The Sex Difference Evangelists

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July 1 2008 7:50 AM

The Sex Difference Evangelists

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If there's one question we never tire of, it's whether men and women speak or feel or think in fundamentally different ways. Do women talk more than men? Are their brains hard-wired for empathy? Can innate differences explain men's and women's career choices? This is today's iteration of Mars and Venus, and it's everywhere.

Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon examine the science behind claims about sex difference and the brain.

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

The preoccupation plays out in marketing to women and tips on dating, like products designed to "attract women by GETTING THEM TO TRUST YOU." It infiltrates magazine stories, TV, and radio. Grounding the trend and giving it traction are a handful of scientists and clinicians who have made themselves over into sex-difference evangelists. Two women in particular exemplify this move, and as self-described feminists, their work is often accorded special credence. Louann Brizendine, a psychiatrist at U.C.-San Francisco, hit the best-seller list in 2006 with The Female Brain, a book that could "change the conversation at any social gathering," as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it. Brizendine argues that "outstanding verbal agility" and "a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind" are "hardwired into the brains of women." Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker drove home similar claims this spring with The Sexual Paradox, which argues that innate psychological differences between men and women are vitally important and too often underestimated. These writers cast themselves as reluctant truth-tellers: "I have chosen to emphasize scientific truth over political correctness," Brizendine writes.

But are she and Pinker, in fact, fearlessly revealing? Do they show us a deep mental chasm between the sexes?

The bottom line from the science should really be this: Some differences between the minds of men and women exist. But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender. To be fair, Brizendine and Pinker intermittently acknowledge this point, and they translate complex material for a wide audience, which necessarily involves simplification. They get credit for trying.

But in the end they don't leave their readers with the correct, if unsensational, impression, which is that men and women's minds are highly similar.

Both authors push the science further than it really goes, often brushing past uncertainties or making confused evidence appear clear-cut. Even on the most hotly contested questions—like whether women have better verbal skills, or are hard-wired for empathy, or have cognitive differences that limit their advancement in math and science—the case for large, innate disparities is messy and, for the most part, underwhelming. This is especially true when it comes to neural and hormonal claims, which tend to be controversial. These writers offer canny caveats about culture and its role in gender difference. But they tend to imply that if a difference has innate roots, it's likely to be relatively fixed. And that's not necessarily so. In crucial ways, the mind is malleable. Ultimately, the evangelists aren't really daring to be politically incorrect. They're peddling one-sidedness, sprinkled with scientific hyperbole.