Discuss the role of hormones and/or genes in gender development. (8 + 16 marks)

This question gives you the option to outline and evaluate hormones, genes or both. Both factors are interlinked, so you should discuss both in your answer.

Biological sex is determined by genes, which are on chromosomes. Humans generally have 23 pairs of chromosomes, one pair of which determines sex. Females have an XX pair while males have an XY pair. Chromosomal sex largely controls how masculine or feminine the egg's development will be.

Chromosomal sex controls whether an embryo will develop ovaries or testes. The SRY gene on the Y chromosome which only males possess will cause the gonad (the organ which produces sex cells) to develop into testes; a female's gonad will develop into ovaries due to the absence of the SRY gene. External genitalia strongly influences gender development, through the effects of the hormones which they produce and due to psychological and social factors.

Hormones also affect the development of the genitalia. Androgens (male hormones) such as testosterone stimulate the development of male sex organs. Genetic females who are exposed prenatally to high levels of androgens may therefore develop ambiguous genitalia and the baby may appear externally to be male. Similarly, genetic males with too little androgens may appear externally to be female - this condition is known as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS).

Hormones also have a powerful affect on the development of the brain. Females and males have different brains, with females generally being better at social skills such as empathising & males generally excelling at spatial skills. Testosterone is thought to make the brain more masculine, for example by stimulating development of the areas of the brain linked to spatial skills.

Research has demonstrated the effect of hormones on gender development. Deady et al. found that in biological females, high levels of salivary testosterone were linked with low scores on measures of maternal personality. This suggests that testosterone makes the brain more masculine. However, the relationship may not be causal as correlation does not imply causation: for example, testosterone may affect the levels of other hormones which may affect maternal personality.

However, there is evidence that biological sex is not the main factor in gender development. Money and Ehrhardt claimed that the sex that the child is reared as is more important than their chromosomal sex. They believed that intersex individuals could be successfully raised as either a girl or a boy, and that biological males could be raised as girls & biological females could be raised as boys.

Money's theory, however, has been disputed by the case of David Reimer, who was genetically male but was raised as a girl (under Money's recommendation) after a botched circumcision. Despite being given hormone treatments in order to develop an outwardly female appearance, Reimer became isolated and depressed, and reverted back to being male immediately after finding out his true sex. This suggests that chromosomal sex is crucial to gender development, conflicting with Money's claims.

This outcome has also been supported by further research. Reiner & Gearhart studied 16 biological males born with almost no penis. Of the 14 who were raised female, 8 re-assigned themselves as male by the age of 16. This high rate suggests that biological factors have a key role in gender development.

However, there are methodological problems with the two aforementioned studies and many other studies in this area. The case of Bruce Reimer is a case study, and the results may well not apply to other individuals: there is an extreme lack of generalisability. The study by Reiner and Gearhart has a small sample, and so the results from this study may also be invalid.

Another problem is that much of the research in this area is done on people with intersex conditions. The results of these studies should therefore only be applied to the general population with caution, as they may only be applicable to people with intersex conditions. These people may, for example, adhere more to social norms than the general population as they have to try harder to fit in. Research into such personal and potentially painful issues also has the potential to cause psychological harm, an ethical issue which should be avoided.

Although biological factors are important to gender development, other factors are also key. For example, Dessens et al. studied 250 genetic females who were prenatally exposed to high levels of androgens but still raised female. 95% were content with their female gender, with only 5% experiencing significant gender dysphoria. This shows that other factors are important to gender development. This is one main criticism of the biological approach: it is too reductionist.

This research has real-world applications. For a long time, the Olympic Committee ruled that people with XX chromosomes must compete in female events while people with XY chromosomes must compete in male events. However, due research on gender development there was a ruling in 1991 that genetic sex would no longer determine entry into the Olympics.


  1. Thanks for putting up this answer. I am actually doing this question as a pratice for my mocks coming up next week

  2. Many thanks for ALL your model essays. It's really helpful for my student's revision.

  3. Excellent model essays! A great help for the upcoming A2 exam

  4. This is a prediction in tomorrows exam, as it hasn't come up yet! so thank you so much.