"She's a woman": "Fact" or ... ?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Biology in Society Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 3:
"She's a woman": "Fact" or ... ?

  • Are "woman" and "man" well-defined discrete categories?
  • Should we try and make them so?
  • Is biology relevant to such a discussion?
  • What does biology have to say?  How should it contribute?

Some thoughts from last session

Doctors, who are in a very competitive field, have more formal training than any other service provider, including supervised practical training because they need so much knowledge to do their job well. Doctors are known to be part of a medical community that shares knowledge and those who are not in good stead with their peers are excluded. All of this is common knowledge and engenders respect for their learning and trust follows ... Colette

Is the only reason that western medicine has become so widely accepted, and alternative medicines so criticized, the fact that it comes nicely packaged, tied with a pretty bow? As a society, can we afford to remain so apathetic, or is it our duty to question what we’ve been told, if only to reaffirm that the current healthcare system is truly the best one for society as a whole? ... smaley

Conventional western medicine is not the best in all cases. The crack explains why multiple systems of medicine exist ... mlhodges

I thought an interesting part of Thursday's discussion was when we talked about the idea of normalcy ... the concept of what is normal depends on the individual, not society as a whole. I think this is a good way of thinking about what is normal in general. Just every individual has a unique body, everyone has a different way of forming his/her idea of normalcy. Experience/ culture/ ect. lead people to form opinions of what of what is typical and what is not. Normalcy is also subjective ... lbonnell

Scientific discoveries help define something concrete and something that already exists ... If there does exist some fairly objective explanation of how the body fights disease, does that mean that my body abides by that objective explanation even though I personally am unfamiliar with the explanation? ... dfishervan

scientists have not spent years gaining expertise in ethics; they've spent years gaining expertise in acquiring and interpreting data. As such, scientists should not be expected to question their every move, to determine if the data they acquire could one day be used for nefarious purposes ... Crystal Leonard

The “crack” allows for infinite solutions to the same question. I think this translates up to the field of medicine with regards to the skepticism, adaptability and creativity mentioned before that I believe is so crucial to being a good physician. So, I think that the crack is one of the most important components of science. Without it, we might struggle to be innovative and unable to present new understandings of the same old situation. Even though i find it frustrating that answers are infinite, it is clearly helpful to the development of science and medicine ... adowton

Some one once told me that "too much 'eye open' is 'eye close'!" And I think I agree wholeheartedly with that assertion. As scientists, doctors, biologists and people in general, it is important to listen to other people's rationales for doing things, and learn to accept them without judgment. But there does come a point in time where without judgment, somebody has to draw a line somewhere ... Kwarlizzie

A related set of social/cultural issues:

"I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." ... George Bush, press conference, Wednesday, 30 July, 2003

"In the 1950s, a team of medical specialists at Johns Hopkins University developed what has come to be called the “optimum gender of rearing” system for treating children with intersex. The notion was that the main thing you had to do in cases of intersex was to get the gender assignment settled early, so kids would grow up to be good (believable and straight) girls and boys." ... Intersex Society of America (see also video about  John Money and David Reimer)

"Semenya returned to competition last month after receiving confirmation from track and field’s governing body, the I.A.A.F., that she could compete as a woman ...  When the I.A.A.F. cleared Semenya to compete as a woman in July, it did not release test results or provide details of its methodology." ... NYTimes, 22 August 2010

"In the last year, transgender students have won accommodations from four East Coast colleges, including Wesleyan, Sarah Lawrence and Smith." ... NYTimes, 7 March 2004

"Women’s colleges are supportive of all women, regardless of whether they are straight, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered." ... NYTimes on line comment, 6 November 2009

"today many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically" ... NYTimes Magazine, 16 March 2008

"I didn't want to be different.  I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me.  I followed all their rules, tried to please.  But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown ... "Is that a boy or a girl?" ...  I'm not a gay man ... I'm a butch, a he-she" ... Leslie Steinberg, Stone Butch Blues, 1993

Relevant biology

There is no single externally observable "objective" characteristic that would reliably sort all individuals into two discrete categories of woman and man, nor any fixed set of fully correlated characteristics of this sort that would do so.

Most relevant characteristics are continuous rather than discrete variables and result from different developmental processes that may or may not yield correlated outcomes.  The relevant developmental processes act on most parts of the body, including the brain, and involve both internal influences (eg hormones) and external ones (individual experience/culture).  They include as well personal choices by individuals

There is no biological reason to think that a sharp division of humans (or any other organisms) is in any general sense "normal" though such a division may be useful in particular narrow contexts.  In general terms, a more or less continuous diversity along multiple somewhat independent axes seems to be the biological "norm."   

