Posts Tagged ‘gender’

The process of learning about sex/gender

October 1, 2012

To what extent are men and women different because of biological factors? What role do social/environmental factors play? Those who claim the superiority of biological influences may point to studies showing that gender differences emerge at an early age for support. As a father, I often hear other parents talking about just how different boys and girls are (assuming, it appears, that these differences are simply natural). However, considering the concept of schema processing helps us see that children adopt particular sex roles as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema during a process that occurs over many years.

As a point of comparison, Fausto-Sterling (2000) discusses the process through which children learn to smile — a behavior that, like gender, people may assume is simply natural. At first, newborns exhibit a behavior in which the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up (this has been observed in fetuses as early as 26 weeks of gestation), which suggests there is initially a basic set of neural connections that enable a developing human to “smile”. Within a few weeks after birth, a more complex smile develops in which the lips curl up farther, cheek muscles contract, and the skin around the eyes wrinkles. By around three months of age, babies generally have begun to smile in non-random bursts in response to stimuli. Over the next two years of life, smiling begins to be accompanied by other facial expressions (e.g., nose wrinkles, blinks, brow raises) used to express emotions ranging from pleasure to mischief. While the muscles and nerves that govern smiling develop and become more complex during the first two years of age, so too do the functions and social contexts that elicit smiling. Thus, what may seem like a simple physiological response becomes “socialized” as a child develops.

With respect to gender, a similar social developmental process exists in which children adopt particular roles and behaviors as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema. For example, children younger than 1.5 years of age generally do not yet have a working knowledge of gender; they cannot correctly label photos as “boy” or “girl” (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). By age 2.25 years, however, about half of children can correctly label people as “boy” or “girl”. These “early labelers” tend to receive more positive and negative feedback from parents regarding appropriate or inappropriate gender-typed play than do children who learn sex-based labeling at a later time. This suggests there are social influences upon what we might often assume are biological sex differences. Further, children seem to base their initial understandings of sex primarily on cultural markers. For example, children under the age of three, when asked to correctly identify sex in a set of photos where babies were either naked or clothed, had much more success labeling those who were clothed, suggesting that their knowledge of sex tended to rely on an understanding of cultural differences as opposed to anatomical differences (Bem, 1989). Overall, these examples should remind us that “who we are” is determined by a constant interplay of the social and the biological. Or, as I remarked upon previously, nature and nurture are inseparable.

Nature vs. nurture

September 7, 2012

Why are we who we are? Why do we do what we do? Why do we think what we think? In response to such questions, a commonly discussed topic in the academic and public sphere is the issue of “nature vs. nurture”. In other words, to what extent are individuals determined by genetic and biological factors (“nature”), and to what extent are individuals shaped by social and environmental forces (“nurture”)? Specifically in reference to questions of gender, Fausto-Sterling (2000) describes how we are really asking the wrong questions when we focus on “nature vs. nurture”, because claiming that there is a separate “nature” and “nurture” is an artificial dualism. Specifically, she suggests that we must “switch our vision…, so that we see nature and nurture as an indivisible, dynamic system” (p. 228). As an example, all animals develop in an environment. During the earliest stages of development in utero, that environment includes the mother’s body chemistry, which is impacted by such factors as what she eats, how much stress she encounters, and how her hormones respond to such experiences. These factors are impacted by broader social forces, such as socioeconomics, race, religion, and culture. Thus, trying to isolate an individual’s biology from the context in which it exists will involve an artificial process of separating the inseparable.

Women’s World Cup TV Ratings

July 25, 2011

The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan on Sun., July 17 drew a rating of 7.4, which equates to about 13.5 million viewers according to Sports Media Watch. Here are a few comparisons to put this figure in perspective:

  • It was the second-highest rated women’s soccer match ever, behind only the 1999 U.S/China World Cup final (17.975M viewers), which aired on broadcast network ABC.
  • It was the most-viewed soccer telecast (regardless of gender) ever on ESPN, the sixth-most viewed soccer telecast ever on a single network (again, regardless of gender), and the second-most viewed daytime program in the history of cable television.
  • Compared to other recent sporting events, the match drew more viewers than the 2011 Pro Bowl (13.406M, FOX), 2011 MLB All-Star Game (10.970M, FOX), and Game 3 of the 2010 World Series (SF/TEX G3: 11.460M, FOX). Notably, all three of these events were on network television.
  • The match also topped the most-viewed MLB game in cable history (NYY/TEX G6: 11.863M, TBS), the most-viewed NBA game in cable history (MIA/CHI G1: 11.109M, TNT), and the most-viewed Stanley Cup Final telecast in 38 years (BOS/VAN: 8.540M, NBC), each of which took place within the past year.

