Sex differences in the relative frequency of personality traits and typical behaviour among men and women (taken as groups) has been a hotly contested field of enquiry for many decades, with some people claiming a greater biological contribution, while others emphasising social conditioning.
A new meta-analysis of 16 studies conducted between 1980 and 2016 in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel and China, with a total of 787 boys and 813 girls (ages 1 to 8) provides more direct evidence for innate differences between the sexes.
The analysis excluded research that relied on self-reported data from parents or study participants, instead focusing on observational studies of children in free play.
After controlling for the effects of the presence or absence of an adult, study setting, gender equality rating of the country, year of publication, and the presence of gender-neutral toys, children were still found to prefer toys typical of their sex.
The research team also emphasised that factors they controlled for did have some effect – boys played with male-specific toys less when at home (as opposed to the lab), and girls played with female-specific toys less in more recent studies.
“There is a fashion today to say that gender is purely a social construct. In reality, gendered behaviour is a mix of biology and social influence, and I think our meta-analysis supports this view,” said study co-author John A. Barry from the University College London’s Institute for Women’s Health.
Previous studies have shown that children as young as 9 months-old already display a preference for playing with toys seen as typical of their biological sex.
According to Barry, some people’s objection to research indicating innate sex differences comes down to their fear that it might lead to the perpetuation of sexist behaviour.
In reaction to such sentiments, the authors noted that descriptive studies need not be seen as offering prescriptive solutions – while many studies have found men and women (as groups) to be somehwat different on average, there is still a high degree of variation between individual people.
Furthermore, regardless of empirical findings on sex differences, the commitment to treat people on the strength of their individual characteristics, rather than as representatives of a certain group is an ethical, not a scientific consideration.
The study was published on 22 November 2017 in the journal Infant and Child Development.