Uncovering Gender

Women Are Brainy; That's All We Know for Now

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Caryl Rivers says Dr. Louann Brizendine's latest book, "The Male Brain," tosses another log onto the media blaze about men and women having their "natural" places.

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Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

Another Log Onto Media Blaze

women are brainy"The Male Brain" unfortunately tosses another log onto the media blaze about men and women having their "natural" places.

Men are the thinkers, the systemizers, the rationalists. Women are the carers and the feelers.

Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen--who wrote the book "The Essential Difference" (2004)--says that males are good at leadership, decision-making and achievement, while females are suited for "making friends, mothering, gossiping and 'reading' your partner." (He has been quoted in The New York Times, in a Newsweek cover story, in a PBS documentary and in many other major media outlets.)

Baron-Cohen bases his claims on one study, conducted in his lab in 2000, of day-old infants purporting to show that baby boys looked longer at mobiles, while day-old baby girls looked longer at human faces.

Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, utterly demolished this study. It has never been replicated, nor has it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, she reported.

Spelke found the study lacked critical controls against experimenter bias and was not well-designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent's lap and shown, side-by-side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can't hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.

Moreover, a long line of literature flat out contradicts Baron-Cohen's study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond similarly to people and objects. (Brizendine cites the Baron-Cohen study with nary a nod to the critics.)

Even books that try to boost women can fall into this trap.

Difference Not Due to Brain Size

In "The Natural Leadership Talents of Women" (2005), Helen E. Fisher claims women have superior relationship abilities because of the larger size of their corpus callosums, the nerve cables connecting the halves of the brain.

"So it's not surprising that women already hold over 60 percent of jobs in the booming service sector of the world economy--another way they lead," she says in the book.

But peer-reviewed research finds no difference between men and women in the size of the corpus callosum. If women hold so many jobs in the service sector it's not because of their brains. Maybe it's because those jobs tend be lower-level ones that do not lead to the CEO track, where the power is. Steering women towards "caring, relational jobs" keeps them out of the highest-level positions.

We have to tread lightly in the area of brain research, because of its dismal history.

In the Victorian era, scientists packed cadaver skulls of white and black females and white and black males with lead pellets to measure brain size. The larger size of the white male brains, it was argued, meant that white males were the natural lords of creation, while the brains of white and black women and black men were "childlike" in comparison. (Researchers used the brains of Hottentots, a group of blacks very small in stature, to rig the results.)

We now know, of course, that slightly larger brains do not make men more intelligent than women. But this "science" helped keep women out of universities and out of the voting booths for years.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and co-author of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs," with Dr. Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis.

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