Sport, stratification, and ideology

July 17, 2011

Rather than simply being a frivolous way to pass one’s spare time, sport has many “uses” in society. One common use throughout history involves sport’s ability to stratify people by separating and creating distinctions between them. For example, sport is most commonly structured into sex segregated teams, leagues, and competitions. While such a structure is often justified as a means to promote female participation, in some ways, it exists for men’s protection by preventing the possibility that men will be bested by a woman. This allows male superiority to exist unchallenged.

Somewhat similarly, a relatively unchallenged belief in white physical supremacy existed in the past. As Carrington (2010) describes, the core ideas that whites were intellectually, aesthetically, and physically superior became dominant components of racial ideology as classical racial science cohered during the 19th century. Sport, usually practiced in segregated settings, became a key component of “proving” white superiority. However, as black athletes, such as heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, defeated white athletes in competition, beliefs about innate superiority were challenged. As Carrington writes, “if that central aspect of racial ideology [physical superiority] proved to be false, then where did that leave the theory of white supremacy itself, founded as it was, in part, upon the ‘facts’ of physical preeminence?” (p. 75). In response to such a question, Carrington suggests the success of people of African ancestry in sport became a “problem” to be investigated and the racial troupe of “the black athlete” emerged. However, the point I wish to make here is that it was through integrated competition that dominant racial ideology was challenged. If more sport leagues and events were to integrate with respect to sex, how might this lead people to rethink aspects of dominant gender ideology?


  • Carrington, B. (2010). Race, sport and politics: The sporting black diaspora. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Coercive or voluntary?

December 20, 2010

In Playing with the Boys, McDonagh and Pappano (2008) argue that coercive sex segregation in sport reproduces ideas of female inferiority. However, they attempt to make a distinction between coercive and voluntary sex segregation, recognizing that voluntary sex segregation can be valuable.

While this point has much merit, as voluntarily segregated settings can potentially be powerful sites for resistance, I can’t help but question whether segregation can ever be truly voluntary. For example, when Little League Baseball’s policy of excluding female players was declared unlawful in 1973, the organization created Little League Softball. Today, although girls are allowed to play Little League Baseball, the vast majority “choose” to play softball. Even though girls are not literally forced to play softball instead of baseball, I would suggest that their choices (and those of their parents) are impacted by a variety of social factors.

Another example of this issue that comes to mind can be found in the gendered nature of parental involvement in youth sport. Specifically, the majority of coaches (of both boys and girls teams) are men, while almost all “team parent” positions are filled by women. In his book It’s All for the Kids, Messner (2009) documents how a “sex-category sorting process” works in such a way that the vast majority of women volunteers are actively sorted into a team parent position, while the vast majority of men volunteers are sorted into coaching positions. Messner is careful to clarify that saying people are “sorted” is not to deny their active agency in the process; rather, it is to underline that what we often think of as “free” choices are shaped by social structures. Considering the ways in which social forces impact our individual decisions, I find it potentially problematic to divide choices into categories of either coercive or voluntary.

Ticket pricing, gender, & “value”

October 31, 2010

“You get what you pay for.” This common saying expresses the idea that more valuable things are going to cost more money, while things of little value are going to cost less money. Clearly, women’s sports are not valued as highly as men’s sports by most people. Even those who have grown up in the “Title IX age” tend to view women’s sports as uninteresting and inferior to competitions involving men (Lebel & Danylchuk, 2009).

As far as the answer as to why this is the case, most explanations I hear involve the idea that women’s sports are less interesting because women are not as good at sports as men. This claim has never had much explanatory power for me because, for example, college sports are very interesting to many people even though college athletes are not as skilled as professional athletes. If people only found the best athletes interesting (as is the argument for why women’s sports are uninteresting), then college sports wouldn’t enjoy much popularity. Thus, rather than rely on oversimplified explanations about skill level, it is important to consider the social and historical factors leading to the devaluation of women’s sports.

Returning to the issue of money and perceived value, let’s consider the issue of tickets to women’s sporting events being priced lower than those to men’s events. Regarding this issue, I believe most people would make an argument such as, “of course tickets to women’s basketball cost less…because no one cares about women’s sports.” However, research regarding ticket price and perceived value suggests the situation is more complex. For example, a study by Hebl and colleagues (2004) found that ticket price disparity results in lower evaluations of women’s teams, even when controlling for other potential explanation for the discrepancy. Further, the researchers found, “when women’s tickets cost less than men’s tickets, the women’s team was rated lower than the men’s team. When the cost of women’s tickets was greater than the cost of men’s tickets, the women’s and men’s teams were considered equivalent in ability and fan support” (p. 233).

In other words, this research suggests that the lower price of tickets to women’s events is not merely a reflection of the lesser value assigned to women’s sports, but it also reinforces the inferior status of women’s sports. Unfortunately, the study also found the disparity between men’s and women’s ticket prices is growing, which makes me think the prospects for seeing progressive change in the near future are not good.


