The social gender

  • gender refers to the role played in society
  • these roles are flexible across cultures and time
  • we convey contradictory gender visions to children and young adults
  • we stick to outdated gender stereotypes
  • gender-neutral education ≠ erase gender differences = not artificially create unnatural differences
Overview of topics:
What is a social gender?
Differentiation from biological sex
Cross-cultural gender roles
Gender-compliant educational ideals
Gender as antiquity
A gender-free ideal

Our society provides young adults with unlimited opportunities in the digital realm. At the same time we define limiting gender roles for young children through a pink/blue world. This given social gender does not only limit the perspectives and development directions of the children. Through the evaluations they contain, they also have an unhealthy influence on the self-esteem.

This contradiction in the conveyance of gender can be a result of the fact that we have surpassed existing gender roles but still adhere to them.

What is a social gender?

Gender describes the role that a society assigns to a sex.

The World Health Organization describes gender as socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as gender norms, roles and relationships. To be more precise, the social gender is defined by the fact that it can change strongly across different cultures, as well as within a culture over time.

Gender norms are flexible

There are countless examples of norms and properties that were initially strictly assigned to one sex and later to the other. At both times, the other version would not have been considered possible. One such example is heel shoes, which were originally developed for hunting on horseback and were normally worn by men. Today it is not only unusual for men to wear high heels. Often reactions involve a pejorative attitude.

Before the World Wars it was also common for both sexes to wear white dresses („Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America“ by Jo B. Paoletti). This outfit was considered gender-neutral because it did not allow any conclusions to be drawn about gender at the time. At a young age, it made it easier to change diapers. In addition, the white could simply be bleached again. Children wore it up to an age of about eight years.

Here you can see Franklin Roosevelt (also known as FDR) 1884 in New York:

Franklin Roosevelt (1884) in a dress as was normal
Franklin Roosevelt 1884 in a white dress

The pink and blue world that children are shaped by today is described here (link will follow soon).

Differentiation from biological sex

While sex is defined by anatomical, genetic, as well as innate behavioural differences, gender is usually not completely out of the air, but finds its origin (although over many corners and often based on stereotypes instead of facts) in biological gender tendencies.

What exactly does biology dictate?

Women give birth to children. That was it already. Women can give birth to children, men cannot. (Not everyone has reproduced. But those who did not also did not pass on their genes and thus had no influence on the innate tendencies of the next generation).

Since the woman carries the child, she has the higher investment per offspring from the beginning (one speaks of an asymmetrical parental investment between woman and man). All congenital gender differences are due to this asymmetric parental investment and are discussed here in detail. And according to evolutionary theory, because of that the female motivation to increase the chances of the individual offspring and to provide excellent brood care is higher.

If inborn motivational differences actually existed, they might have had an influence on how gender roles developed within societies, under given environmental influences and in interaction with each other.

Biological or social gender – hen or egg?

What was there first – the biological difference between the sexes or the role in which the sexes had to specialize? Our underlying question is whether we can influence biological aspects by changing gender roles. The answer is yes!

Prolactin, the so-called „brood care hormone“, is produced by humans as well as animals and by both mothers and fathers. Papas are therefore actually a little pregnant as well and prepare to take responsibility for a child. For them, the brood care hormone displaces the sex hormone testosterone. Rival interest are replaced by needs to hold the baby, feed it and change diapers. But if the baby binds a lot to mummy because of breastfeeding, many dads feel somewhat repressed in the role of spectator and play partner and the brood care hormone decreases in them until they have reached normal testosterone levels again. Do fathers automatically reduce the brood care hormone over time and therefore show more interest in work and less in family, or do they feel less needed at home, take care of work and as a result reduce prolactin?

It becomes clearer when we look at the brain. By performing various skills, certain areas of the brain are addressed. Training of fine motor skills, for example, changes the brain, especially a group of nerve cells in a region of the midbrain called nucleus ruber. This was discovered by researchers at the University of Basel4.

» the Happy Jona shop categorizes toys according to the skills children train


A person may have a different social gender than their biological sex. On the one hand, the sex may develop incorrectly. But people can also identify themselves freely with the other biological sex. In this case we speak of a transgender.

Cross-cultural gender roles

Different norms for the sexes, that go beyond reproduction, exist in every culture. Typical masculine activities to this day have been physically strenuous work that requires cooperation and a greater radius of movement. This includes hunting large animals, waging war, making weapons, making musical instruments, dealing with herds of cattle, fishing and preparing for farming.

