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Gender: The Last Word

Sex differences may not be as clear-cutas they seem.

What does all the research say about why men are men and women are fed up? Why ask why?

Once upon a time, men were men, women were women, and anyone who rocked the boat got eaten by sharks. Men walked tall, lords of everything they surveyed--including women. It was the natural order of things; any gibbon could tell you that. The truth was that women weren't really necessary at all, even for reproduction, since the mighty sperm carried the blueprint for life. Women were mere biological incubators. Which may explain why the 17th-century scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the first person to see bacteria under a microscope, also saw "exceedingly minute forms of men with arms, heads, and legs" inside sperm.

Well, in vitro veritas, as they used to say.

Fast forward to a time of fax machines and heart transplants, when real men change diapers and real women carry guns. A time when it's not always easy to pinpoint what traits are strictly male or female. Norms change quickly, and one decade's meat is another's high-cholesterol poison. So, today, how should we differentiate between sex (innate, physiological) and gender (socialized, learned) differences?

Or, perhaps a better question is: Should we even be discussing it at all?

There are three kinds of lies, said Mark Twain: lies, damn lies, and statistics. And however gingerly one steps through the minefield that is the study of biological sex differences, one cannot help but be struck by all kinds of intellectual and statistical rubbish.

Take the case of the AGS girls.

Back in the 1950s, before we knew that acronyms and pharmacology could be hazardous to our health, some pregnant women were given the synthetic steroid progestin. Which led, in turn, to some female fetuses receiving, in utero, a dose of androgens (male hormones, chiefly testosterone). Unremarkable in itself (drugs causing side effects, what a revolutionary concept!), these girls were born with adrenogenital syndrome (AGS)--meaning they had masculinized genitalia requiring surgical correction.

Enter Doreen Kimura, a 30-year veteran of neuropsychology, whom Scientific American dubbed "perhaps the world's authority" on sex differences. "There are less obvious aspects of female/maleness [other than physical height and weight] such as aggressiveness, nurturance, and intellectual style or ability." The reason, she says, lies in the one piece of genetic equipment men and women don't share: the sex chromosome. More precisely, she claims that prenatal hormones so affect the developing fetus that "from the start, environment is acting on differently wired brains in girls and boys."

Emphasis on the prenatal, boys and girls. As for the AGS girls, the fact that they behaved more "tomboyish and aggressive than their unaffected sisters," says Kimura, provides "compelling" evidence that hormones do, in fact, seal your sexual fate.

Uh, hold on, let's backtrack here. Tomboyish?? Now there's a word that zips us back a quick century or two. For a long time, as you'll no doubt recall, femininity was just another word for delicacy, modesty, gentleness--and weakness. Of course, constricting clothes and corsets can work wonders at ensuring compliance. Heck, even when I was a kid, little girls couldn't wear pants to school--and I've got the scabby knees to prove it. So how did the retrogressive term " tomboyish," a social value judgment if ever I heard one, become part of scientific "proof"?

In addition, in "objective" observations of these girls at play, psychologists noted that they preferred rough-and-tumble play and opted for "typically masculine toys--for example, they played with cars for the same amount of time normal boys did." Well, as a matter of fact, I was the nerdiest bookworm that ever lived, and I've always preferred cars to babies. Anyway, scads of studies show that girls happily play with trucks, trains, or any other boy toys, provided no boys are around to stop them.

Still, language aside, what about these girls, "normal" except for that brief exposure to male hormones? These girls were not normal at all, not unless you consider a tiny penis and scrotum normal for a girl. Goodness knows what effect this extreme genital ambiguity had on them--and their parents.

In a different case study, in a freak accident, a baby boy's penis was burned off during what was supposed to be a routine circumcision by electrocautery. After some agonizing soulsearching, the parents decided to authorize sex-change surgery to turn him into a her. (Wait for it, it gets weirder.) Amazingly, this boy had an identical twin brother, which made it possible to compare two genetically identical individuals raised as a boy and a girl. (Never mind the fact that the boy's hormone-producing testes were removed--remember we're talking about prenatal influences here.)

The upshot? Except for some tomboyish tendencies (sorry), our hero became the perfect little girl, the very picture of adorable femininity. She even asked for a doll house for Christmas, versus the toy garage her brother had wanted.

Such dramatics aren't necessary to show how differently we treat boys and girls. In a British study, the same baby was dressed alternately as a boy or girl. As a girl, the baby was held and cooed at: "Aren't you pretty?" The "boy," on the other hand, was not held, encouraged to explore, cheered on. Which reminds Barbara Ehrenreich, biologist, author, and essayist, of something that happened when her son was around two years old: "He had long, blond hair, and a waitress came up to us and said, 'Oh, she's so cute. What a sweetie,' and so on. And I said, 'Well, he's actually a boy.' The waitress, without missing a beat, said, 'Tough little guy, huh?'"

Now you or I might look at all this and take it as a front-row seat at the Nature/Nurture Open; still, there are those, such as Kimura, who don't buy it. "The conventional wisdom has been that behavioral differences between the sexes are learned," she says. But they are really "stamped into our brains before birth." Early hormonal events, she says, have a "lifelong, irreversible effect on behavior." What behavior? "Men are more accurate in tests of target-directed motor skills [discus throwers take note]. Women tend to be better at rapidly identifying matching items (like socks from a dryer?), a skill called perceptual speed. They have greater verbal fluency and are faster at certain precision manual tasks, such as placing pegs in designated holes on a board [something I know I've always been proud of]."

Like Kimura, the list of differences is precise, authoritative, firm. But is it suspect? Aside from the language of researchers, isn't the datum itself contradictory, depending on one's vantage point?

As I researched this topic, I found that various people I talked to argued for significant innate sex differences, just like Kimura. Parents in particular repeatedly insisted (eyes raised heavenward) that boys run around more, talk less, are more destructive, while girls chatter, are more biddable and cuddly. "And I treat my kids exactly the same," they all say.

Short of accusing one's friends of lying, all one can do is wonder. If little Johnny showed a predilection for pink hair ribbons or nail polish, wouldn't these same gender-blind parents gently but firmly dissuade him? And if little Kathy ladies mud soup out of a tiny dish and pretends she's Mommy, isn't she just the cutest thing? While I absolve the parents of any malice, I agree with anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, who remarked that theories are most successful when they let us believe that our "social prejudices are scientific facts after all."

In the wacky world of sex versus gender differences, the demarcation lines are as clear as any Yugoslavian border, particularly in these enlightened, polarized times: You're either a politically correct stooge unwilling to accept that biology is destiny or you're a strong-minded scientist, studying hormones or the hypothalamus. In which context, incidentally, aforesaid strong-minded scientist can ramble on about his or her own personal experiences and call it empirical evidence.

Take this 1991 Time magazine cover, for instance: "Scientists are discovering that gender differences have as much to do with the biology of the brain as the way we are raised." Inside, however, University of Chicago psychologist Jerre Levy relates how watching her 15-month-old daughter convinced her of the genetic base for behavior: "I had dressed her in her nightie and she came into the room with this saucy little walk, cocking her head, blinking her eyes, especially at the men. You never saw such flirtation in your life."

Pardon me? A 15-month-old? Flirting? Ah, let's project complex adult erotic feelings onto a small child, why don't we? Kimura doesn't hesitate to use herself as backup, either, describing her use of landmarks to find her car in a crowded parking lot as being "stereotypically female" behavior. Interesting that if you or I use personal experience, it's anecdote. But not here.

Throughout all of this, I can't help noticing how pathetically meager is the range of attributions for female behavior. If girls play with cars, they're ersatz boys. They aren't attracted to cars because the automobile represents freedom, power, status, speed.

Even more infuriating is how sex-difference research always manages to denigrate women. In the early 80s, for instance, Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley analyzed 10,000 SAT scores, whereupon they announced to the world that males are "inherently" superior at math. The world was clearly impressed. "Do males have a math gene?" wondered Newsweek. (Good old math gene. Wonder if there's a sense of humor gene, too?) Benbow herself even remarked that "many women can't bring themselves to accept the sexual difference in aptitude. But the difference in math is a fact."

(The best riposte I heard to this was Jane Pauley's, on the Today show. Does this mean, Pauley sweetly asked two male biodeterminist guests, that men who can't do math aren't "real men"?)

Call me curmudgeonly, but last I heard, SATs measured learning, not innate ability. And recently, the questions themselves have come under fire for their gender bias. For instance, 27 percent more boys than girls correctly answered a question based on basketball scores. And when an analogy began "Mercenary is to soldier as...," boys outscored girls by 16 percent. (I guess Barbie just never found the right outfit for the French Foreign Legion.)

In fact, what the SATs need, quipped Glamour, are questions like, "Donna's chemistry teacher calls on boys 75 percent of the time. If there are twice as many boys as girls in the class, what is the chance that Donna will become a famous scientist?"

Slim. Because whether Donna knows it or not, girls' scholastic performance nosedives at puberty. (Gee, I wonder why that could be? Hormones?) "Unless nature selected for smart girls and dumb women, something goes very wrong at the middle-school level," writes Barbara Ehrenreich. Maybe it's teachers who call on and encourage boys more. Or maybe it's the high-school politics that equate good grades with terminal geekdom. Even more important than teachers, though, is girls' growing realization that straight As aren't necessarily the fastest way to point B (for boyfriend).