  • Hebl, M. R., Giuliano, T. A., King, E. B., Knight, J. L., Shapiro, J. R., Skorinko, J. L., & Wig, A. (2004). Paying the Way: The Ticket to Gender Equality in Sports. Sex Roles, 51(3/4), 227-235.
  • Lebel, K., & Danylchuk, K. (2009). Generation Y’s Perceptions of Women’s Sport in the Media. International Journal of Sport Communication, 2(2), 146-163.

Business, gendered inequality, & Augusta National Golf Club

October 18, 2010

Sports matter. They matter because sports have important connections with a host of social, cultural, political, and economic issues in society. One example of how sports matter is the important place of golf in the world of business. Some might argue that more business often gets done of the golf course than in the boardroom. This is the case because activities such as golf have an important role in forming personal connections, and people often like to do business with their friends. When one considers the gendered inequality that exists in the world of business (only 28 women hold CEO jobs at Fortune 1000 companies), it becomes clear that the issue of women’s membership at Augusta National Golf Club is not just a struggle about golf, but a struggle over power in the world of business.

In a 2004 Golf for Women magazine survey of 1,000 businesswomen, 73 percent said playing golf has helped them develop key business relationships (January-February issue). In that same issue of Golf for Women, Ruth Ann Marshall, current President of the Americas for MasterCard, talked about the role of golf in her business success. Specifically, when she had become CEO of Buypass, a company that processes retailing transactions, one of her first executive decisions was to buy tickets to the Masters Tournament. She used these tickets to invite people with whom she wanted to do business (CEOs of petroleum and supermarket companies) to the Masters, which allowed her to form relationships she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to develop.

If women were allowed to be members at August National, they could similarly invite potential business contacts to play a round at the prestigious course, thus developing key relationships. However, because women are denied membership, female executives are precluded from engaging in such connection-building activity, which plays a role in perpetuating the gendered inequality that exists in the world of business.

Why sex segregate sport? Title VII and Title IX

October 18, 2010

A central question posed in Playing with the Boys (2008) by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, is why do sports remain the most sex-segregated (secular) institution in American society (with the possible exception of the military)? Considering Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 adds an interesting twist to this question. Specifically, Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual based upon race, religion, or sex. The only exception to this rule is when sex is a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOC). Title VII does not allow employers to discriminate based on statistical group differences between women and men. For example, in Diaz v. Pan-American Airlines (1971), the airline company argued its policy of hiring only female flight attendants was justified, in part, because women were more soothing to anxious passengers. However, the court ruled that even if it accepted this doubtful argument, some men would be better at reassuring anxious passengers than some women. Thus, it would be more appropriate for airlines to hire males sensitive to passenger needs rather than have a blanket policy of hiring no men at all. Similarly, in cases where strength has been at issue, courts have ruled that if a woman is strong enough to perform the required tasks, she is qualified to hold that job.

In contrast to the approach required by Title VII — that a person’s individual attributes be taken into account — Title IX’s implementing regulations (1975)  specifically permit sex segregation in contact sports. This creates an interesting legal conflict between Title VII and Title IX. While a woman cannot be excluded from a job for which strength is a requirement just because she is female (based on Title VII), a girl hoping to play football may be excluded from doing so just because of her sex (based on Title IX). Although males, on average, may be larger than females, there is a great amount of overlap between men’s and women’s athletic ability. The approach taken by Title IX, however, may prevent such evidence of a continuum (Kane, 1995) from being seen. Thus, as McDonagh and Pappano (2008) suggest, although it has played an important role in growing sport opportunities for girls and women, Title IX has reinforced rather than challenged the belief that women are physically inferior to men.

Little League Baseball and a lost opportunity for exposing the continuum

October 13, 2010

Little League Baseball, which began in the late 1930s, maintained a policy of allowing only boys to participate for more than its first 30 years of existence. When in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few individual teams allowed girls to participate, LLB addressed this issue by threatening to revoke the charters of leagues in which girls participated. With this strategy LLB was able to resist the entry of females for a few years. However, following a 1973 lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women on behalf of Maria Pepe (a young baseball player in New Jersey), LLB was forced to allow girls onto its teams.

The possibility of young boys and girls playing baseball together would seem to create quite a possibility of exposing what sport sociologist Mary Jo Kane has referred to as a continuum of athletic ability wherein “many women routinely outperform many men and, in some cases, women outperform most—if not all—men in a variety of sports and physical skills/activities” (1995, p. 193). However, rather than embrace this opportunity, Little League officials created softball leagues — a decision that has worked to maintain Little League Baseball as a largely sex-segregated institution. While many might argue that sex segregation is necessary for the benefit (protection) of women, this example demonstrates how it is often men’s interests that are protected by sex-segregation in sport.


  • Kane, M. J. (1995). Resistance/transformation of the oppositional binary: Exposing sport as a continuum. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 19(2), 191 -218.
  • McDonagh, E., & Pappano, L. (2008). Playing with the boys: Why separate is not equal in sports. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Messner, M. A. (2009). It’s all for the kids: Gender, families, and youth sports. Berkeley: University of California Press.