Mars, Venus still gender benders
by Sarah Baxter
February 12, 2005
IT IS bedtime and my seven-year-old daughter and I are reading Little House on the Prairie, the tale of a pioneer family that mixes daring adventure with cosy domesticity.
My son, aged four, is telling his father that he does not want any more stories: "Tell me about science experiments." His nursery school has shown him how air can get trapped in a bottle of liquid and he has become fascinated. His father begins to explain that all the colours of the rainbow are contained within white light. He listens attentively and falls asleep content.
The next day Larry Summers, the head of Harvard, drops his bombshell. There may be "innate" differences in the ability of women and men to understand science and mathematics, he tells an academic seminar. A female professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is so distressed that she practically swoons. "I just couldn't breathe this kind of bias makes me ill," she says.
Summers has been apologising for his remarks almost daily ever since. But what if he were to be proved right? What if women do have less of a gift for science?
For some indignant feminists the very question is irrelevant. "It's like asking who was greater, Picasso or Einstein," says Dr Rosalind Miles, author of Women's History of the World. "What is material is that men have systematically, culturally, religiously and physically held women back throughout history."
Others point to the roll call of great women scientists such as Marie Curie, born in Poland, who won the Nobel Prize for her research into radioactivity.
I have been puzzled by my own knowledge gap since I was a girl. As a child, maths and chemistry were among my best subjects. At about the age of 13, though, the concepts suddenly went over my head and I dropped from being an A student to a borderline F.
It is true that plenty of my girlfriends continued to excel at science in fact they often turned out to be talented musicians and linguists with a sound grasp of Shakespeare as well as physics. But the question of the differences between the sexes continued to nag me when I went to work for Virago, the feminist publisher, in the early 1980s.
In those heady days it was taken for granted that anything men could do, we could do as well or better, be it plumbing or atom-splitting, as long as we had equality of opportunity and a gender-neutral upbringing. It was an inspiring thought.
Yet we were also supposed to be weaving spiderwebs with knitting yarn around Greenham Common's US air base in an intellectually insulting celebration of our "wimminhood".
So what were we: socially constructed or biologically determined; different but equal; the same as men only nicer? Or, in the language of pop psychology, were men from Mars and women from Venus?
One case illustrates the folly of ignoring biology. In a heartbreaking example of misguided social engineering, a male twin named David Reimer was transformed into a girl in the early 1960s. His penis had been accidentally burnt off by an electrocautery needle when he was circumcised at eight months. In despair, his young and poorly educated parents turned to Dr. John Money, an expert in gender identity at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who believed babies were born gender-neutral. He recommended a sex change.
David became Brenda, a sister to his brother Brian, offering an enticing academic opportunity to study nature versus nurture. Their tale under a pseudonym was hailed by Time magazine for showing "strong support for the major contention of women's liberationists: that conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behaviour can be altered".
But the reality for the little "girl" was devastating. By the age of two Brenda was tearing off her dresses, beating up her brother and snatching his guns and trucks. Even though she was pumped with female hormones and was given a rudimentary vagina, she was teased at school for being butch and for peeing standing up. She told her parents that she did not feel like a girl.
Unable to bear the pretence any longer, Brenda's parents told her the truth at 14 and she underwent a series of operations to turn back into David. "Suddenly it all made sense. I wasn't some sort of weirdo, I wasn't crazy," he recalled. He went on to marry a supportive woman, Jane, but was haunted by his upbringing. Last May, at the age of 38, David sawed off the barrel of his shotgun and killed himself.
What he went through was an exaggerated form of something that Summers had noticed while observing his daughter at play. As a toddler she named the trucks she was given "Daddy truck" and "Baby truck", suggesting that she was more interested in playing mummy than in mechanical engineering.
Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the world's foremost experts on autism and professor of psychology at Cambridge University. His book, The Essential Difference, published by Penguin in 2003, was praised in The New York Times last week for offering a "historic breakthrough" on the subject of the differences between the sexes.
A decade ago he feared that he would never able to write it: "I was worried that people would think it was politically incorrect. There was plenty of evidence that men had more spatial abilities, such as map reading, and that women talked earlier, were more verbal and able to communicate, but in the 1960s and 1970s it was put down to parenting. Today it is recognised that there may be a partly genetic component."
He admitted that as the father of two boys and a girl, watching his own children develop was instructive: "It was a big eye-opener for me to see how my oldest boy was into toy vehicles. You wonder where this comes from in a two-year-old." A vehicle, he explained, appeals to men and boys because they are interested in laws and systems: "It's very different to the world of emotions and feelings."
In one experiment at a hospital maternity ward, he presented a smiling human face and a mechanical mobile to newborn babies. Already girls were more attracted to the face and boys to the object. He also showed that gender differences were not just genetic but also hormonal. With the help of women who were having amniocentesis, he was able to measure the amount of testosterone produced by the foetus. The more testosterone was present, the less babies were able to make eye contact and develop language quickly.
Men, he suggested, have a predominantly S-type brain, which means that they are drawn to constructing and understanding systems, while women have mostly E-type brains and are good at empathy and communications. It is in our hardwiring.
Having pondered Summers's comments, Baron-Cohen is of the opinion that the head of Harvard "may be right that biological factors are producing sex differences in the mind, which are further acted on by the social environment".
Perhaps it makes sense that even the most talented women scientists are steered towards more verbal professions such as medicine, while men are encouraged to pursue pure research.
As Baron-Cohen found in his research, not all men have a male brain: "For every 10 men, six will have a male brain, two will have a balanced brain and two will have a female brain." As for women, "four will have a female brain, four will have a balanced brain and two will have a male brain".
By his reckoning, more than half the female population shows some aptitude for systems.
Even Charles Murray, whose recent book on human accomplishment and civilisation was cutting about the lack of contributions from women, argued recently: "We may find that innate differences give men, as a group, an edge over women in producing, say, terrific mathematicians. But what matters is that all women with the potential to become terrific mathematicians have full opportunity to do so."
I would agree with that. My daughter wants to learn cooking and loves her pink and purple “My Little Ponies”, but so far maths is her favourite subject.
The Sunday Times
© The Australian
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