Issues:

A sharp distinction between "woman" and "man" is a social construct?

As a social construct, it is subject to alteration by social processes ("co-constructive inquiry"?)

By reinscribing the idea of transgressing or transversing gender within a traditional gender binary—man in a woman’s body, woman in a man’s body—it contradicts goals shared by many transgendered and transsexual people: to live their lives as they desire, free of the gender binary ... my struggle was illuminating and productive, as it provided me with firsthand experience of something I'd long believed: that the gender categories to which we so strongly cling are in fact little more than the result of years of socialization. Undoing at least some of that socialization can have only positive benefits for societal gender relations, not to mention personal wellbeing ... Gender identity and the brain

But with this novel I planted a flag ... I wrote it not as an expression of individual "high art" but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet - a call to action ... Our inexorable grass roots movement has won so much in the decades this novel spans ... Yet there is still so much activist work to be done ... I don't know what it would take to realy change the world.  But couldn't we get together and try and figure it out? ... Isn't there a way we could help fight each other's battles so that we're not always alone ... Leslie Steinberg, Stone Butch Blues, 1993

What role should biology play in social/political discourse re

who can get married?

sex assignment surgery of infants?

arrangements in competitive athletics

single sex education? 

other related issues?

Links to relevant earlier sets of notes/discussions

Summary of class session discussion (Leah)

Monday’s discussion began with going over comments from last week. We talked more about the ‘tree in the forest’ scenario and reached the consensus that a tree falling in a forest will create pressures disturbances, but these pressure disturbances don’t translate into sound unless someone is there to hear them. The class also continued to discuss ethical standards in science. We realized that scientists are not trained in ethics and that there are no ethical standards in place currently. We debated whether ethical decisions and training in ethics should be part of a scientist’s career. We discussed situations, like the atomic bomb, where scientists were aware of the potential to harm, but continued research, as well as situations where the scientists stopped research. Professor Grobstein told the class about the group of scientists who first manipulated genetic information. The scientists decided to suspend further research until they were able to estimate the potential hazard of their work. This topic lead to a discussion of whether data is or isn’t neutral. We remembered that certain types of data isn't collected, like research on fetal development. From here we discussed the nature of federal funding in the U.S. We talked about how the ability to receive federal research funding automatically prioritizes some forms of research over others. Professor Grobstein asked the class if a research project that measures the intellectual capabilities of different races was ethical and deserved funding. Several classmates offered their opinions and we were unable to reach a consensus.

We began discussion on the topic of gender/sex with an excerpt from Marie Claire about a Haverford student with androgen insensitivity syndrome. After going over our initial reactions Professor Grobstein asked the class for facts about being a man or woman, continuing our discussion on the nature of facts. The class struggled to define such facts in light of the article we had just read. We realized that gender does not exist as a binary in nature; there were not two outcomes in development, but a spectrum.

Next we began to discuss the relationship between biology and society. We started off by clarifying that female/male and woman/ man have different connotations. The terms female and male are more directly related to biology, while man and woman have are words chosen by individuals in society. We began to question where the binary of woman and man came from, since it is not rooted in biology. We realized that the concepts of man/woman were much order than biology.

We talked about the case of track star Caster Semenya who was allowed to race again after a panel decided she was female, without releasing the basis of their decision to the public. This information was not released due to HIPAA rules. However, Professor Grobstein pointed out that the decision not to release the results may have a greater significance- that there are no clear guidelines to follow in determining sex. The discussion of Semenya made the class question how “anomalies” like Semenya should be taken account for in science. This raised questions like- should we focus on the majority and ignore the anomalies and why are some cases considered anomalies to begin with? We reached the consensus that “anomaly” is the wrong word to use in this case because it has a negative connotation.

We also discussed further implications of gender/sex in gay marriage, sports, and women’s colleges. In relation to sports, we discussed how sports should be divided based on perhaps ability and not gender. In relation to women’s colleges, we discussed the policy at Bryn Mawr to consider transgender students on a case-by-case basis.

At the end of class, we talked about research done on the differences between men and women. We questioned the validity of this research because it essentially depends on men and women participants. We realized that dividing participants into men and women was artificial at some level.

