gender issues in psychology  HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:

Two main viewpoints exist in psychology regarding gender differences:

  1. Gender variation is biological and evolution-based in nature…..hence fixed and un alterable. Biological differences are there, BUT it is the society that shapes and nurtures gender roles. The biological approach has roots in evolutionary psychology and has an essentialist nature.
  2. The biosocial approach has a broader perspective and benefits from knowledge and research in Sociology, Anthropology, Ethnology, and off course Biology.

The main issues are tackled in these theories:

Who made us what we are? Were we born like that or are we a product of the environment and the society that we exist in?

Nature versus Nurture

There is no denying the fact that men and women are biologically different, but are the roles adopted by us also predetermined? Or, is it that we are made to learn roles that that suit our biological make-up? We know that men are higher in physical strength and women in endurance and that may explain many of the roles that we play in life.

Minimalist and Maximalist views in Psychology:

Epstein, 1988 describes the two opposing viewpoints as minimalist and maximalist. Maximalists believe in huge, fundamental, differences between men and women. A number of maximalists belong to the essentialist perspective. Minimalist believes and proposes that there are few fundamental, deep, differences.

Earlier Schools of Thought in Psychology and Gender Differences:


Structuralists were primarily interested in the structure of human mind. Adult mental processes were studied by using introspection. Structuralist’s interest was in the investigation of “generalized adult mind” (Shields, 1975). They were not concerned with the effect of individual differences, including difference between men and women. Ignoring individual differences did not mean that structuralists treated men and women equally. The student subjects in structuralist experiments were males. The “generalized adult mind” therefore was a “male mind”. In the U.S, women were expressly prohibited from one of the early groups of experimental psychologists (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).


Psychology and the psychologists took a more pragmatic and practical turn in the U.S. Functionalism focused upon the functions of the mind rather than the structure of mind. Functionalist researches included a wider variety of subjects including women, children, and animals. The structuralists had excluded groups like children, animals, the feebleminded and even women.

Impact of Studies on Intelligence and Adaptability:

Intelligence and adaptability were two major areas of functionalist interest. As a consequence they delved into intelligence test development and study of individual differences. Individual differences in mental ability, and personality traits, including sex differences were being compared now. The Darwinian influence impacted the functionalists as well. One of the popular areas of study was the biologically determined differences which included biological basis of sex differences. That was perhaps the formal beginning of the empirical investigation of sex differences, although mostly quite biased. The findings usually tended to support the conventional male-female roles prevailing at that time. The impact of social influence in terms of sex differences was generally either ignored, not touched upon, or not considered worth investigation.

Some of the typical findings of such studies:

  • Women were less intelligent than men.
  • As compared to men women benefited less from education.
  • Women, as compared to men, had a strong maternal instinct.
  • Women were unlikely to produce examples of success or eminence (Brannon, 2004).
  • The findings primarily suggested that females were intellectually deficient. The functionalists were interested in “Nature” rather than “nurture”. Study of sex roles and cultural concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” did not interest them. The gender-biased views or findings of the functionalists faced strong criticism. Female psychologists like Helen Thompson Woolley and Letta Stetter Hollingworth criticized, argued and took a stand against the functionalist view of women. Woolley in the early 1900s raised the point that the sex-difference research reflected the researchers’ personal bias, sentiment, and prejudice. Hollingworth believed that women’s potential can never be demonstrated unless they were given an opportunity to choose the life they would like, whether career or maternity, or both.


This approach brought forth a new perspective. Behaviorism emerged almost as a reaction to the prevailing introspective, inner experience, approach. The subject matter of psychology for them was observable behavior alone, rather than inner experience or instinct. The behaviorists emphasized “nurture”. Although their main emphasis was different from the functionalists, their approach towards sex differences was not much different. Their primary interest was in learning and memory. Sex differences and sex roles along with other social factors were ignored. These early psychologists created “womanless” psychology (Crawford and Marecek, 1989). Their research negatively affected the attention required by the sex/gender difference issue in two ways: Their research did not include women as participants, or when both men and women were participants, gender related variables were not examined.

Psychoanalytic Psychology:

Psychoanalytic Psychology, founded by Sigmund Freud, has been the most influential yet most criticized approach in psychology. Psychoanalytic psychology was the first to talk about sex differences, personality differences between men and women. Freud’s theory gave an understanding of the conceptualization of sex and gender. Freudian theory of personality: Freud talked about the developmental stages of personality in terms of “Psycho-sexual Development”.

Personality is guided and run by basic energy; instincts are the source of energy. The most significant factor in personality formation is a child’s perception of anatomical difference between boys and girls. The child’s perception of bodily differences between males and females leads to a realization of what they do not have. The resultant feeling and attitude leads to a crucial conflict i.e., an attraction towards the opposite-sex parent, and hostility towards the same-sex parent develops. The child ultimately reaches a resolution of this conflict in the form of identification with the same-sex parent. The case of a male child is graver in nature. He undergoes a deeper conflict and trauma in personality development.

The resolution comes in terms of complete identification with the father. From this, Freud drew the hypothesis for which he may still be criticized: As compared to women, men typically form a stronger conscience and a sense of social values. This issue was hotly contested and Freud criticized for what this thinking implied. Those who believed in this theory interpreted it to imply that women were inferior to men. Women were jealous of men’s achievements, were less ethical, more self-contemptuous, and more concerned with their appearance.

Acceptance of a feminine role meant adopting low ranking opportunities and an inferior status. If any woman could not reconcile with this situation, she was considered to be a case requiring psychotherapy, since she was not accepting a role expected of her. This thinking not only hurt women but also touched men who thought otherwise. They felt that Freud was proposing and strengthening the idea of female subservience and a male dominated society. Freudian theory gained unmatched popularity all over the world especially in the West. This had implications in terms of influence on popular thinking. For the development of masculinity, the psychoanalytic theory had very stringent and inflexible standards: The male child whose masculinity develops in a normal fashion undergoes very severe anxiety and conflict in early childhood The child develops hatred for the father, fears him, and undergoes trauma. Then he realizes that instead of breaking from father he should identify with him, become like him, break from mother, and experience the advantages of manhood. Now, can all boys completely break away from mothers and fully identify with the father? What about sons? Attached to mothers, or fatherless sons?

The boys who could not break fully from mother, and did not completely identify with father, lack a normally developed masculinity and have feminine characteristics in their personality.

Psychoanalytic Feminism:

Psychoanalytic feminism Roots in the work of Freud. Gender is not a biologically determined phenomenon.

Psychosexual development leads to the gender role that we adopt and play. Childhood experiences are responsible for making the male believe that he is masculine and making a female believe that she is feminine. These experiences lead to gender inequality. This is a result of a male dominated society.

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