In a new study, Penn State researchers explored how excessive prenatal exposure to androgens (male hormones) impacts girls; in particular, they wanted to know whether girls exposed to more androgens prenatally chose to socialize more with boys rather than girls.
They found that androgen exposure in females was not associated with spending more or less time in activities with other girls, but it was tied to an increased interest and more time spent in activities that have traditionally been thought of as masculine, like building things or playing or watching sports.
The findings, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, support the notion that gender development is a complex process that does not solely rely on either biological or social factors.
“People used to think — and some still do — that gender development and behavior is based either on a person’s biology or social environment,” said Dr. Sheri Berenbaum, professor of psychology at Penn State. “But I think people now realize that it’s both, and the question is how these forces work together. So we’re trying to delve into how hormones and socialization both affect gender development.”
In early childhood, kids typically begin spending more time socializing with children of their own gender; this is referred to as “sex segregation.” Berenbaum said this tendency has been hypothesized to result from such factors as gender identity and personal traits.
Berenbaum said the study was an opportunity for researchers who see gender from a biological perspective and those who view it from a socialization perspective to work together to see how these two ideas merge.
The study examined the effects of hormones on sex segregation in girls with classical and non-classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). Girls with classical CAH are exposed to excess levels of androgens prenatally; girls with non-classical CAH have a gene mutation and are not exposed to excessive androgens in utero.
The researchers recruited 54 girls between the ages of 10 and 13 with CAH: 40 with classical CAH and 14 with non-classical CAH. They interviewed the girls about their interests, gender identity and attitudes about gender roles, among other things. Seven times over the next two to four weeks, the researchers called the girls to ask how much time they spent on particular activities that day, and who they spent their time with.
“Our hypothesis was that the girls with classical CAH, the ones with prenatal androgen exposure, would spend more time with boys,” Berenbaum said. “But because we also knew that most of these girls identified as girls, we thought that they might spend more of their time with girls. As it turned out, they did not spend more time with boys.”
The researchers found no significant link between androgen exposure and girls’ time spent with either boys or girls. But, they did find that girls with classical CAH — those with prenatal androgen exposure — spent more time in male-typical activities and less time in female-typical activities.
In addition, the majority of girls with classical CAH identified as girls and had typical attitudes about gender, which could contribute to their socializing mainly with other girls, a pattern that suggests that hormones may not have an effect on gender identity and attitudes, according to Berenbaum.
“A number of theories have been proposed to explain sex segregation, most of which focus on socialization,” said Dr. Susan McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies.
“Findings from this study suggest that gender development is more complex than a simple matter of socialization and are consistent with the idea that nature and nurture interact to explain gender development, and they illuminate one such interactive process.”
Source: Penn State