Conversation and implications to date (PG, 20 September)

Before our discussion, I had always thought that biology was the factor responsible in society for categorizing males as men and females as women. It seems that biology is actually trying to blur these distinctions and point out that no one is really what they actually are. Society categorizes people as it believes is acceptable and its rules are often based on unfair categorizations. It needs to do better ... Collette

While I have often heard phrases in the past such as “gender is just a construct of society”, I have never really stopped to think about the amount of truth that lies behind this idea. As we established in class, biology does not at all support the idea of bimodal categorization for humans. In fact, biology actually suggests that there is enormous diversity amongst people ... adowton

I understand that it is useful to simplify the huge array of diversity in nature into discrete categories for academic purposes, but I am beginning to question if discrete categories can accurately represent nature. Evolution doesn't occur in categories and I am starting to think that in general, nature does not occur in categories. Diversity is an inherent quality of nature ... lbonnell

It is encouraging that modern science is finally demonstrating what I have believed all along: that there is no sexual dichotomy, and so there is no biological basis for gender. Hopefully, once people start accepting this notion, we can get rid of the notion of gender for good ... Crystal Leonard

I do not believe that all male and female differences are biological, psychological, or chemical but there are some differences that are not due to society ... Kendra

During today’s discussion, I found myself thinking about a recent controversy that arose at a local elementary school. Parents were informed that a third grader who was raised as a boy was now to be referred to as a girl ... I commend the parents of this third grade boy for accepting their child and for going to great lengths to help their child feel comfortable in her skin and the classroom.  However, I am unsure about their decision to publicly announce their child’s sexual identity at such an early age ... dfishervan

I'm not sure how many US insurance companies cover sex reassignment surgery, but I don't think it's very many ... Riki

with technological advances, all a individual needs to do is have a gender reassignment surgery, and take hormones, and they can very easily pass as the gender that they identify as ... How will the future change our perspectives on gender, and will society ever be able to catch up, so that such questions can be answered definitively? ... smaley

  • Biologists should make it clearer that biological observations to date do not support the notion of a sharp woman/man, female/male dichotomy
  • Biologists should examine their tendency to make use of such a dichotomy in their own research
  • Biologists should emphasize the value of diversity in biological systems and encourage a greater appreciation of diversity in social/cultural systems

Comments

Riki's picture

I'm not sure how many US

I'm not sure how many US insurance companies cover sex reassignment surgery, but I don't think it's very many. I have read a few forums for MTF and a common theme is that the biological "males" would feel more comfortable with a body to match their mind. However, this presents a class difference: those who can afford the surgery and those who can't. Another issue is that being transgendered is a psychiatric disorder in the DSM-IV (it's still being debated for the DSM-V.) I think putting the label of "mental disorder" on it makes being trans even more stigmatized. That means being trans is abnormal and should be treated. I think it's just a matter of a person's feelings not agreeing with societal rules for a sex identity to correspond with a gender identity.

Riki's picture

response to Dakota

I only know a handful of transgendered people, but they have all said that they felt they were born into the wrong body from a very young age. Given this, I don't think hormones have much to do with what gender we feel we are. Also, I support the parents' decision to make the girl feel comfortable. I'm not sure how often people change their minds once they already feel they are the opposite gender as a child. So it would probably be much easier and healthier (mentally) for the child to "come out" as a different gender at a younger age than to wait until high school or college or mid-life or later when their relationships had already been established with people, having been a certain gender. But if they did feel that later in time they identified with a different gender, then what is so wrong about publicly announcing that as well?

lbonnell's picture

Diversity

As we discussed in class, there is definitely diversity in sex and gender, but the terms man/woman and male/female do not take this diversity into account. I think that such terms are used to simplify how we think about complex topics. These terms allow us to deduce the spectrum of sex and gender to a simple binary.  

I think it is part of human nature to look at patterns and create categories based on them. For example the male/ female dichotomy was probably based on anatomy. Before the biology existed, I can imagine it was easy to separate people into categories based on very obvious anatomical differences. 

At the same time I don't think biology is free from this drive to create categories. After all, Linnaeus' classification was considered a huge step forward for science. I understand that it is useful to simplify the huge array of diversity in nature into discrete categories for academic purposes, but I am beginning to question if discrete categories can accurately represent nature. Evolution doesn't occur in categories and I am starting to think that in general, nature does not occur in categories. Diversity is an inherent quality of nature. 

