‘Like a Girl’ Lies, Truth and Power in Three Simple Words

Tennis Sports Woman

Katherine White
One with Heart Program Coordinator

Recently someone I know made a ‘like a girl’ comment, referring to a boy “acting like a girl, being passive, you know, just sitting around.” I felt a familiar sting; a moment of personal shame and anger that cut to the core of who I am. Finish a sentence with ‘like a girl’ and the insult is implied. Translation:  uncoordinated, weak, vulnerable, overly emotional, passive. Those three simple words deliver a powerful message: there is a whole lot wrong with being a girl.[i]

How we are viewed and treated by others matters a lot. Social psychology and education literature is full of examples of how social relations influence motivation, learning and performance. One area of research shows that a person need never be directly targeted by prejudice in order to be impacted by it. The term for this phenomenon is ‘stereotype threat.’[ii]

The impact of stereotype threat was identified during 10 years of research on academic performance which showed that among groups who are stereotyped as less competent, specifically women and minorities, low performance poses a threat to three important human motives:  being competent, appearing competent to others, and the need to belong to a social group. This threat creates pressure to disprove the stereotype. The study showed that when women and minorities feel the added pressure to disprove a stereotype they do not perform as well. When the pressure is removed, performance increases. For example, math is a subject that women are stereotyped as having less aptitude for. In one study a group of male and female college students, who had all shown high aptitude in math, were given a very challenging math test. In the control group the women scored significantly lower than the men. In the experimental group, where the women were told that the test had never produced gender differences in the past, the women and the men scored equally well. [iii]

When it comes to physical competence girls are always under pressure to disprove the stereotype. No one wants to be told they “fight like a girl”, “run like a girl” or “throw like a girl.” Myth Busters took a look at what “throw like a girl” actually means. They tested boys and girls of four different age groups analyzing form, speed, and targeting to see if boys have an inherent ability to throw better than girls. Everyone threw with their non-dominant hand to cancel out any cultural advantage that boys may have as a result of training. The results: without the advantage of training, boys and girls throw with almost identical form; girls throw slightly faster than boys; boys had slightly better targeting.[iv] Throwing with great form, speed and accuracy has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with practice.

Gender stereotypes have persisted as masculine and feminine archetypes across cultures throughout history. According to Social Identity Theory stereotyping happens because of the basic survival instinct to group things together. In order to make sense of the world we are hardwired to look for differences, notice patterns, and categorize and label what we see. The observable differences between males and females are one obvious way to divide people into groups. Once groups are formed, it is a human tendency to do two things which result in the formation of stereotypes: exaggerate the differences between the groups; exaggerate the similarities within the same group. Our survival instinct also drives us to live in groups in order to assure our safety and security. Because our self-image is tied to group identity we tend to increase the status of the group or groups to which we belong, and diminish the status of groups to which we don’t belong.[v] The ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is the basis and justification for prejudice, discrimination and much of the suffering and conflict in the world. [vi]

Stereotypes form and persist because they contain some element of truth. What is the truth about gender identity? Is there a biological basis for the aptitude and behavior stereotypes we assign to males and females? Are boys born with better spatial-mechanical awareness? Are they by nature more active, impulsive and aggressive? Are girls born with better interpersonal awareness, are they naturally better communicators, better multi-taskers, more passive and emotional?

Personality traits we identify as masculine and feminine are influenced by a complicated combination of pre-natal development, hormones, brain structure and societal expectations. [vii]  Scientists can now look directly at the brain through MRI’s and PET scans to explore the question of nature vs. nurture. There are some observable differences in male and female brains. In utero, the release of hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone appear to influence development of the parts of the brain that correspond with gender identified personality traits. But we now know the brain, like any other muscle in the body, is malleable. Time and experience change the physical structure of the brain and the neuro pathways to the brain.  If there is a cultural bias toward playing catch with boys and reading stories to girls, the parts of the brain associated with these activities are going to become stronger in gender specific ways.

