(WOMENSENEWS)–Some people think that biological differences between women and men are reason enough for the lopsided distribution of men and women over occupations and on the career ladder.
In April 2013, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones told an audience of students, alumni and others during a symposium at the University of Virginia, "As soon as that baby’s lips touch that girl’s bosom, forget it . . . You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men–period, end of story."
While Jones believes that women are just as capable as men, he believes they lose that ability when they become mothers. Jones explained, "Every single investment idea…every desire to understand what is going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed by the most beautiful experience…which a man will never share, about a mode of connection between that mother and that baby."
Others believe that the relative lack of women in leadership positions or among Nobel Prize-winning scientists results from differences between male and female brains. A lot of highly educated, respected intellectual and political leaders share this opinion. It is hard to blame them when neuroscientists keep announcing discoveries indicating that men’s and women’s brains are different. One of the most recent examples of this was a research paper published in December 2013 that inspired headlines in newspapers as well as on the BBC website. The scientists claimed that males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills. But even before that, highly esteemed academics and leaders held similar opinions.
Larry Summers, who as chief economist of the World Bank spoke so fervently in 1991 in favor of investing in education for girls, seems to harbor a belief in innate and immutable sex differences in cognitive abilities. In 2005, when president of Harvard University, Summers mused publicly that innate and immutable sex differences may be one of the reasons why only 20 percent of professors in science and engineering in the U.S.A. are women. Summers is a highly educated, well-read man, and he did not base his remarks simply on his own personal experience. Summers referred repeatedly to the work of University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California–Davis colleague Kimberlee A. Shauman, whose analysis of achievement test results shows a higher degree of variance in scores among men than among women.
Biological Explanation Comes Back
Just a year after Summers’ remarks, The Economist, the respected international periodical read by the world’s political and economic elite, reported that "biological explanations of human behavior are making a comeback." It asserted that it "is now widely accepted" that males and females "are programmed by evolution to behave differently from one another." The article described research indicating that behavioral sex differences are "hardwired" in our brains, and it included a long list of references to studies published in highly respected scientific journals.
The Economist article reported on a complete turnaround in thinking since the 1970s. At that time a lot of people believed that male-female differences in behavior were the result of upbringing, not brain wiring. The leading theory of the 1970s was that "nurture" was more influential on behavioral differences between men and women than "nature." It was thought that boys and girls are born essentially the same, but parenting and cultural milieu affect our style of thinking, our preferences and even our capabilities, interests and choices of careers. In fact, a lot of people–experts included–believed that if boys and girls were treated the same from birth, inequality between the sexes could even be eliminated. If you were born in that era, you might even recall that giving dolls to baby boys and trucks to baby girls became a fad.
So what happened to change popular opinion between the 1970s and now? Why did people change their minds and come to believe that nature is more influential than nurture?
You might be tempted to think that scientific discoveries had something to do with it, but you’d be wrong. The shift in thinking actually started with two best-selling self-help books in the early 1990s. The first was Deborah Tannen’s "You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation," and the second was John Gray’s "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." Neither of these books claimed that men and women were innately different in ways that affect their intellectual and psychological abilities; they simply presented some generalizations about how men and women communicate differently and offered suggestions about what they could do to communicate better with each other.
Popular Opinion Shifts
But following the publication of these two books interest in finding out if there are innate and immutable cognitive and psychological differences between the sexes surged. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, popular science books began appearing claiming that recent studies in neuroscience and psychology had revealed a number of brain-based sex differences to explain why men become scientists, doctors and leaders, while women become teachers, social workers and stay-at-home moms. Popular opinion began shifting towards the view that maybe men and women had provable "brain-based" neurological differences that result in sex differences in cognitive and emotional skills and capabilities.
The "men are from Mars" meme soon dominated the professional literature. Meanwhile, few people noticed that another flurry of popular science books had appeared, arguing that those earlier books misrepresented the research and misled the public. The newer books argued that the few innate behavioral and psychological sex differences that had been identified in human babies and children were simply not significant enough to account for either the persistently high degree of occupational segregation by sex or the relative absence of women in positions of leadership.
So which books and research should you believe? Can we be truly certain that innate biological sex differences explain more about behavioral and psychological sex differences than the way parents raise their children, how schools educate them or the influence of the media on boys and girls as they become men and women?
The brain-based explanations of behavioral differences between men and women constitute an area of tremendous confusion caused by conflicting scientific studies and at times even by misrepresentation and misuse of scientific findings. This kind of confusion can lead a lot of people to believe that it’s not worth investing more effort in achieving gender balance if nature limits what men and women can do anyway.
It’s time to stop focusing on sex differences and recognize the common humanity of both sexes instead.
Lynn Roseberry, LL.M., J.D., Ph.D., is a tenured professor of law in the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, the largest Danish university devoted to undergraduate and graduate business studies. She also serves as the school’s first equal opportunity officer. Johan Roos, Ph.D., is the CEO of Jönköping International Business School. Together they founded "On the Agenda," an international consulting firm that helps progressive organizations achieve gender-wise leadership and gender-balanced teams.
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