smaley's picture

 As I think more about

 As I think more about gender, and everything we talked about in class, I can’t help but wonder how the technology available is making the issue of gender even more complicated. Throughout much of history, even if an individual identified as a gender other than the one they biologically were, there was not much they could do to change their gender. While they could certainly dress and act as the gender they identified as, there was no way for them to make any drastic physical changes. However, with technological advances, all a individual needs to do is have a gender reassignment surgery, and take hormones, and they can very easily pass as the gender that they identify as. In the future, will it be impossible to tell the difference between an individual who was born a woman, and one who is now a women thanks to surgery and hormones? Will athletes that once competed as one gender, now compete as the other? Will individuals born male be able to gain entrance into female-only institutions? Is there a difference between an all female, and an all women’s institution? How will the future change our perspectives on gender, and will society ever be able to catch up, so that such questions can be answered definitively? Only time will tell, but with any luck, answers will come before technological advances bring more questions.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Some more grist for thinking about sex/gender diffs

Jesse Bering's Forecasting sexual orientation (15 September 2010 in Scientific American's Mind and Brain) is an interesting and thoughtful piece that focuses on homosexuality but is relevant for a number of more general issues that we've been exploring, including the question of "timing" that dfishervan raises and adowton responds to.  Yes, early behaviors (like genes, etc) are statistically predictive of later behaviors/identities in populations of people but not absolutely predictive in any given case.  Maybe then we should not only acknowledge and accept a wider range of sex/gender identities in adults (or humans of whatever age) but acknowlege and accept as well some degree of fluidity in sex/gender identity at different times in individual lives?
Bering's piece also struck me as interesting because "homosexual" and "heterosexual" are in some ways better defined operationally than "woman" and "man" and so there is perhaps here less arbitrariness in assigning people to groups for research purposes in this case.  On the other hand, as Bering points out, here too there are clearly not only two discrete categories: given the opportunity, a significant number of people would identify themselves as "bisexual."  My guess is that there is some movement along this continuum in many individual lives as well. 

Colette's picture

 I never really thought much

 I never really thought much about the major role gender plays in society until our class. Before our discussion, I had always thought that biology was the factor responsible in society for categorizing males as men and females as women. It seems that biology is actually trying to blur these distinctions and point out that no one is really what they actually are. Society categorizes people as it believes is acceptable and its rules are often based on unfair categorizations. It needs to do better. 

        People should be judged based on who they are and what they do, not by what they have acquired through natural selection. Society needs to be open, aware, and accepting of differences between people. Everyone has the right to be comfortable with what they have been given and do not deserve to be judged on traits they possess and do not control. What are society’s qualifications through its organizations to determine that issues like single sex marriage is acceptable or not? As we discussed about doctors, they may have more authority in some areas because they have gone through rigorous training to discover how things work. Is there a process that qualifies any one to determine whether the way a person looks or acts is unacceptable? 

 

Paul Grobstein's picture

would "rigorous training" help in re sex/gender issues?

Interesting issues.  There are of course some processes that determine "whether the way a person ... acts is unacceptable."  We call them the political and legal systems.  And, interestingly, they don't presume "rigorous training to discover how things work."  How could we get these systems "to do better?"  What role should biologists (and/or biology education) play in this? 

knorrell's picture

I realize that a lot of the

I realize that a lot of the gender differences are societal, but I don't think that it is fair to rule out any scientific differences between males and females.  While male and female represents a dichotomy that doesn't exist considering there are multiple chromosomal combinations, there are still differences.  This article, "Boys' and Girls' Brains Are Different" in Sciencedaily.com  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080303120346.htm, shows that there are biological differences between male and female brains.  As I stated before, I do not believe that all male and female differences are biological, psychological, or chemical but there are some differences that are not due to society.  I feel that the stereotypes must be based off of reality, as small as that reality might be.   

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender: whose brains are different?

People are certainly different from one another, and among the contributors to those differences are sex chromosomes, reproductive role/capability, hormonal exposures, body characteristics, family rearing, cultural context, and so on and so forth.  What's at issue here, as discussed in class, is whether "male" and "female" (or "man and "woman") are disjunct, well-defined categories.  That people report differences between "boys' and girls' brains" doesn't answer the question, rather it presumes a positive answer to the question in order to do the research.   One can't have done the study without putting each subject into one of two discrete categories.  The question then becomes what criteria were used to create the two categories.  Are the differences reported differences between people with different sex chromosomes? Or between people with different hormonal exposures? body characteristics?  self-identities? or ... ?   The significance of the finding depends a lot on how the categories were defined in the first place.   The key point isn't that "gender differences" are societal, its that the disjunct categories themselves are a social construct lacking clear correspondence to biological observations.   

adowton's picture

Identity

While I have often heard phrases in the past such as “gender is just a construct of society”, I have never really stopped to think about the amount of truth that lies behind this idea. As we established in class, biology does not at all support the idea of bimodal categorization for humans. In fact, biology actually suggests that there is enormous diversity amongst people.

