Girls who play like boys? It’s their hormones at work
Testosterone plays its part, but pop culture is beginning to challenge stereotypes of how genders behave
Girls who are more into fishing and playing with cars than dolls are likely to have had exposure to male hormones before birth. Yet they will play with other girls and identify as female, new research has found.
The study explored the role of hormones and socialisation on girls’ activities, playmates and identity – testing “nature versus nurture” theories.
Typically children begin playing with kids of their own gender, a process of “sex segregation”, in early childhood, influenced by their gender identity.
The researchers had expected that girls with prenatal exposure to androgens (male hormones such as testosterone) would hang out more with boys.“As it turned out, they did not spend more time with boys,” said Professor Sheri Berenbaum from Penn State psychology department.
The team interviewed the 54 girls – aged between 10 and 13 – then called them on seven evenings over the next month to ask about who they had spent time with that day and what they had been doing.
The girls with the most androgen exposure had more interest in traditional male activities and spent more time pursuing them.
Baseball, football, basketball, hunting and/or fishing, building things, playing with trucks, cars and action figures, and watching sports on TV were defined as the top seven activities for boys.
For girls the top seven “female-typed activities” were cheerleading, dancing, gymnastics, playing with dolls or figurines, writing, reading and shopping.
Most of the girls in the study had typical attitudes about gender, which could explain why they chose to play with girls and identified as girls. In other words, the effects of hormones did not seem to affect identity and attitudes.
“People used to think, and some still do, that gender development and behaviour is based either on a person’s biology or social environment,” said Berenbaum.
“But I think people now realise that it’s both, and the question is how these forces work together,” she said.
Academics who focus on gender— from both sociological and biological perspectives — worked together to investigate this.Susan McHale, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, said: “Findings from this study are consistent with the idea that nature and nurture interact to explain gender development.”
Some people resist the idea that biology influences behaviour because they fear that means it is predetermined and “everything is fixed when you’re born”, said Berenbaum.
She said that behaviours influenced by hormones, and other biological processes, could “still be changed by the environment”.
The South African organisation Sonke Gender Justice has a children’s rights programme to challenge gender straitjacketing and encourages boys to learn to express emotions.
Positive parenting unit head Thulani Velebayi explained why this is important: “When we put toys on the ground, most boys pick up the toy guns and girls the soft toys and dolls. When boys grow up, they use real guns and abuse women.
“Teaching boys to not express emotion is damaging. They are bottling up emotions until they are full and explode, and when they explode, the family gets hurt.”
Clinical psychologists confirm that girls and boys are shaped by emotional stereotypes.
But popular culture, including kids’ books, is increasingly challenging gender stereotypes of how girls and boys behave and define their sexual identity.
From picture books for four-year-olds to the best-selling Rick Riordan series about demigods for tweens, gay and transgender characters, or teddy bears, are forging their own identities.
A new book on millennials finds a wide range of gender behaviours among them, from a total rejection of gender norms to an idealisation of traditional gender roles such as stay-at-home moms.
• The children in the study all had congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an inherited genetic disorder which can affect the production of sex hormones, often overproducing androgens. Fourteen of them had non-classic CAH, which is a milder form of the condition. The other 40 had classic COH, typically detected in infancy.