Are Men and Women Wired Differently? Part 2

This was my response to the blog on gender differences in brain wiring introduced in the last post.

I read your rant with a sinking heart, in part because I can understand where you’re coming from. I understand the annoyance and pain of feeling once more disempowered because you’re “different” from the “dominant” cultural type.

obvious problem

obvious problem

I don’t know how old you are or what your experience has been of the various efforts to bring into being greater human justice, including allowing women to have choices in careers and finances and marriage and child-bearing. So I will just try to relate my own background and experience, with the hope it may help you to be less angry about such studies as the one you linked to.

I am a biomedical scientist, trained as an anatomist and cell biologist during the 1960s, at a time when there were virtually no women in the field; those who existed were embattled, and almost all were single. When I received the Ph.D. and was introduced to prospective employers, the dominant attitude was, “What do you think the future could possibly be for a woman in Anatomy?” It was a rhetorical question, as the obvious answer was slim to none.

I did an end run around the reluctant Anatomy Department chairmen by doing post-doctoral studies – first in biochemistry and then in histo-chemistry. It was while working in this latter lab (with a very good boss) that I was lucky enough to get a faculty job in Anatomy because someone had died and they needed to fill the faculty position in six weeks or lose it. It was during one of those periods of 1970s belt-tightening. It was also in the ’70s, that the women’s movement of the late 20th century took shape, and I was actively involved in trying to help pass the ERA in my state (of course, receiving some grief from male colleagues). The ERA failed to pass the requisite number of states (including mine) and I was devastated, probably feeling even greater disappointment than you felt reading the article on gender differences in brain wiring.

gender differences - salary

However, one of the things I learned by that effort (the ERA)–and its failure–was that feminists, when they are up in arms, often don’t pay attention to reality, especially biological reality. I believe that, to a considerable extent, we–and the ERA–were defeated by other women, who felt threatened by the idea that their roles as wives and mothers were being denigrated by women whose worldview they simply didn’t understand. Many feminists of that era seemed to feel contempt for the natural, biological roles of women. I wasn’t one of those, as I was a biologist, and a wife, and a mother. And I tried to dampen some of the really negative, hysterical rhetoric that seemed to characterize the waning of ’70s feminism. But I was simply too busy with my life to be able to do much about it.

Another thing I learned after the denouement of ’70s feminism was that many of the changes that feminists were calling for actually did happen, despite the defeat of the ERA. Women now have the option of going into almost any career available to men. And women can, with enough grit and determination, become successful at almost anything they chose to do. Of key importance is that we should have choices–you know, the old “pursuit of happiness” thing.

If you had read the article carefully, you would have found several very positive comments on the skills that can come from normal female brain wiring. For example: “the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,”

Indeed, if women are in high positions in an enterprise, and/or if they make up a sizable minority of mid-level workers, the whole operation is likely to be more successful, both financially and in terms of working environment. Business school faculty know this–even if many of their former students don’t. Female monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Victoria in England, as well as Catherine the Great in Russia, reigned over countries that grew enormously in size and wealth while those women were on the throne, partly because they knew how to negotiate before fighting.

Males and females of mammalian species are constructed differently, and that difference includes not just genital anatomy, body size, muscle mass, and distribution of body fat; it also includes behavior, which is controlled by the brain. Look at all the connections in those brain maps, especially those cross connections in the frontal part of the female brain, the region where creativity and conscience seem to arise. