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‘Nature has, at the very least, a priming role in gendered behaviour’

This academic believes that we potentially underplay the role of gender in the early stages of schooling

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This academic believes that we potentially underplay the role of gender in the early stages of schooling

As a researcher whose most extensive research has been undertaken in gendered play styles in the early years, I am frequently asked what relevance gender might have for day to day practice. The answer is some, but that this is not at all straightforward.

Modern human beings have very little sexual diamorphism – the size and appearance of men and women are fairly similar – which is an indication that in our species, the genders have evolved to have far more similarities than differences.

The evidence for the influence of biology on differential male and female developmental pathways arises from the fact that mammalian physiology provides males with two surges of testosterone, one around the time of birth (priming) and the other at puberty (activating).

Gender differences

Testosterone levels appear to have a measurable effect on behaviour. For example, a range of studies has found higher levels of maternal testosterone in pregnancy result in higher rates of rough and tumble play in pre-school girls. The levels of testosterone in the prenatal environment also create minor differences in the structure of the brain – for example, the female corpus callosum (the bridge between the hemispheres) is denser and female brains have more extensive cortical areas dedicated to language. Male brains have a larger area dedicated to spatial and mechanical functioning.

Females have higher levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and oxytocin, which are associated with lower levels of impulsivity.

Additionally, after puberty, research has shown that high oestrogen levels tend to boost language skills. Young women in the higher oestrogen period of their monthly cycle performed somewhat better on language assessments than they did in the lower part of their cycle.

Finally, colour vision, tonality and smell are slightly differently calibrated within the typical male and female brain, with females having more acute powers of discrimination.

Nature or nurture

It may well be that the differential ways of nurturing boys and girls reinforce the development of these differences, as the brain undergoes its vast connection during the first three years of life. However, anecdotally, as a mother of male-female twins who showed gendered choices in toy selection in the first six months of life, I am inclined to believe that nature has, at the very least, a priming role in gendered behaviour – and this has been supported in research with non-human primates.

For example, both human and rhesus monkey juvenile males show a greater preference for playing with wheeled toys than the females of their respective species – and monkeys cannot be exposed to sociolinguistic constructions of gender.

Some research findings are intriguingly dichotomous. For example, high prenatal testosterone levels have been linked to language delay, but only in males. This indicates that there are some transactional effects occurring with respect to hormonal and neuronal balances that are not yet fully understood.

One of the most fascinating of these is the ratio of length of ring finger to index finger, which has recently emerged as an indicator of the level of prenatal testosterone to which a person has been exposed. Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers, while women’s ring and index fingers tend to be of a similar length.

Research has discovered that people of both genders who have a "male" finger physiology tend to outperform those who have a "female" finger physiology in 3D rotation tasks, while the opposite is true for verbal memory.  

The "male" finger physiology has also been firmly correlated with superior performance in sports.

People with finger morphology that is not commensurate with their chromosomal gender do not necessarily show other "cross-gender" effects, however. This indicates that old-fashioned gender stereotyping based on chromosomal gender was clearly a gross error and that there is still much to be discovered with respect to gender difference and its effects upon behaviour.

Impact in the classroom?

So what of life in the early years setting and school classroom?

The major differences that have so far been observed between males and females are summarised below.

Girls typically:

  • Tend to develop language and fine motor skills earlier than boys and are, therefore, in the early years, likely to outperform male peers in standard assessments that focus on these areas
  • Use a wide variety of colours – particularly reds, oranges and yellows
  • Draw people and faces
  • Hear more acutely than boys
  • Describe and discuss feelings, forming close friendships with other girls where such discussion is important
  • Multi-task and transition from task to task well
  • Form close relationships with teachers (female teachers, in particular)
  • Like to be looked at and smiled at
  • Retain sensory memories (for colours, sounds, odours) well, but not spatial memories (eg, the way to particular places)
  • Dislike stressful situations and call on friends for help when these arise
  • Dislike direct confrontation
  • Enjoy fictional stories
  • Play in ways that use language and detailed narratives about people and their feelings


Boys typically:

  • Tend to develop spatial orientation and large motor skills earlier than girls
  • Use neutral colours – particularly silvers, blacks, greys and blues
  • Draw object-based pictures
  • Like to focus on a task and prefer slower transitions
  • Dislike aimless chatter, particularly when it relates to talking about feelings
  • Focus friendships on shared activities
  • Are not so inclined to not form close relationships with teachers (particularly female teachers)
  • Find intense eye contact with non-family members uncomfortable
  • Have poor memory for colours, sounds and odours, but good spatial memories (eg, for routes to particular places)
  • Deal with moderate stress well and may prefer to manage this alone
  • Enjoy a certain amount of direct confrontation
  • Enjoy factual stories
  • Play in ways that involve action and narratives about shared activity, where roleplay is involved this tends to relate to "good guys and bad guys"


Virginia Bonomo claimed in 2010 that "our current educational system creates an environment that is biologically disrespectful even if well intended".

While gendered effects are complex, there is now emergent evidence that they do impact upon preferred pathways to learning and that this may result in boys – and girls, who orient to learning in the male "style" – being erroneously constructed as "behind", particularly in the early years.

As such, this is certainly an issue worthy of further discussion.

Dr Pam Jarvis is an educational psychologist at Leeds Trinity University. She tweets @Dr_Pam_Jarvis

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