Gender Differences: The Nature Versus Nurture Debate

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  1. 1:09 Nature
  2. 2:29 Nurture
  3. 3:20 Environmental Influences on…
  4. 5:07 Nature vs. Nurture Debate
  5. 5:51 Promoting Gender Equity in…
  6. 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Are boys better in math and science courses than girls? Are girls better at activities like dance? Gender stereotypes are abundant in society. Are these stereotypes based on real differences or perpetuated opinions? This lesson focuses on gender differences and the influence of nature versus nurture.


You are about to hear a list of occupations. I would like for you to think about the first picture that enters your mind when you hear the occupation.

  • Art teacher
  • Scientist
  • Building construction manager
  • Nurse

Did you picture a female when you heard 'art teacher?' Maybe you pictured a male when you heard 'building construction manager.' If so, you are not alone. Gender stereotypes regarding occupations, toys, skills and abilities are abundant.

Gender differences among males and females are real and observed by researchers in many fields. The question up for debate is 'how are these differences initiated?' Does nature (or heredity) drive a specific gender to seek out certain toys, choose activities and pursue careers in gender-specific fields? Maybe it's nurture (the environment) that drives these differences. This lesson will focus on gender differences by exploring the research conducted on nature versus nurture.


Nature refers to heredity, or traits that are genetic
Nature , or, in other words, heredity, refers to traits that are inherited or genetic. It's a fact that most of the aspects of human development are initially driven (directly or indirectly) by that person's genetic makeup. Eye color, hair color, skin type and other physical characteristics are derived directly from our genetic makeup. Our predispositions to respond in particular ways are driven by genetics.

Researchers agree that heredity determines physiological differences in males and females. Some of these differences are present at birth, and some differences don't present themselves until the child reaches puberty. Heredity causes girls to reach puberty earlier than boys. It also causes boys (once they have reached puberty) to have more muscle composition and be taller than girls in general.

Heredity, or specifically different hormones, accounts for gender differences as well. Boys are more physically aggressive, a trait that has been linked to the increased levels of testosterone in boys. Researchers have also argued that hormones may play a role in the differences observed in visual-spatial and verbal abilities among children. A small difference has been found among researchers indicating boys have slightly higher visual-spatial abilities while girls have slightly higher verbal abilities.


Nurture, on the other hand, or the environment, refers to all environmental influences after conception. In other words, how a person is raised drives development. Level of attachment, beliefs, values and how much attention one is given are all examples of environmental influences.

In almost every culture we see practices that promote gender-specific behaviors. The environment and specific cultures foster the idea that behaviors are more appropriate for males and others are more appropriate for females. Think back to the introductory example. If you pictured a female nurse or a male construction manager, why? How were these stereotypes fostered? Gender stereotypes are prevalent and perpetuated by parents, peers, teachers and even the child themselves.

Environmental Influences on Gender Differences

Parents report treating their sons and daughters differently. Specifically, they typically respond more frequently to requests for help from daughters, while sons are usually encouraged to solve problems independently. In addition, many parents encourage gender-typical behaviors by offering gender-specific toys such as dolls for girls and trucks for boys.

Parents tend to help their daughters more and encourage sons to solve problems on their own
Parents Help Girls More

The media can also influence and perpetuate gender stereotypes. TV, movies and books often portray male figures as aggressive and in leadership roles while portraying females as domestic and obedient.

The behavior of peers is another strong influencer of gender stereotypes. Children's playmates and classmates frequently encourage adherence to traditional gender stereotypes by responding more positively to children who play in gender-appropriate ways and more negatively to those who don't. Peers may also ridicule or avoid their peers who enroll and excel in gender-inappropriate subjects.

Teachers also perpetuate gender differences. They tend to give more attention to boys partly because boys ask more questions and present more discipline problems. Teachers also give feedback more to boys than to girls.


As young children become increasingly aware of the typical characteristics and behaviors of each other, they begin to form self-constructed schemas, referred to as gender schemas, about the traits and behaviors of males or females.

Because gender schemas are self-constructed, their content may vary considerably from one individual to another. One adolescent female may view other females in the media and construct an idea about the ideal female, while another may have a different picture of 'ideal.'

Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Most psychologists today conclude that both nature and nurture play significant roles in the cognitive development of children and adolescents. In many cases, nature and nurture interact and amplify each other's effects.

For example, once they reach puberty, boys tend to be physically stronger than girls. This is based on nature, or the inherent trait of larger muscles in boys. As a result, boys are better able to play certain sports and carry out specific activities such as manual labor. As they continue to engage in these sports or activities, their skills and performance levels develop. They begin to think of the activity as a male-specific activity, thus perpetuating the stereotype cycle.

Stereotypes may be perpetuated by cycles
Stereotype Cycle

Promoting Gender Equity in the Classroom

Educators can promote gender equity in the classroom in a variety of ways. Educators can use their knowledge of typical differences and stereotypes to create experiences that offer students equal opportunities to use their natural strengths and build new strengths.

Educators should be aware of gender stereotypes in the textbooks and other educational materials they present in class and either engage the class in discussions about these stereotypes or avoid using the instructional material altogether.

Educators should also continually engage in monitoring practices that ensure they are treating both males and females fairly. An example is of a teacher keeping track of the number of times he calls on male students versus female students during the week.

Lesson Summary

In summary, gender differences are prevalent in our society. Both hereditary factors, such as hormones and genetics, and environmental factors, such as peers, parents and teachers, influence and drive these differences.

As children become aware of typical gender characteristics and differences, they begin to form gender schemas about the behaviors of each gender. These schemas often consist of stereotypical behaviors and traits for each gender.

Educators can promote equality in the classroom by being aware of their own stereotypes, by introducing instructional material free of stereotypes and by constructing learning activities that allow both genders to succeed.

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