Boys Will Be Girls…And Girls Will Be Boys

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / wacker

Sure, there are anatomical differences between boys and girls, but even that apparent binary is more confusing than you might think. Indeed, about 1 percent of the young people you work with at camp were probably born intersex. As Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of Sexing the Body, writes:

“While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies [...] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits.”

Gosh, and all along you thought you ran an all-boys, an all-girls camp, or a coed camp. I’m not a geneticist, so I can’t do more than plant an intriguing seed in your mind about anatomical sex differences.

But having grabbed your attention, let me share something about boys and girls that is even more surprising, and over which you have considerable control: gender-role stereotypes.

People are commonly socialized to believe in inherent differences between boys and girls. For example, boys are better at math than girls; girls are better at language; boys have a justice orientation in moral reasoning; girls have a care orientation; boys are assertive; girls are passive. Interestingly, as Fausto-Sterling suggests, these are cultural conceits.

Examining Differences

In a 2005 study for American Psychologist, Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde summarized the results of 46 meta-analyses (rigorous statistical summaries of other empirical studies) on gender differences. Hyde’s review comprised tens of thousands of individual participants, and found that the most popular notions of gender differences were unsubstantiated. In other words, the popular notion that boys and girls are intellectually and socially distinct has little scientific proof.

Hyde’s “gender similarities hypothesis” is that males and females are much more similar than they are different. That turns out to be an extraordinarily important scientific finding because certain beliefs–boys being physically aggressive and girls being physically delicate–are tremendously harmful to any young person’s development.

Boys, for example, may grow up thinking they cannot be nurturing, even in their role as a father; girls may grow up thinking they cannot be aggressive even in a competitive workplace or on a sports field. Consider the unintended consequences of parents and teachers having lower expectations for girls’ success in mathematics than for boys’.

Fully 78 percent of all gender differences ever studied scientifically are small or close to zero, according to Hyde. That finding flies in the face of the “gender-differences hypothesis” put forth by nonscientist self-help counselors such as John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus.

If the attitudinal starting place at your camp is that males and females are from different planets–at least metaphorically–then you can expect several insidious behaviors to perhaps be present:

People will objectify one another. Males and females will see each other as potential conquests rather than colleagues. They will avoid and pursue each other–for different reasons at different ages–more often than befriend and connect with each other.

Gender-role stereotypes will become more entrenched. For example, males and females will find it easier to endorse muscular ideals of male beauty and waif-like ideals of female beauty when the gender starting points are distant. Sexist comments will be tolerated–even reinforced–because of a belief that gender-role stereotypes have more than a grain of truth in them.

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