Little princess

At Women's Word, a festival at Lucy Cavendish College this weekend, Professor Melissa Hines will explore the differences between male and female behaviour, and summarise recent research into prenatal and postnatal factors and the interaction between them.

Even more surprisingly, sex-typed toy interests have been found to exist in non-human primates such as vervet monkeys and rhesus monkeys.

Professor Melissa Hines

Pop into any stationery shop and you will see racks of greetings cards poking fun at human behaviour. Women don’t have a sense of direction and can’t read maps. Men can’t multi-task and will never ask the way to anywhere. Women are empathetic but also bossy, fickle and vain. Men are simple creatures: they don’t care about feelings, they lounge around on sofas drinking beer.

Such generalisations are clearly rubbish – or are they?  A steady stream of popular books on how to understand male and female behaviour has suggested that there are hard-wired differences in the brains of women and men and that these intrinsic differences shape our lives and give rise to important differences in social roles and occupational achievement. For example, despite decades of struggling for equality, women remain the primary carers of children and on average they earn less than men. But is this because of differences in brain-wiring or because of continuing social inequalities?

At Women’s Word - a festival of literature, debate and discussion taking place at Lucy Cavendish College this weekend – Melissa Hines, Professor of  Social and Development Psychology at Cambridge University, will summarise current knowledge about the nature and causes of neuro-behavioural sex differences and will equip her audience with tools to sift sense from nonsense in the pervasive and often contradictory media coverage of difference between the sexes.

People have long been fascinated by differences between men and women. In Victorian times it would have been considered obvious to most people that male brains and male minds were different – and superior – to those of females. Following female emancipation and the shift of roles in two World Wars, feminists asserted that there were no hard-wired differences between male and female psychologies – all differences were the product of socialisation.

The picture that has emerged from rigorous scientific research over the past 50 or so years is, however, rather different. Studies of genetics, prenatal hormones and postnatal socialisation, along with comparisons with other species, now strongly suggest that there are indeed some inborn contributions to differences in gender-related psychology and behaviour, but that postnatal socialisation is important as well, and that the two types of factors interact in complex ways.

In addition, the myriad types of behaviours that differ for males and females also differ in the formula for combining inborn factors, postnatal socialisation and their interactions to determine outcomes.  Indeed, this is why individuals within each sex can differ so dramatically from one another in gender-related behaviours.

On Saturday, Professor Hines will explain the basics of gender development, look at some of the latest research into the causes of gender-related behaviour, and then open the topic up for questions and discussion with the audience. “I’m hoping that we can have a lively debate as it’s a topic that generates quite a lot of interest and about which people can have very different perspectives,” she says.

Her presentation will begin with differences in the sex chromosomes, XY for males, XX for females. These sex chromosomes contain genes that cause the gonads to develop as testes or ovaries. If testes develop, they begin to produce the hormone, testosterone, by about week eight of gestation, causing males to have more testosterone exposure during gestation than females.  Recent evidence shows that these differences in testosterone levels prenatally relate to the toys that children prefer.  Higher levels of testosterone are associated with stronger preferences for toys like cars, trucks and weapons, and weaker preferences for toys like dolls.

The hormonal environment of the foetus, and how it impacts on gender development, has been the focus of much of Professor Hines’ research. She has studied individuals who have been exposed to unusual hormone environments prenatally, as well as typically developing children, and non-human primates.

“The overall conclusion, based on all these types of research, is that children’s toy preferences relate to the prenatal hormones they were exposed to.  Not only do boys tend to play with trucks whereas girls tend to play with dolls, but within girls, those who are less interested in dolls and more interested in trucks tend to have been exposed to higher levels of testosterone during gestation,” she says.

“Even more surprisingly, sex-typed toy interests have been found to exist in non-human primates such as vervet monkeys and rhesus monkeys. These observations have led to reconsideration of the roots of children’s toy preferences, which now seem to be more than rehearsals for adult roles. We know it is not the shape or colour of the toys. We think it might be linked to movement.”

In addition to these inborn influences, sex-typed behaviours, such as toy preferences, are partly learned.  Parents, peers and teachers encourage children to play with sex-typed toys and discourage them, particularly boys, from playing with cross-gender toys.  Imitation of people of the same sex, and responses to information as to what is for girls or for boys also are key factors. Experiments have shown that children tend to like the objects that they see others of the same sex choosing and that they play more with objects that they have been told are for children of their own sex.

Stereotypes aside, there is also a danger in generalising – and Professor Hines emphasises that differences and variations in gender-related behaviour are complex and subtle. Once a child is born a huge array of factors come into play, interacting with and expanding upon the influences of early hormone exposure. “It’s also important to remember that the variation across individuals within the same sex is far greater than that between the sexes,” she says.

“Although we are born with certain tendencies, our brains and our behaviour can and do change over time as we are exposed to different environments. In fact, learning would not be possible without some kind of neural changes. Although not scientific, my own experience suggests to me that social expectations also are important.  I was brought up in a largely female household and went to an all-girls secondary school. Later I became one of the first women students at Princeton. There was a very small group of female students and we were treated and expected to behave like the boys.

“When I came home after my first year, my mother said that I had become just like a boy.  By this, I think she meant that I had my own perspectives and opinions and defended them, and I didn’t care too much what other people thought of me.  I also realised that I was expected to take a leadership role in life, and I developed career ambitions.”

Professor Hines’ talk for Women’s Word takes place at 10 am this Saturday at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Other speakers at Women’s Word this weekend include Allison Pearson, Natasha Walter, Dorothy Rowe, Sophie Hanna, Jill Paton-Walsh and Elaine Showalter.

For a full programme go to To book events go to or phone 01223 300 085 (box office).


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