The debate over the factors affecting the formation of gender identity has more than a 100-year history, whereas the professional evidence-based level of the debate has been represented since the 1950s. In the Western sociology and psychology, gender identification is composed of a number of aspects, including perception of one’s gender roles, social identity and self-perception in general. The present paper is designed to address the role of biological, social and psychological factors in gender identity-shaping.
In fact (Ellison, 2000), human behavior greatly depends upon hormonal secretion, as it is widely known that adrenaline is released when the brain receives a message about certain environmental threats and results in anxious and uneasy behavior, whereas endorphins are released during exercise and result in a positive inspiration and sociability. Female sex hormones derive from ovaries and include progesterone and estrogens (mainly 17-beta-estradioll), whereas the major male hormone, testosterone, is produced by the testes. These chemicals are responsible for the formation of secondary sex characteristics and determine behaviors, attributed to the specific gender role. Masculinity in terms of gender identity is normally associated with assertiveness, self-control and aggression, provided by testosterone (Ellison, 2000), whereas femininity is conceptualized as compliance to dependence, interest in care about others and comfort creation.
Byne and Parsons (1993), the followers of the classic model, indicate in their theoretical research of biological and neurobiological conditioning of gender identification that a person’s gender is determined during conception, but the fetus begins to develop sex organs only at the 6th week of pregnancy. Therefore, the developing testes or ovaries might begin hormonal secretion “off schedule”, which affects the development of the neural network of the brain and results in the person’s inability to accept their biological sex and the sense of gender dysphoria.
Dittmann (1990) states that girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, the disease that refers to the overproduction of androgens, are more committed to the masculine roles like violent games, inclination to leadership in peer groups, willingness to increase physical strength, and are more likely to fell to certain degree uncomfortable in their female body, as the scholar notes that a number of teenage girls are unwilling to accept their physical development and differentiation. Similarly, boys with the Turner syndrome that refers to the excessive release of female hormones tend to de-valuate their biological sex (Tiefer, 1992).
It needs to be noted that the evolution of sexuality in childhood is associated mostly with sex role games and self-observation: “Children this age are very curious about bodies – their own and other people’s. They are trying on roles and behaviors” (Haffner and Needleman, 2001, p.41). At this stage, children experience a gradual transition from unconsciousness to awareness of their sexuality, so Dittmann holds that parents, aware of the child’s hormonal disease, can diplomatically interfere then and assist children in developing a superstructure of gender roles over their biological sex.
One of the most interesting approaches to gender identity is biological psychology. On the one hand, Sharpe (2003) writes that the brain structures, which refer to communication (listening and speech) and emotions or empathy are notably better developed in females , whereas the male brain is hard-wired for system construction and perception/analysis of visual information. However, Haffner and Needleman (2001) write that infancy is characterized by the active synaptogenesis, or the strengthening of neural connections, to great extent dependent upon the environment. As the researchers write, “the development is on the one hand genetically determined, but the formation and pruning of synapses are controlled by the environment” (Haffner and Needleman, 2001, p.46).
As a result, parental taboos upon sex role games and the lack of gender-sensitive childrearing (neutral treatment of infants and pre-school boys and girls as sexless) that stabilize the synaptic connections between neurons in the specific brain structures (e.g. the growth of hippocampus in boys playing spatial memory games) might bring in the future a misperception of one’s biological sex up to the manifestation of androgyny in the later adolescence (sporadic display of male and female behavioral patterns).
Furthermore, it is important to take into consideration the cognitive and moral development of 3-5-year-old children as discussed by Paiget (Haffner and Needleman, 2001) who alleges that this period is characterized by the first sparkles of self-awareness and the reflex-based belief in the relationship between “naughtiness” and punishment. Hence it is quite easy to cause an imbalance in the child’s sex and gender awareness through imposing excessively stringent moral restrictions upon the child’s behavior.
The dominant social psychological approach to gender role taking is Bem’s comprehensive gender schema theory that stresses the meaning of environmental factors. In 1971, I created the Bem Sex Role Inventory to measure how well the person fits into their traditional gender role by characterizing their personality as masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated” (Bem, 1981, p. 355). The scholar believes that under the ever-lasting influence of the environment and broader cultural context the person carefully sorts all behaviors into the categories of masculinity and femininity and then employs them with relation to the cultural and social context. However, a substantial gender identity collapse might occur when professional values and desire for equality in career opportunities begin to interfere with gender beliefs; for instance, female leaders and executives recognize they are “tomboyish” and excessively committed to the masculine behaviors in non-workplace settings (Bem, 1981, p. 356).
To sum up, gender identity is rather a social construct than a set of biological, namely hormonal determinants. As a result, increasingly more specialists in neuroscience consent to the fact that the degree of consistency between biological sex and upbringing determine the formation of gender identity in the future (Dittmann, 1990; Haffner and Needleman, 2001) .
For instance, the paper has incorporated the article showing the effect of parental guidance and the degree of progress in the cognitive and moral areas on the stability of synaptic connections in young children. Similarly, hormonal secretion is not pre-planned before the birth, but might occur under the specific social and psychological conditions (e.g. girls with anorexia nervosa are rather androgynous in demeanor than feminine and suffer from the deficiency of estrogens). Thus, the environmental factors might reinforce the inborn somatic substrates referring to the aspects of gender identity or result in their alteration, increasing or decreasing the person’s responsiveness to the neural impulses, which drive sex-related behaviors.
Bem, S. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 354-364.
Byne, W. and Parsons, B. (1993). Human Sexual Orientation: the Biologic Theories Reappraised. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50 (3), 228-239.
Dittmann, B. (1990). Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. I: Gender-related behavior and attitudes in female patients and sisters. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 15, 401-420.
Ellison, C. (2000). Human Sexual Response. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Haffner, D. and Needleman, R. (2001). Childhood sex play and synaptogenesis. The Family Journal, 11: 39-50.
Sharpe, R. (2003). Adult Sexuality. The Family Journal, 11: 420-426.
Tiefer, L. (1992). Historical, scientific, clinical and feminist criticisms of “the Human Sexual Response Cycle” mode. Annual Review of Sex Research, 2: 1-23.