Research Article: If there’s a penis, it’s most likely a man: Investigating the social construction of gender using eye tracking

Date Published: March 1, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Frederike Wenzlaff, Peer Briken, Arne Dekker, Sergio Pellis.


In their foundational work on the social construction of gender, Kessler and McKenna (1978) investigated the relationship between gender attribution and genital attribution. We used digital reproductions of the original stimuli to replicate their findings in the current social context. To further investigate the underlying decision processes we applied eye tracking. The stimuli shown varied in the composition of gender cues: from those more commonly associated with maleness to associated with femaleness. Applying the ethnomethodological approach originally used, participants were asked to decide for each stimulus whether they saw a man or a woman and to indicate subjective confidence with the decision. In line with the original results we found that the genital attribution contributed immensely to the gender attribution. Also, male gender was ascribed more often when the penis was present than was female gender when the vulva was shown. Eye tracking revealed that overall most dwell time as a proxy for important information was dedicated to the head, chest and genital areas of all the stimuli. Total dwell time depended on whether the gender attribution was made in line with the depicted genital, if the genital was a penis. Attributing female gender when a penis was present was associated with longer total dwell time, unlike attributing male gender with a vulva shown. This is indicative of higher cognitive effort and more difficulty ignoring the penis as opposed to the vulva. We interpret this finding in context of the persistent male dominance as well as to the socio-cultural understanding of the vulva as a concealed and therefore seemingly absent organ. In summary, we were able to show that the gender attribution is still closely linked to genital attribution when having a binary forced choice task and that the penis is a special cue in this attribution process.

Partial Text

Every time we interact with someone or even just see them from a distance, we always attribute gender–that is, we decide whether a person is male or female [1]. Indeed, the discrimination of gender is considered one of few automatic and habitual aspects of person perception [2]. Although scholars have acknowledged the dimensional structure of many gender differences [3–5], people tend to categorize men and women on the basis of sex to simplify a complex world [6]. Because we do not usually see or know about each other’s genitalia, the attribution actually depends on indirect cues of the anatomical genitals as observed in facial structure, voice, dress, assumedly gendered behavior or social context. This not directly visible “cultural genital” [7] which is expected to be there “exists in a cultural sense if the person […] is assumed to have it.” ([8], p. 154).

First, for the gender attributions and the subjective confidence ratings, we tested whether we could replicate the general tendency concerning the dominance of the penis in the attribution process. Second, we analyzed different eye movement measures to further investigate the viewing patterns for the different stimuli.

With the present study we aimed to investigate whether the supposed dominance of the penis in gender attribution, as described by Kessler and McKenna, could still be replicated almost three decades later and to investigate how analyzing eye movements could help understand the attribution process.