Changing topics a bit and replying to Dakota’s post: I think this issue is a really interesting one. I too have often heard people talking about how they have identified a certain way from birth…and Dakota, I think your question about the appropriateness of the 3rd graders parents announcing their child’s identity so early on is a good one. On the one hand, I agree that it is admirable that they don’t try to dampen/deny whatever it is their child is feeling, and that they are allowing her to live the life she feels is right for her. We read the article about Katie, whose parents hid her identity from her until a much later age. This, as she said in the article, resulted in her feeling anger as well as fear. So maybe these elementary school parents are saving their child from struggle later on? However, like Dakota, I am wondering what the potential effects of further maturation might have on this child…if there is the possibility that puberty might again give her a new outlook/perspective on her self-identity, perhaps that parents have been a little too quick to act. I think that supporting their child is of course the appropriate thing to do, however, I think if the child did end up identifying as something different from a girl after this, it would be very hard on the child and on the parents as well due to all the stigmatization directed towards people who identify themselves in a way that the bi-modal construction of society does not “approve of”. I am not saying that the disapproval of society is appropriate, but I think it does exist. 

 

 

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender "struggles" as ... a good thing?

Maybe "struggle" is a part of life, and "saving their child from struggle" isn't such a great thing?  See sex/gender fluidity in individual lives.  Makes me wonder a bit on whose behalf parents are acting, to save kids or themselves from "disapproval of society"?  And whether perhaps some degree of struggle with society is also a healthy thing rather than something to be avoided. 

Crystal Leonard's picture

The irrelevance of gender

Yesterday's discussion on sex/gender was very interesting to me. I have always felt that one's sex chromosomes and physical anatomy have absolutely nothing to do with one's personality/identity and that society should put much less or no emphasis on gender. To me, whether someone is a "man" or a "woman" is completely irrelevant in regards to most matters. For example, as far as I can tell my cells each have two X chromosomes. I also have all of the traditional "female" secondary sex characteristics and I have a working "female" reproductive system. And when asked, I identify as female. But none of that defines me as a person. The fact that I am "female" does not mean that I think more like other "females" than "males". It also does not mean that I prefer traditional "female" activities over traditional "male" activities. As far as I can tell, being "female" versus "male" does not biologically affect the way I think, the way I behave, or the way that I interact with others. The differences in behavior observed between "females" and "males" are due to societal norms passed down to each of us from the time we are born, they are not based on the physical differences between boys and girls. However, convincing others of gender's irrelevance is extremely difficult because the gender dichotomy has been ingrained into society's subconscious for thousands of years. It is encouraging that modern science is finally demonstrating what I have believed all along: that there is no sexual dichotomy, and so there is no biological basis for gender. Hopefully, once people start accepting this notion, we can get rid of the notion of gender for good.

Paul Grobstein's picture

getting rid of gender?

Is it/should it be that easy?  Presumably there is a reason for "societal norms."  Like biological evolution, societal norms should probably be presumed to be evolved in terms of what "works" in some context.  If so, there may be downsides to getting "rid of the notion of gender for good."  What might those be? 

dfishervan's picture

Timing

During today’s discussion, I found myself thinking about a recent controversy that arose at a local elementary school. Parents were informed that a third grader who was raised as a boy was now to be referred to as a girl. In class, we established that biology argues for a non-bimodal categorization of gender. However, we did not discuss the timing concerning when a person identifies where they feel they belong in this gender spectrum. I know that many transgender people claim that they were aware of their true sexual identity from birth. While I believe it is possible for a person to be aware of their true sexual identity early on, I wonder if that means that the person should publicly assert this identity at such an early stage. I do not doubt that at the moment, the third grader identifies as a girl. However, if one major component of sex is biology, which includes hormone levels, what happens when this third grader reaches puberty, a period when our hormones run rampant?  I am not an endocrinologist but, I wonder if puberty will have any effect on the third grader’s perception of his or her own gender. I hope that I am not offending anyone but, when I heard about this story, this was my first thought. I commend the parents of this third grade boy for accepting their child and for going to great lengths to help their child feel comfortable in her skin and the classroom.  However, I am unsure about their decision to publicly announce their child’s sexual identity at such an early age, one which is typically filled with make believe and dress up games. I would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on the matter.

 

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender fluidity in individual lives?

An interesting issue.  See Some more grist for thinking about sex/gender diffs.  Maybe what is being announced isn't a permanent "sexual identity" but rather a preferred identity at a particular point in developmental time, one that could be different at later points in time? 

 

 

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