Androgyny and Gifted Youth*
By Danae Deligeorge
“Our true nature is free of any and all notions of gender, of any notions of difference whatsoever.”
~ Andrew Cohen ~
Stereotypes often invisibly reinforce ways to support sex-based discrimination. When these stereotypes are internalized, girls and boys may lose the opportunity for authenticity and the full-range of human experience, especially if they harbor unwarranted concerns about sexual orientation or gender identity. Let’s try a quick test. How many different gender roles can you think of? I bet you thought of two. About 40 years ago, however, researchers identified four different gender roles. One of them is psychological androgyny.
What is psychological androgyny? Results of a Google search indicate an array of possibilities: simply wearing clothing usually associated with the opposite sex (from an online blog); having traditional male and female roles obscured or reversed (Webster online dictionary); the state of being neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine as in dress, appearance, or behavior (Online Free Dictionary); in terms of gender identity, an “androgyne” is a person who does not fit cleanly into the typical masculine and feminine roles of their society (Wikipedia). Do you have a clear answer? If you say “yes,” I’m sorry; you probably do not.
Again, what is androgyny? If Google does not supply sufficient answers, research may. Sandra Bem (1977) constructed the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), one of the most widely used gender measures. Based on the responses to the terms in the Bem Sex Role Inventory, individuals may be classified as having one of four gender-role orientations: androgynous, female or male who has a high degree of both feminine (expressive) and masculine (instrumental) traits; feminine, female or male who is high on expressive traits and low on instrumental traits; masculine, female or male who is high on instrumental traits and low on expressive traits, or unidentified; female or male who is low on both feminine and masculine traits. The terms gender, gender-role, sexual orientation, and gender-identity, imply distinctions that should not be confused. A person’s gender can be either male or female, but her or his gender-role may be masculine, feminine, undifferentiated or androgynous. Sexual orientation relates to one’s sexual preferences, so a person can be heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Last but not least, gender-identity is a person’s private sense of this his or her gender, based on subjective experiences. In other words and related to our topic, psychological androgyny is not synonymous with biological distinctions, and sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender-role and gender-identity.
How is androgyny connected to giftedness and creativity? According to Silverman (1993), Tolan (1997), Sheely (2000), Piirto (2004), Kerr (1997), Kerr & Cohn (2001) many highly gifted and creative children tend to be androgynous. Jonsson and Carlsson (2000) observed that those who were evaluated using the BSRI and scored as highly androgynous and low, undifferentiated also displayed higher creative functioning. According to Sheely (2000) few highly gifted people conform to gender-role stereotypes and therefore are more androgynous. Tolan (1997) has also found that highly gifted children are more androgynous than other children; they tend to reject strict gender identities. In other words, psychological androgyny should be considered a trait of giftedness.
More recently, this writer examined (2011) whether gender matters in the referral, selection and enrollment of children in gifted programs. Because parents and educators who make such decisions are not necessarily specialists in gifted education, it was hypothesized that their decisions would be influenced by inherent confusions about the meaning of gender and gender-role, combined with ingrained beliefs in stereotypes. Findings indicate a preference for masculine over feminine personality traits, namely, self-reliance, self-advocacy, being analytical and willing to take risks, or taking a stand for personal beliefs. This finding raises many questions including the obvious: “Will the androgynous, more feminine gifted kindergartener be perceived as gifted and referred to a gifted program?” The answer is probably “no,” as long as masculine traits are considered an important aspect of giftedness by those who influence the selection process.
What can parents and caregivers do? Please, avoid reinforcing stereotypical behaviors. Limiting stereotypes do exist in society today, but these need no be imposed on your child. Support your child’s own gender-role and androgyny. A child’s interests and those of his or her friends, of either gender, are natural and should not be discouraged or criticized. Psychological androgyny should be respected, valued and nurtured as any other giftedness trait.
* Presented at the 2012 SENG Annual Conference, Milwaukee, WI.
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