"Males [still] tend to prefer females who make them feel stronger and smarter," says Ehrenreich. "Any girl who's bright enough to solve a quadratic equation is smart enough to bat her eyelashes and pretend she can't."

Psychologist Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin recalls discussing her SAT scores with colleague Marcia Linn after the Benbow and Stanley study. "Here we were, sitting and talking to each other and trying to figure out why we aren't good at math," she laughs. "Marcia got an 800 on the SAT and I got a 780." Hyde's interest is not incidental: to examine gender differences in mathematics performance, she analyzed results from more than three million subjects. The conclusion? "Approximately 51.5 percent of females score above the mean for the general population versus 48.5 percent of men. Thus, the overall-effect size is so small that it indicates little practical significance."

Even more interesting, what differences there were have declined over the years. "Women's hormones haven't changed in the last 20 years, but we found that the magnitude of the gender differences declined," says Hyde. Verbal ability? Gone. Spatial ability? Gone, except for three-dimensional rotation, where boys still do better. (Boys play a lot more games that involve throwing balls through three-dimensional space.) "And if a phenomenon can disappear, how could it have been biologically correct?"

In any event, intellectual similarities between women and men far outweigh the differences. Yet while biology is no longer an acceptable reason for barring women from higher education, the innate-difference argument is still used to rationalize why female engineers, architects, or brain surgeons are rare. "Boys don't go into nursing," says Kimura, "because they're less nurturing than girls." Oh, are we talking about Florence Nightingale here? Because nursing happens to be one of the most violent professions--after police work and taxi driving. Shouldn't men, physically stronger, be the more natural candidates?

"Everything starts as mystique and ends up as politics," someone once scrawled on a wall in Paris. And politics is exactly what the sex-difference debate is about. Not the politically correct "Who's the victim?" game we're so fond of these days ("Pick me, I'm a woman!" "No, me, I'm a straight white male"), but a subtler divide that rationalizes history and obscures rationality. The smug empiricists of neuroscience are telling me that, as a female, my genetic lot is inferior. Doomed by my DNA, I must be nurturing (I am. So what? So are all the men I know); bad at math (wrong); useless with maps (okay, I confess, I prefer landmarks); good at precision tasks (lousy at them--no patience).

On the flip side, the implication is that those wonderful fathers I know (like my own) are some sort of evolutionary anomaly. That men of letters (like Yeats, who luckily didn't realize he shouldn't excel at verbal tasks) are somehow lacking as real men. And that men who hate cars and like babies are pseudo-females.

To give researchers such as Kimura their mathematical due, they make no claims about the individual. "If you're guessing on the basis of a person being a woman what her abilities are going to be, you're going to do a very poor job," Kimura says. "When I study sex differences, I feel like I'm studying human variation. It's important to make that distinction."

But how many people reading Newsweek do make that distinction? Especially when Kimura herself makes vast, sweeping generalizations about how boys shouldn't be nurses or girls engineers. Hyde reports (with some heat) that after the girls-can't-do-math flurry, psychologist Jackie Eccles, in a longitudinal study, found that mothers who had read the news reports subsequently had lower expectations of their daughters' math competence than before.

Differences, alas, make headlines. "A no-result isn't news," says Ehrenreich. "But a result showing any kind of teensy-weensy intellectual or behavioral difference is."

Again, part of the problem lies in the language, this time of statistics. Words like " significant" or "average" mean something very different to the average (see what I mean?) person than they do to those versed in the study of raw data. Then there's experimenter bias, Crude tests, even nonverbal nuances. For instance, psychologist Robert Rosenthal observed that more than 70 percent of male experimenters smiled when they gave instructions to female subjects; only 12 percent smiled at males. "It may be heartening to know that chivalry is not dead," Rosenthal said. "But it's disconcerting [vis-a-vis] methodology."

Nevertheless, simply substituting environmental determinism won't work, either. Our brains have around one million billion neural connections; if you started counting them now, you'd finish in 32 million years (and by then you'd have evolved into a higher being with more important things to worry about). And the operative word here is individual. Even within one culture, one society, there is immense variability, enormous complexity.

If there are neuropsychological sex differences, clearly, we don't know what they are or what causes them. Perhaps to the point, whatever differences have been tallied in the past are gone, or are disappearing rapidly. In the end, there may be subtle differences, but don't bet any real money on these ever predicting who'll be the better nurse or engineer.

Because however much we yearn for simple truths, there aren't any here.