Up to now, typically female activities have been rather regarded as individual work requiring less mobility. In some cultures, however, fetching water and carrying goods are also part of female activities, although it is physically very demanding and requires a long distance. Rather female tasks are also child care, cooking, fetching water, manufacturing/repairing clothes, pottery, hand grinding cereals, collecting food, plants and fruit harvests, making fires and maintaining (after Rudolph 1980).

Times and cultures that show untypical examples:

  • After the Second World War, the so-called „rubble women“ took over the reconstruction of the city while most of the living men had to recover from the war. They ran trams and removed the debris left behind by the war.
  • Mead, 1935 (according to Bischof-Köhler, 2006 p. 280) observed many cultures:

→ the Arapesh (New Guinea): both sexes are kind, gentle and peaceful. When men take on leadership roles, they only do so reluctantly

→ women at Tschambuli are active and determined, unadorned, the sexually more aggressive and also the main providers of the families. Men, on the other hand, pursue artistic activities, adorn themselves, practise dances, and mainly look after children. Their emotional and psychological well-being depends on the women and their values.

Gender-compliant educational ideals

Children learn gender and role understanding not only from models and through identification with gender. Their environment educates the sexes according to different norms.

Low, 1989, examined educational ideals across cultures and found that girls were more taught values such as responsibility, obedience, diligence, chastity. For boys, on the other hand, aggressive, brave and independent behaviour was the ideal. The emphasis on these gender-differentiating values was all the less pronounced in cultures where women had greater economic or political influence.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

The gender concepts of our society shape the development of our children.

Thus the male exuberance in MINT subjects (mathematics, computer science, natural sciences, technology) can be explained just as little by innate gender tendencies as the overwhelming majority of female students in psychology. Girls often don’t even try their hand at „boys‘ subjects“ because they don’t want to fail. Boys, on the other hand, strengthen their self-esteem through particularly „male activities“. In fact, congenital differences in cognitive performance are very small and children waste a lot of potential because of stereotypes.

» learn more about congenital gender differences in cognitive performance

A study by the University of Zurich shows that men are not inherently selfish, but have learned this behavioural tendency through social gender. Boys tend to get positive feedback when they assert themselves, girls when they share. This reward logic then also consolidates neurobiologically in the children. The scientists were able to show that the reward system in women reacts at prosocial behaviour, but in men with selfish behaviour. So when we generally praise children for prosocial behaviour, they will also like to share in adulthood.

» Learn here which exercises you can use to train empathy with your child (link will follow soon)

We call self-fulfilling prophecy the effect when the believe in something leads to it actually happening. Many parents expect girls to be less gifted in math than boys and pass this faith on to their children. Too often this leads to girls not giving math a chance in the first place and actually ending up being worse than they could be. The same applies to selfishness. Because our society expects boys to behave selfishly, they give them positive feedback on such behavior. In the end, boys actually learn a more selfish behaviour.

Gender as antiquity

Perhaps at times of hunters and gatherers, the survival of our species depended on an efficient division of roles between the sexes, or perhaps it developed rather accidentally. With the development of the last century, however, driven by industrialization, our possibilities grew dramatically and we have become more independent from role assignments. Vacuum cleaners, combine harvesters, microwave ovens and rail transport changed the rules of our society.

Today we live in a time in which we urgently need engineers, but waste the potential of half the population by ascribing it to the male role. We know that more women in leadership positions are boosting our markets, while at the same time watching our girls run straight into an inferiority complex. We see a much higher male propensity to violence and crime, but dismiss high aggressive behavior as „just male“ and help boys less to communicate their feelings. The biggest danger for children and women is domestic violence and we continue to tell children stories about male protectors and carers. Both partners are struggling with the old role model and especially women suffer from isolation and depression².

Gender norms are deeply rooted in our gender identity and thus part of our self-esteem. Especially for individuals who have defined themselves very much through their gender, any change in social gender roles can have a threatening effect. Enlightenment helps!


» Next topic: Gender-neutral

What is hidden behind a gender-neutral ideal and is gender-neutral education worth considering?

symbol for gender neutrality
Go on reading about the topic: gender-neutral


  1. requested 28.08.2019
  2. businessinsider requested 27.08.2019
  3. Field, 1978 (according to Bischof-Köhler 2006)
  4. science.apa requested 30.08.2019

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