This essay was written by Stephanie Ephraim, Victoria University


We often hear people say things like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘women love to gossip’. However, not all boys act the same, and not all women love to gossip. It is true that we see in our lives that many men act in similar ways to each other, and women too. It is a common belief that men and women act the way they do because it is a fact of nature: the way they are born and a result of biology or evolution (Eckhert & McConnell-Ginet 2013). However, research has shown that men and women learn to act in certain ways because of the way that they are raised, or nurtured. For many decades, researchers have studied whether men and women act the way they do because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ (Grabowski & Broemer 2018). As science learns more, it is becoming more clear that gender is not something that we are born with, but something that we make through our lives.

It is important to define the terms sex and gender. People often confuse the terms sex and gender (McLeod 2014). Sex is a biological term which puts people into categories based on the genitals they have when they are born: babies with a penis are called male, and babies with a vagina are called female. Gender, on the other hand, is about the way people identify and act based on the sex they have been allocated (Connell, 2001). Sometimes we say that a man is ‘girly’ or a woman is a ‘tomboy’ because of they act in ways that we normally associate with the other sex (Garner & Grazian 2016). Some men even feel that they are women, or vice versa, and change their names and even genitals to make their body match their gender identity. These people are called ‘trans’ people (Ryle, 2012).

The terms ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ have been used to explore the reasons why people become the way they are (Macleod 2014, Ryle 2012). For many years, philosophers and scientists have wondered whether a person who has a certain trait, for example being funny, happy, or feminine, was born this way or learned to be this way. When talking about influences that are biological, scientists use the term ‘nature’, but for influences that are learned they use the term ‘nurture’ (Macleod 2014, Ryle 2012, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2013).

Many scientists have attempted to explain the differences between men and women as a product of ‘nature’ (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2013). These people believe that differences in the body make women act differently to men, and vice versa. They explain this by things like differences between male and female chromosomes, endocrine functioning and levels of hormones like testosterone and estrogen (Pascoe & Bridges, 2016). People who believe this claim that men are more aggressive and violent because of higher testosterone levels, or that women are less likely to be strong leaders because they have higher levels of estrogen which makes them gentle. However, research has proven over time that this is not the case (Connell, 1995). In fact, some science has shown that behaving like a man actually produces higher levels of testosterone. This means that it is actually the behaviour that causes the change in hormone levels, not the other way around .

In the 1930’s,an anthropologist called Margaret Mead travelled from America to Papua New Guinea and live with three different tribes. In one tribe, she noticed men and women were both peaceful, in another they were both ‘warlike’. In a third tribe, the women worked hard while the men ‘primped’ and decorated themselves, which was the opposite to Mead’s American culture at the time (Mead, 1935). This was the first study that demonstrated and made popular the idea that gender identity and behaviours are actually culturally learned, instead of being linked to biological nature (Pascoe & Bridges, 2016). 

Later, Parsons (1954) argued that men and women act in ‘sex roles’ related to their biological sex (either a male sex role or a female sex role). This was the first theory that tried to demonstrate the way young boys learn to be men by copying older men, and girls copying women. He argued that they did this because of expectations that were placed on them by people around them. This theory has been continually proven. Witt (1997) found that parents choose the colors to paint a child’s bedroom according to the sex of the child. In this way, began expecting them to act according to their sex from the moment they are born. Garner & Grazian (2016) found that parents discipline their sons and daughters differently, and for different things. This shapes their behaviour so that they are encouraged to act in certain ways. They also gave gender characteristics to animals when they talked to their children. Parents encouraged their daughters to be attracted to ‘pretty’ and ‘cute’ animals, but their sons to be drawn to animals that are strong or deadly. 

This process, which Parsons (1954) called ‘socialisation’, continues in adult life. West & Zimmerman (1987) argue that gender is not something that we ‘are’, but something that we ‘do’. They describe how men and women constantly perform their gender so that they are not humiliated by people around them or left out of their social groups. This helps us realise that men and women keep making choices in their behaviour to fit their gender group. Sometimes this is obvious, like wearing a dress. However sometimes it is more hidden, like not talking over the top of someone because that would be seen as a masculine trait. What this research demonstrates is that gender (the identity and behaviours that men and women demonstrate) is mostly created by ‘nurture’, rather than ‘nature’. It is the expectations of society that make men and women behave in the ways that they do. This gives us some hope that if the expectations of society change, as they have been in recent times, some of the massive inequalities in opportunities and living standards between men and women in most societies can be reduced. Even though this has started, there is a long way to go. 


Grabowski, A & Broemer, P 2018, ‘ Nature vs. nurture and the flexibility of gender stereotypes: Counterstereotypical information can both diminish and enhance ingroup stereotyping’, Polish Psychological Bulletin, vol. 49 (2) 251–261, DOI – 10.24425/119493

Garner, B. & Grazian, D., 2016, ‘Naturalizing Gender through Childhood Socialization Messages in a Zoo, Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 181-198

Eckert, P & McConnell- Ginet, S., 2013, ‘Language and Gender’. Cambridge University Press, Second Edition. Cambridge and New York

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1, 125-151.

Ryle, R., 2012, How do we learn gender? In Questioning Gender: A sociological exploration, SAGE, Hanover, 3rd Edition McLeod,S 2014, ‘Biological Theories of Gender’, published 2014, viewed July 2019, 

This essay was written by Stephanie Ephraim, a Ni-Vanuatu women’s rights activist who is studying at Victoria University and is a recipient of the Australian Awards scholarship. Stephanie is the founder of the Vanuatu Feminist Library. If you want to deepen your understanding about the feminism, sexism and gender equality, then visit Vanuatu Feminist Library on Facebook for more information.