The intersection of biology and cultural bias makes it difficult to know how much masculine and feminine traits are actually tied to sexual biology. For example, the Straight Gyrus, or SG, is the part of the brain that correlates with typically feminine personality traits such as recognition of emotion and aptitude toward interpersonal skills. The SG tends to be larger in adult females, but in children it is tends to be larger in males. Adults with larger SG’s, whether they are male or female, tend to have more traditionally feminine personality traits.[viii] Does this part of the brain generally become more developed in women because women are socialized to take on the role or nurturer and caregiver? Or do more women gravitate toward that role because of the way their brain develops as they mature?

Specific hormones are associated with masculine and feminine behaviors. Estrogen appears to increase impulse control. Women have higher levels of estrogen and in general are less impulsive than men. There is evidence that as estrogen levels go down in women, impulsivity goes up.[ix] But the body releases hormones for a variety of reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with sexual biology. Testosterone increases aggression and competitive drive, traditionally male behaviors. Studies show that testosterone levels often go up in women and men when they participate in or even watch competitive events.[x]

The way science and culture think about masculinity and femininity is changing in part because transgender people have opened the door to new perspectives. Transgender people find their self-identity does not match their assigned sex. There is new scientific evidence that indicates some differences between the microstructure of the brain of transgender people and people who identify with their biological sex. There is also evidence that the brain structure and function of transgender people is more similar to the gender they identify with than their assigned sex.[xi] Many transgender people go through a long, complex and potentially risky process to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. This tells us that gender identity is clearly much more profound and integral to our sense of self than superficial stereotypes about who plays with trucks and who plays with dolls, and science tells us there is a much more fluid relationship between masculinity, femininity and anatomy than we previously thought.

Masculine and feminine, yin and yang, represent opposites that exist in everything. In the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang there is no valuational hierarchy because one cannot be separated from the other and one cannot exist without the other. “Yin-yang is the process of harmonization ensuring a constant, dynamic balance of all things.”[xii]

Masculine and feminine are within each of us. Our identity falls somewhere on a continuum between opposites. At one time survival may have required that we divide and categorize individuals by gender and race, but that is ancient history. That way of seeing people no longer works. The hierarchical valuation behind the ‘us’ and ‘them’ point of view has become a real and significant threat to our survival and the survival of the planet we live on.

We are not driven solely by instinct. We have the ability to reason, to look into the past and the future, to understand the implications of what we do and say, and to change. Three simple words, ‘like a girl’, have delivered a powerful message that is divisive, hurtful, limiting and dishonest. Let the stereotype go and we open ourselves to the beautiful complexity of what it is to be fully human. Embrace the true power of the feminine: compassion, calm, inner strength, perseverance and introspection, and ‘like a girl’ takes on a new meaning; a way to bring balance and harmony to ourselves and to our world…..just like a girl.


[i] This is a great example of how corporations can use their creativity and resources to confront stereotypes and make a difference. It is worth taking a minute to watch. Why don’t we ever see it on national TV?

[ii] Elliot, Andrew J. and Dweck, Carol S. Handbook of Competence and Motivation. New York, London: The Guilford Press: 2005.


[iii] Elliot, Andrew J. and Dweck, Carol S. Handbook of Competence and Motivation. New York, London: The Guilford Press: 2005.

[iv] MythBusters: Throw Like a Girl

[v] McLoud, Saul. 2008. Social Identity Theory. Simple Psychology.

[vi] This article provides an in depth and interesting look at the role group identification plays in conflict, but also how group identification can motivate us to care about people and things that go beyond our self-interest.

Chirot, Daniel and Seligman, Martin E.P. Ethnopolitical Warfare:  Causes, Consequences, and Possible Solutions. Washington, D.C.: The American Psychological Association, 2001.

[vii] McLoud, Saul. 2014. Biological Theories of Gender. Simple Psychology.

[viii] Eliot, Lise. September 8, 2009. Girl Brain, Boy Brain. Scientific American.

[ix] Kwon, Diana. May 7, 2014. Estrogens Role in Impulsive Behavior. Scientific American.

[x] Neave, Nick and O’Connor, Daryl B. January 2009, v. 22, pp 23-31.  Testosterone and Male Behaviors. the Psychologist…

Watching Soccer Increases Hormone Levels. April 26, 2012. Science 2.0, Scientific Blogging


[xi] Hampson, Sarah. July 2015. Science in transition: Understanding the biology behind gender identity. The Globe and Mail.

[xii] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Yinyang (yin-yang).

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net