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Differences. . .

It is said that the first thing we ask of a new-born baby is "Is it a boy or a girl?" But it might be considered that this is the first thing we ask ourselves whenever we meet anyone new. Perhaps this is why we find it so threatening if the cues are uncertain or ambiguous, and even more so if we find our first assumptions turn out to be incorrect.

Men are different from women. That would seem to be self-evident. They are different in aptitude, skill and behaviour, but then, so is every individual person. So why do we make such a fuss about it? It seems not unreasonable to suggest that the sexes are different because their brains are different, but then no two human brains are the same. It is suggested that our culture is in trouble because many women have been brought up to believe they should be as good as a man. Well, why not?

We will only touch on these topics briefly. There is enough material for a dozen books. Suffice it to say that all the studies report on the way boys and girls are, not how they got to be that way. Or rather how they were at the time of the study. Commonality across cultures and species implies some biological basis. The fact that the situation is changing reflects the power of socialisation.

Other stereotypes, that girls are more sociable, more nurturing, more compliant and have lower self-esteem, are hard to sustain. One that definitely seems to have disappeared over the last two decades is that girls have less motivation to achieve.

There are studies about relative abilities of perception, vision sound and touch. Certainly, if you watched a carpenter run his fingers along a planed surface and being able to tell how "true" it was, you would find it difficult to believe that boys lack tactile sensitivity.

Another is that girls tend to pick up auditory information while boys do better visually. Several studies suggested that, from school age on, boys outperformed girls in areas of mathematics involving abstract concepts of space, relationships and theory. It turned out that these were gifted pupils. The studies said nothing about the average boy or girl.

Why are girls more successful at school? Perhaps emphasis on communication in projects and exams submerges differences. Success at school nowadays depends on being able to writes essays and examination papers. If girls are better at verbal communication than boys, then they are likely to succeed. But, if there are more boys in remedial reading classes, does it not imply a serious defect in our educational system?

In general, men are taller and heavier than women. In sports, men tend to outperform women in strength and speed. Women seem to have greater endurance. In spite of many attempts, sports have never become completely unisex.

Yet, for example, Ward and Whipp (1) suggested that running speeds for male and female athletes have improved steadily through the twentieth century, but women have improved much more than men. Dyer(2) found the same for athletics, swimming and cycling. Both predicted that sex differences might disappear by the middle of the next century. However Seiler and Sailer(3) point out that, since the date of their studies, the rate of improvement has much reduced. They suggest a temporal correlation with the use of performance enhancing drugs, and their more recent proscription. These have a greater effect on women, than they do with men, since the latter are already well supplied with testosterone.

Men, it is said, are generally more aggressive, physically and verbally, and enjoy taking risks. They play fighting games and enjoy 'dares.' More men than women are convicted for crimes, especially crimes of violence.

Some say that this is simply a matter of biology, others suggest that it is a function of the way we organise the sex and gender roles in our society. In fact, many of the findings, in this area, have turned out to be unsatisfactory, and often they turn out to be very small differences with a large degree of overlap.

Biologically, men certainly seem to be the weaker sex. Although one would expect there to be an equal chance of the fetus being a boy or girl, it appears that the ratio for boys is about 20 percent higher, yet only about the same number come to term. This greater tendency for male fetuses to be aborted carries on, with more boys stillborn and susceptible to congenital or inherited conditions, such as hemophilia, cerebral palsy, convulsions, or heart disease. "On average, men experience heart attacks 10 years earlier than women, and have a better rate of survival after one year. Symptoms also vary by sex: women experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain; most male heart attacks come on as a sudden, striking pain in the chest."(4) In adulthood, men have greater vulnerability to virus infections and a shorter average lifespan.

In recent years, a great many biological sex differences have been found throughout the body, including the brain, both in metabolism and genetic expression. They have for instance, raised worries about differences in the efficacy and side effects of various drugs.(5) Another new area of study is the phenomenon of imprinting whereby a given gene from the father could silence or activate a gene from the mother, or vice versa.(6)

However, regardless of the findings that sex differences really do exist after all, or the pressure to deny them, socially we still expect women to behave like women and men like men.

