         In conclusion, I believe that the most consistent result of gender and sexuality studies is that the variability within a group is much greater than the differences between groups.  Therefore, the most important finding of these studies is that everyone should be treated as individuals because socially or biologically constructed groups will never be large enough to encompass the large variations in human physiology and psychology. 



LeVay, S. (1991).  A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men. Science 253, 1034-1037.


Roselli, C., Larkin, K., Resko, J., Stellflug, J., and F. Stormshak. (2004). The Volume of a Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus in the Ovine Medial Preoptic Area/Anterior Hypothalamus Varies with Sexual Partner Preference. Endocrinology 2, 478-483.


The Science of Gender and Science: Pinker vs. Spelke.  A Debate”.  Edge; The Third Culture.  16 May 2005. 


Nevers, C.C and Calkins, M.W. (1895) Dr. Jastrow on Community of Ideas of Men and Women. Pscyhological Review, 2, 363-367.


Kimura, Doreen. (2002). “Sex Differences in the Brain”.  (2002). Scientific American.


Unger, R.K. Handbook of Psychology of Women and Gender.  New York: Wiley, 2001.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Gender categories: society and science

"by forcing people into categories society may be preventing the discovery of a gender spectrum"

Science contributes to this? And might, at least in principle, contribute to correcting it?