Biological Theories and Approach to Gender in Psychology

Edited by Jamie (ScienceAid Editor), Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), SmartyPants

Biological Theories of Gender


As you may or may not know from studying Biology, our DNA or genetic material is carried on chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs (46 in total) of these. One of them is different depending on your sex.

  1. 1
    Males - XY.
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  2. 2
    Females - XX.
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This is very often used as the definition of male and female and plays a huge role in determining the physical characteristics that you'd associate with males and females. However, if chromosomes determine gender, what happens to your gender if it doesn't follow the typical pattern. In the table below, we will look at two different conditions resulting from atypical chromosomes.

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Name Kleinfelter's Syndrome Turner's Syndrome
Who is affected Males Females
Cause Having an extra X chromosome: XXY Not having an X chromosome: XO (or just X)
Incidence 1 in 750 males (0.13%) 1 in 2500 girls (0.04%)

Most fetuses with Turner's will self-abort.

Physical Characteristics Sterile (not capable of reproducing), grow breasts, low levels of testosterone. Sterile, short stature, swollen hands, and feet, no menstrual cycle.
Cognitive Characteristics Language skills impairment. Mild problems with spatial problems and mathematics.

Hormones are very important in the body. They control everything from sugar levels to growth of body hair.

In terms of how hormones influence gender - during fetal development in the womb, a fetus will naturally follow the route of being a female. However, if it is exposed to higher levels of testosterone, it becomes male (develops penis and testes, masculine brain). If genetic males aren't exposed to enough testosterone it can give rise to another condition called Testicular Feminizing Syndrome, where the body does not respond to testosterone so becomes physically female, despite being genetically male. For this condition, there is the case study of Mrs. DW.

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Mrs. DW always thought she was female, until visiting the doctor because she couldn't become pregnant. The doctor discovered the reason she couldn't become pregnant was because was biologically a male, with no female internal organs. However, she chose to remain a woman and adopted two children. This suggests social factors are important in determining gender; but also highlights the importance of chromosomes in gender development.

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Another study that would at first appear to point towards this idea was by Money and Erhardt (1972).

Aim To look at the case of someone who had their gender reassigned to see whether gender is more influenced by social or biological aspects.
Method They looked at the case of a boy who had his genitals badly damaged during surgery. The doctors suggested he should be given the identity of a female. He was given plastic surgery to have a feminine appearance and had hormones to promote breast development.
Results It was reported that the child had normal female development.
Conclusion Supports the view that gender is social and can be changed regardless of the biological sex of the person, since the child developed into a normal female despite being biologically male.

The truth of the situation is very different to what Money and Erhardt portrayed it as. Many years later, the child in this study made his identity public, and said he had never felt like a girl and always displayed male characteristics. This is backed up by school reports.

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When he discovered what had happened at 12, he refused to take hormones and so had a normal male puberty and lived his life as male. He then married and lives as a man and in 2004 he, tragically, killed himself.

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This study, then, in fact, shows that biological factors are more important, because the child had the gender identity of a boy (in line with the genetics) despite the parents doing their best to socialize the child into being a girl.

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Article Info

Categories : Gender

Recent edits by: Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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