Monday, 18 June 2012

The Human Spectrum

There have been some pretty exciting developments in the World of Science recently. Not relating to gender differences, all that research has gone kind of backwards over the past 20 years, primarily due to media representation and the human desire to link our observations with actual science; even when we can't - but that will be another blog post.

Irrespective of that, we are finally coming to terms with the 'spectrum concept'. For example, we have only recently accepted that autism is a spectrum disorder, and by that I mean that people can suffer from autism to varying degrees. You have people with very mild autism at one end of the spectrum, and people with sever autism at the other, but in between are all kinds of different cases where people will require different kinds of assistance to suit the individual. I think it is quite a simple concept, and if you want to read about it in more detail, you can visit:, where Louise Nichols, a Psychology student at Bangor University discusses briefly whether or not it is useful, or more suitable to type cast people.

I hope you can see where I'm going at this. For years we've seen things in black or white, and as a direct result of doing so, we have neglected the PREDOMINANT grey area that lies between. We're missing out on the vast nuances of behaviour, and we're walking away with a very simplistic, and potentially damaging, view of the world (or the people in it). I hope you read this post to the end because I raise an interesting point about how this effects young boys more than it effects young girls.

I'm not writing this blog to deny that gender differences exist, but to discover whether or not they are significant and to find a more positive way of approaching them. At the moment we look at girls and boys as very separate things, and we make all sorts of claims about their differences in behaviour. *The reality is that only 1% of variance in behaviour between sexes can be attributed to gender differences (both social and biological). This means that the differences between human beings accounts for 99% of this variance. So if I meet a boy and he's more aggressive than me I can be 99% sure that this is because he's a different person, not because he's a boy. Similarly, if I meet a girl who's more aggressive than me, it is because she is a different person.

It is quite likely that at one end of the spectrum you will have a few more boys, and at the other end you will have a few more girls, but these numbers are virtually insignificant. In the middle of this, we have a complex mix of boys and girls, all over the spectrum, and we don't cater for them. We segregate girls and boys, we tell them they are more likely to behave a certain way because of their gender. They are not more likely to behave a certain way because of their gender, they are more likely to behave a certain way because they are a different person, because they have been brought up differently, because of non-gender related biology, and all sorts of factors that have nothing to do with being a boy or a girl. One sure-fire way to make a young boy or girl behave in a certain manner, is by telling them that's the way it is.

You can defend it all you like. You can pretend it doesn't matter what you say because their personality will out, but to a highly impressionable child this is generally not the case. You need to have an amazing sense of character to be so sure of yourself so early on. I wasn't. I truly believed boys behaved one way and girls behaved another, and therefore there was something wrong with me because people thought my behaviour was more 'masculine'. Luckily I was also an incredibly stubborn child, I wasn't going to stop acting in a particular way because I was a female, but I watched it happen to plenty of other girls my age. I remember girls trying to join in with the boys playing football, but after being teased because football 'wasn't meant for them', they quickly stopped joining in.

My saving grace was my femininity. As a female, however unusual it is, the 'tomboy' classification exists. I took the word and I clung onto it with my dear life. So-called 'tomboys' are not given an easy time, but it is reluctantly accepted that a young girl may demonstrate more 'masculine' qualities early on e.g. being sporty, aggressive, loud etc. Unfortunately, there is no male equivalent. Young boys are even more strictly confined by what it means to be a young boy, because there isn't even the smallest of alternatives. If we look at why this is, it is all too apparent.

For years and years, female traits have been associated with 'weakness'. Over time, society's attitude has shifted and we have acknowledged that, even though many of us still do it, it is wrong to make this association. Rather than eradicate this stereotype however, there is a general consensus that a strong women can break away from it. It is understandable why a woman would want to be free of this stereotype, so let them try. On the other hand, we take for granted the traits we impose upon males, because society deems them to be positive. It is difficult then for anyone to comprehend why a boy might adopt more 'feminine' characteristics. So he is persecuted. He is bullied at school. His parents tease him and they try to alter his behaviour. It takes a very special person to allow their son to take a pink pencil case to school.

The most important thing to remember here is that there is a bigger difference between people than there is between gender. Even though we may have more girls at one end of the spectrum, and more boys at the other, we are making an enormous mistake by focusing on this. This is not a distinction, these children are actually an exception to a rule that clearly demonstrates how varied and fantastically unique we human beings really are.

*Dr Janet Shibley Hyde - psychologist specialising in meta-analysis

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