So how different are men and women really? This article from The Economist examines some of the latest research into sex differences in behavior, concluding that they are real but often not easy to interpret and in many cases smaller than imagined. Of particular interest was an analysis of “all the important meta-analyses that have been conducted on differences between the sexes” (does that make it a meta-meta-analysis?) carried out by Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Less than a quarter of the meta-analyses she looked at showed a significant difference between men and women on the average measures of whatever trait they were examining. This article goes into some of the interesting wrinkles in research into traits such as aggressiveness and verbal ability. Overall this article seemed fairly sensitive to the complexities of research into sex differences in behavior.
Coincidentally, I also ran across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a new book by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain. The book covers studies across a range of disciplines on female/male differences, and also is informed by Brizendine’s work as a clinical psychiatriast working specifically with women and teenaged girls. This sounds like a fascinating read for thinking-meat types, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I think it’s been silly for sex difference research to be judged politically incorrect in some circles, especially among those who fear that it would provide a basis for “biology is destiny” arguments against equal rights for women. It’s obvious to me that there are innate differences between the male and female brain, and I’m very curious, as Brizendine evidently is, about how these differences interact with our social environment to create individual personalities. However, at least judging by what the review says, it sounds almost like the book goes too far in emphasizing the differences (the references to John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” books didn’t help any) and assuming that all women are more like each other than in fact I think they really are. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of saying that workplaces should accommodate employees who are mothers because women, according to Brizendine, “are wired to take care of children, and they want that time and need that time.” There are plenty of things that people are wired to want to do, and that in no way obligates anyone else to help them do them. A much more sensible argument, to me, is that raising children is an important part of the necessary work of the world and should be treated with the respect, compensation, and support due to any other form of necessary work. (And furthermore, not all women are equally motivated to take care of children, and plenty of men derive great satisfaction from being parents too. I don’t like the thought of urging employers that all women should be thought of as potential child-bearers who will want to take time away from their jobs to fulfill their need to nurture their children.)
Maybe the book is more nuanced than it appears from the review; I’ll have to read it and find out. But I tend to resist any approach that exaggerates the differences between the sexes and over-emphasizes the similarities between women. To me the most interesting thing is the way that innate biological differences, individual circumstances, and cultural influences shape distinctive personalities and situations. I like to take people on a a case-by-case basis rather than concluding that because they are male or female they automatically possess a certain set of traits. Understanding the average differences in behavior between men and women, and the evolution and biochemistry behind them, is a fascinating pursuit, and knowing that on average men and women will behave differently and want different things is often useful. However, the statistics given at the end of this review give me pause; if they are averages, they are averaged over so broad a range as to be meaningless. The list says they are “neurological differences” but the last one, about women over 50 being more likely to initiate divorce (than whom? younger women, or men over 50, or what?) is simply a statistic about behavior. The first item on the list, though, may be neurological but makes me wonder what on earth it’s based on: “Thoughts about sex enter women’s brains once every couple of days; for men, thoughts about sex occur every minute.” Really, every minute? OK, it’s an average, but if for men the average is every minute, and I suspect there are men for whom “every couple of days” is overstating it, there must be men for whom it’s even more often than every minute, which seems a bit unlikely to me (for one thing, when does it stop being a discrete thought every XX seconds and become a single thought?). And I can tell you for a fact that for this woman’s brain, thoughts about sex visit much more often than every couple of days. It varies depending on a host of factors, but it’s usually far more frequent than that. In general, I would guess that yes, sex often preoccupies most men to a greater degree than it does most women. But for any individual it depends on age, relationship status, health, job pressures, and money worries, to name just a few of the factors involved, and I’m sure there are women who at their least interested still think about sex more often than some men at their most interested. So it strikes me as meaningless to try to quantify the intervals for males and females and expect people to gain some understanding from that.
All this, of course, assumes that the review faithfully reflects the content of the book, and that may not be true. But still, I appreciated the approach of the piece in The Economist much more than I did the tone of this review.