Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gender difference: science, or magical thinking?

I coach people who want to develop or improve their leadership skills. As it happens, I work more with women than men, and many assumptions are made about the differences in women's and men's communications styles, the way they lead, their inherent need to express themselves, etc.  So many times I find myself responding to statements that begin, "When women communicate they . . ." with "Well, yes, but . . ." Or hearing that the "female brain" is "hard-wired" to do this or that. It is all I can do to restrain myself from blurting out" "argh! The brain is not an electronic device!!"

I thought "conventional wisdom" had moved beyond such simplistic thinking: even Wikipedia has an entry on Neuroplasticity that describes how our brains change throughout our lives. Some of you may have seen my objections to the view that male and female are inherently different when I posted: Pink and Blue? What's Up With That?, written after a presentation by the Rosalind Barnett, author of The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children 

So I was thrilled to read, in Sunday's New York Times, the provocatively titled "Darwin Was Wrong About Dating". This op-ed written by author and journalist Dan Slater, deals primarily with several recent scientific studies that throw cold water on accepted theories of gender difference. Slater writes: "Lately, however, a new cohort of scientists have been challenging the very existence of the gender differences in sexual behavior that Darwinians have spent the past 40 years trying to explain and justify on evolutionary grounds."

Which raises this issue: if the differences don't exist here, where there might be a clear evolutionary reason for such gender differences, do they really exist at all? Later in the article Slater echoes what has been on my mind for quite some time: "This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve pushed these theories too far. How many stereotypical racial and ethnic differences, once declared evolutionarily determined under the banner of science, have been revealed instead as vestiges of power dynamics from earlier societies?" I think that is a question we would all like an answer to.

We had our share of mis-information about gender difference this election season in the U.S. (see Aiken, Todd et al.) I hope we have reached the extreme, and our pendulum is now swinging back toward more reasonable discourse. It's past time to come out from under the cloud of simplistic thinking about gender, sex and power. As Slater says, "given new research, continued rigid reliance on evolution as an explanation seems to risk elevating a limited guide to teleological status — a way of thinking that scientists should abhor. . . How far does Darwin go in explaining human behavior?"


  1. Ann, you have a good point. The "hard-wired" thing is simplistic and out-of-date. I have a blog post about the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain called "Pink Toys, Blue Toys". Lise Eliot is right: Nurture is as important as Nature.

    1. Thanks Gail. Maybe we can change a couple of minds between the two of us!

  2. http://artsandchildren.blogspot.com/
    Sorry, forgot to print the link!