Man up: Do you have to earn your gender?

Science and Technology
PHOTO/Natesh Ramasamy

Picture the JCR on a Friday night. In the corner next to the dart board and pool tables a large of circle of guys are stood up, drinking, sharing banter and flirting with the females closeby – why? According to social scientists, part of the reason lies with the need for males to continuously reassert their masculinity. In other words, whilst a guy’s sex is fixed, his gender status can change depending on the extent to which he competes for, earns and maintains his masculinity.

Now picture the other side of the JCR where a group of girls are chatting – are they required to earn their femininity? According to research carried out in 2008 by psychologist Jennifer Bosson at the University of South Florida, the answer appears to be ‘No’. Her research team presented participants with six made-up proverbs such as “Manhood is hard won and easily lost” or “Womanhood is hard won and easily lost” and found that both males and females preferred, understood and agreed more with the proverbs referring to the way in which men were required to prove their gender status in comparison to those referring to womanhood.

So how exactly are men required to earn their gender status? Answering this question was the focus of a study conducted by Bosson in 2010. This time her research team asked participants to complete the end of sentences beginning with “A real man___” or “A real woman___”. It was found that men were more likely to complete “A real man___” with references to short-lived actions rather than long-lasting traits even when the effect of referring to stereotypical gender roles was controlled for. For example, “A real man cooks dinner” was more likely than “A real man is honest” even though the first sentence is not more stereotypically masculine than the last sentence. In contrast, men were more likely to complete sentences defining a ‘real woman’ with adjectives (“A real woman is honest”) than with actions (“A real woman cooks dinner”).

This provides evidence of men perceiving gender status as something in constant need of “topping up”: once it is gained it is soon lost because the way in which it is earned – through actions – is short-lived. In comparison, men perceive women as permanently on “auto top-up”: there is no need for females to re-prove their femininity because the way in which it is gained – by displaying key personality traits – is long-lasting. Interestingly however, women in the study did not define “A real man” in the same way that men defined “A real man” – they were not more likely to refer to actions than adjectives when completing the sentences. This is important for guys wishing to impress females, given that their assumption that females hold more of an action-based definition of masculinity than a trait-based one is false.

Drinking, sharing banter and removing shirts at the end of an Entz may be ways in which males can “top up” their gender status but displays of aggression are also important. This was demonstrated by a study conducted in 2008 in which Bosson’s research team deliberately raised or threatened participants’ gender status by informing them that they performed above or below average on a test of gender identity. When then asked to complete parts of words such as “__ight”, males who had experienced the gender status knock were more likely to interpret the words in an aggressive way (for example, by writing “fight” rather than “right”) than males who had experienced the gender status boost – no such effect was found with females. What’s more, these implicit measures benefit from avoiding the risk of participants second-guessing the experiment’s purpose.

So it seems that one of the reasons for the high frequency of male aggression is its function in ascending the gender status ladder, whereas females remain immune to such gender bolstering battles. Perhaps most intriguing is the way in which males can be bonded by their similar drives for gender status – it is no surprise that the rugby team prides itself on initiation-only entry, whilst those with less thirst for masculinity opt for the chess society.


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