The Sex Difference Evangelists

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July 7 2008 10:10 AM

The Sex Difference Evangelists

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

In talking about sex differences, it's easy to assume that what you see is what you get—on average, women are better listeners, men are better navigators, and those patterns of thinking and motivation are relatively fixed. But this isn't necessarily so.

Consider this famous example from the 1990s: Before taking a math exam, some women were told that the results had "shown gender differences in the past." These women performed worse on the test than other women with comparable math backgrounds. This is the famous concept of stereotype threat, introduced by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aaronson and studied by scores of others. In one case, watching a set of TV ads, including one with a woman " 'drooling' with anticipation to try a new brownie mix," seemed to affect how female students answered questions about their educational and career interests. Women who saw the caricaturing ads were less likely to express interest in quantitative pursuits. The ads didn't seem to affect men, presumably because they didn't feel subtly associated with the shallow brownie maven. On the other hand, stereotype threat may kick some men in the teeth when it comes to social sensitivity—an area in which they're widely stereotyped as dolts.

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Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon discuss the myth of Mars and Venus:

The point is that playing up sex differences can be subtly toxic. At its worst, it risks turning stereotypes into self-fulfilling prophecies. The better news is that stereotype threat can be disarmed. One striking example is a 2007 study of a top-track calculus class, designed for science and engineering majors, at the University of Texas. This is a pool from which top math and science professionals would be drawn—"the group Larry Summers was talking about," as Aronson puts it. At the beginning of a calculus exam, he gave some of the women in the class a statement that the test had "not shown any gender differences in performance or mathematical ability." These women scored substantially higher on average than their female classmates. They also performed better on average than their male classmates.

Despite such striking findings, stereotype threat is simply missing from Susan Pinker's picture. She acknowledges that discrimination held women back in the past but thinks we've gotten largely beyond this. After "four decades of trying to stamp out gender differences," today's male prevalence among top scientists largely reflects essentialist sex differences, she thinks—in abilities and also, especially, in men and women's interests and motivations. She believes we'd be happier if we just accepted our differing tendencies and moved on. Pinker wants us to give traditionally female fields more respect. (She also sensibly urges that a "vanilla male" model of work—long hours, heavy travel, little time with family—isn't necessarily right for women. I won't tackle those structural questions here, except to say that the "male vanilla" model isn't necessarily great for men, either.) More problematically, Pinker takes unfair aim at programs to attract women to math and science, arguing that they "reinforce the cachet of fields that appeal more to men."

But how much sense does it make to downplay current discrimination to the point of sweeping by it altogether? The evidence tells us of the effects of disparities in how boys and girls are perceived and in the pressures they face throughout their lives. We can't know whether biological differences steer fewer women to the top of math and science unless we first address the myriad factors that hold them back. As Spelke puts it: "We should allow all of the evidence that men and women have equal cognitive capacity to permeate through society. We should allow people to evaluate children in relation to their actual capacities." Then we would see whether boys and girls are drawn in different directions.

Maybe they would be. Maybe Pinker has jumped the gun, and the evidence will someday bear her out. And yet if history is any guide, today's gender breakdowns are likely to keep changing. What's so magical, after all, about the current numbers? A few decades ago, most biology and math majors were men. So were most doctors. Now math undergraduate majors split close to 50/50. In 1976, only 8 percent of Ph.D.s in biology went to women; by 2004, 44 percent did. Today, half of M.D.s go to women. Even in engineering, physics, chemistry, and math, the number of women receiving doctorates tripled or quadrupled between 1976 and 2001. Why assume that we have just now reached some natural limit?

Brizendine and Pinker both avoid saying that biology is destiny, and in an interview, Pinker was adamant that she should not be read this way. She is too sophisticated to argue that cognitive differences are entirely intrinsic—she knows the old nature-versus-nurture dichotomy is dead. But her book's emphasis on developmental evidence and hormones—and her one-sided treatment of key areas of research—steers readers to the conclusion that innate differences, perhaps modified or amplified by culture, are vitally important. And to a large extent, intractable. Brizendine manipulates readers in the same way, less subtly (and to the tune of higher sales).

Why does the evangelists' vision of polarized and relatively fixed sex difference have so much traction right now? Why are they the crowd pleasers? As Deborah Cameron points out in The Myth of Mars and Venus, which reads as a helpful antidote to the evangelists: "No group of men and women in history have ever been less different, or less at the mercy of their biology, than those living in Western society today." And maybe, paradoxically, this explains the evangelists' tenacious hold. Having more women in the workplace and more men involved in child care and household work has produced a lot of friction and enormous cultural anxiety. Mars-and-Venus-style books can be hugely reassuring, telling people that their struggles and doubts are rooted in age-old biology. Cameron adds dryly: "I would argue that they displace the anxieties rather than having anything very useful to say about them."

Useful, however, isn't the only measure of success. Brizendine's book has now been translated into 21 languages. Surely that was not lost on Susan Pinker, who came next. Other writers will surely follow them. But we don't have to fall for what they're selling. It's time to stop buying the line that it's radical to speculate about innate differences. And to stop accepting, when the evidence is thin, that innate difference is the unrelenting cause of gender gaps in ability or potential or the courses our lives take. Look closely at the science, and what becomes clear is that the question worth a raft of best-sellers is not how we could be limited by traditional assumptions. It's how we could not be.

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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