The most common mistake people make when it comes to gender identification is to think of gender as a binary, or a binary-shaped system of categories.
This isn’t the case, says Dr Rebecca Llewellyn from the University of Bath.
Dr Llewelyn’s team has recently conducted a study which shows that people are actually better at recognising which gender they’re assigned to based on their facial expression.
The study also shows that the differences between the genders can be subtle and vary in degree.
“People may have been born with a specific physical characteristics that they identify as male or female, but this is still a subtle marker that you might notice when you see people in a store or a pub or a cafe or a restaurant, or when you sit in a coffee shop,” Dr Lleswellyn told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“So, for example, it’s possible that there are certain things that you associate with female and there are other things that are associated with male and it might be that people who are really good at identifying themselves as male but who don’t feel particularly feminine are more likely to associate themselves with female or vice versa.”
The researchers also found that people with a genetic predisposition to male-pattern baldness had lower levels of gender identification.
In a related study, they found that some people who were born male but have always felt female also have low levels of social identity in their lifetime.
Dr Jody Stott, a developmental psychologist at the University at Albany, New York, and co-author of the study, says the differences in facial expression can make people feel uncomfortable.
“It can make them feel like they’re on the other side of the world,” Dr Stott said.
Dr Llezwellyn said it’s likely people have been unconsciously expressing their gender since childhood, and the differences they see in the facial expression are part of a larger pattern of social development. “
We’ve known for a long time that people identify as gender and that they’re actually more comfortable expressing that as female or male, but in some cases they don’t know if that’s what they’re supposed to feel.”
Dr Llezwellyn said it’s likely people have been unconsciously expressing their gender since childhood, and the differences they see in the facial expression are part of a larger pattern of social development.
“There are two main processes that take place in the brain when you’re developing a sense of gender,” she said.
Dr Stot said that children’s facial expressions could help them learn about their own gender.
“Children who are raised in a male-dominated culture and who have a more male-oriented social environment tend to develop very strong masculine social identity,” Dr Sott said, adding that this is particularly evident for young boys and young men.
Dr Sot said it was important to take a closer look at the differences people have noticed in their facial expressions.
Dr Roberta Pappalardo from the Australian Institute of Family Studies said that, although it was possible for people to see gender differences as the result of innate differences, it was not likely that gender identification was fixed at birth. “
They’re more likely than others to express themselves more aggressively, to express more assertively, to make more eye contact, and to use their arms more aggressively,” she explained.
Dr Roberta Pappalardo from the Australian Institute of Family Studies said that, although it was possible for people to see gender differences as the result of innate differences, it was not likely that gender identification was fixed at birth.
“I think it’s important to recognise that the way that we’re raised is a product of many, many factors,” she told ABC News.
“For example, when we’re born, we’re made up of cells that are not male or male-like cells, they’re made of cells which have genes that determine their gender.”
Dr Papparardo said she was surprised by the findings and thought the differences might be due to the social environment.
“As we age, it is the social situation in which we grow up, it can lead to changes in our facial expression, and those facial expressions are influenced by the social context we’re in, ” she said, “so it’s a bit surprising to me that there’s been so little research done on this topic.”
The findings of Dr Lleywellyn’s study were published in the journal Gender & Society.