The real problem is not that sex differences exist but, in our everyday intuition of what sexual, or gender, behaviour is appropriate, our concepts may be too narrow or too rigid. The biological determinism argument, too often, reinforces this.

While others now say that there is too much biological evidence that personality development is based on innate precursors to deny the fact of sexual difference, we cannot ignore the effect of learning. For a start, the idea that we are the helpless products of our heredity takes away our free will.

We must not allow those who insist on the difference to blind us to the similarities and we must not allow the biological stereotypers to get away with the idea that there is only one kind of man and one kind of woman. As Sandra Bem puts it: "Fluffy Women and Chesty Men."

As Sayers (7) puts it: "When one examines these supposedly purely biological accounts of gender roles one finds that they are rooted in appeal to social, not biological, considerations. This is true not only of recent biological analyses of sexual divisions in Society but also of the analogous biological explanations of these divisions advanced in the nineteenth century. The similarity between earlier and current versions of the theses that 'biology is woman's destiny' is striking."

The big issue is the difference in the spatial abilities between men and women. It seems that men find it much easier to visualise and deal with spaces, the position of objects, relative heights and dimensions. In a test involving a three dimensional mechanical apparatus, only a quarter of the women could perform the task better than men. It is as well to remember that at least some of the women could perform the task as well as the men and it isn't recorded if any men were actually worse.

Out of the plethora of papers that had been produced up until 1974, about differences between boys and girls, Maccoby and Jacklin (8) found only the following main differences:

Males are more aggressive than females.

Though this finding has been challenged, and the definition of aggression itself questioned, it is a fairly common feature, both of human cultures and of the more complex species, that male offspring are more likely to engage in play fighting and adults more likely to fight. Many workers challenge this, while others assert that it is the primary indicator of masculinity or femininity.

Females have more verbal ability than males, while males have better visuo-spatial skills.

The distinction seems to appear at about the age of eleven and, because of the relevance to education, it has received a great deal of attention. Although girls and boys seem to have the same ability for computational arithmetic, teenage boys also seem to do better at the more abstract maths. It might seem that a childhood of social experience is the primary factor. However, the biological argument suggests that the hormonal changes of puberty activate previous dormant differences.

Maccoby and Jacklin's 1974 review of the papers on gender and sex differences is the one most often quoted, and it may be that, more than thirty years later, another is urgently needed. It has its critics, who mainly point out that, in a gargantuan task, it was mostly a head count and didn't take into account the quality of the research reviewed.

Bibliography and Good Reading

  1. Uncited reference in Fausto Sterling, A., (1992) Myths of Gender, Biological Theories about Women and Men, (p269) New York: Basic Books (bookshelf)
  2. Dyer, K.F., (1977) The Trend of the Male and the Female Performance Differential in Athletics, Swimming and Cycling, 1958-1976, Journal of Biosocial Science, 9 (1977): 325-39 in Rose.S, Lewontin.R.C, Kamin.L.J, (1990) Not In Our Genes: Biology, Idealogy and Human Nature. (p138) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (bookshelf)
  3. Seiler, S., Sailer, S., (1997) The Gender Gap: Elite Women Are Running Further Behind, Sportscience News May-June.
  4. Kreeger, K.Y., (2002) Yes, Biologically Speaking, Sex Does Matter, The Scientist 16[1]:35, Jan. 7, 2002 (
  5. Kreeger, K.Y., (2002) The Inequality of Drug Metabolism, The Scientist 16[6]:29, Mar. 18, 2002 (
  6. Kreeger, K.Y., (2002) X and Y Chromosomes Concern More Than Reproduction, The Scientist 16[3]:25, Feb. 4, 2002, (
  7. Sayers. J. (1982) Biological Politics, London: Tavistock.
  8. Maccoby. E.E, Jacklin. C.N, (1974) The Psychology of Sex Differences, Stanford: Stanford University Press (as reported in various commentaries).
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Bland, J., (2003) About Gender: Differences
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
08.04.98 Last amended 20.11.03, 12.06.06