The Female Brain
In spite of what happened to Larry Summers, research into the differences between male and female brains seems to be all the rage these days. And the conclusions are fascinating:
Brizendine uses those differences to explain everything from why teenage girls feverishly swap text messages during class, to why women fake orgasms to why menopausal women leave their husbands.
So the next time parents scold their daughters for excessive text messaging, consider Brizendine’s neurological explanation:
“Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm.”
Part road map for women looking for scientific explanations for their behavior, part geeky manual for relationship woes, “The Female Brain” already has become fodder for the morning chat shows. On the “Today” show this week, one critic downplayed the book’s explanation of gender differences, saying men and women are “more like North Dakota and South Dakota.”
Brizendine’s goal isn’t man-bashing (despite snippets like “the typical male brain reaction to an emotion is to avoid it at all costs”). Instead, she celebrates the differences.
“There is no unisex brain,” Brizendine writes. “Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different by the time they’re born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values and their very reality.”
The thing about girls and text messaging won’t suprise most parents, I suspect.
The Economist has two articles on this same subject this week. First:
Technology and globalisation are undermining the usefulness of male skills. Take map-reading. The female tendency to call for five right turns while holding the map upside down, playing “I spy” with the children and remarking on interesting features of the local half-timbering has been attested to over many decades by impartial scientists as well as by irritated husbands. But once satellite navigation rendered the ability to tell the cartographic difference between a car park and a lake redundant, that aspect of male superiority disappeared out of the window, along with the crucial pages of the road atlas that the toddler removed while practising his superior hand-eye co-ordination skills.
Men, studies show, are exceedingly good at rotating three-dimensional shapes in their head. Perhaps women once stared open-mouthed in wonder as their mates juggled pyramids of imaginary polyhedra. Such tricks are also quite handy for engineers who specialise in building large bits of machinery, digging tunnels or slinging bridges across rivers. But, now that the rich world has about as many tunnels and bridges as it needs, and the large bits of machinery which aren’t made by computers and robots are made by the Chinese, their usefulness is limited.
Modern professional life is dominated by management, which these days sets high store by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody’s confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word. Such skills are likely to have a greater influence on their lifetime earnings than the ability to spin an icosahedron.
This conclusion may be true, but the articles also mention that males are generally better at problem solving, and there will no doubt be more of those. We’re not obsolete yet.
Another proposal to explain the lack of women professors of maths and science is that even if there is little or no difference in average ability, there might be differences in the variation around this average, with more men found in the tails of the distribution curve and fewer in the middle. In other words, among males there are more idiots and more prodigies. One study of IQ, covering everyone born in Scotland in 1932, supports this idea. It showed that there were more women in the middle of the distribution, but more men at both of the extremes.
The question raised by Dr Summers does get to the heart of the matter. Over the past 50 years, women have made huge progress into academia and within it. Slowly, they have worked their way into the higher echelons of discipline after discipline. But some parts of the ivory tower have proved harder to occupy than others. The question remains, to what degree is the absence of women in science, mathematics and engineering caused by innate, immutable ability?
Innate it may well be. That does not mean it is immutable. Spatial ability is amenable to training in both sexes. And such training works. The difference between the trained and the untrained has a d value of 0.4, and one programme to teach spatial ability improved the retention rate of women in engineering courses from 47% to 77%. Biology may predispose, but even in the rugged world of metal bashing, it is not necessarily destiny.
That last paragraph is what was so galling in the response to Larry Summers. Knowledge can be used for both good and evil, but it’s rarely a good idea to stick your head in the sand and say you don’t want to know. That’s what Larry Summers’s critics were saying and they were wrong.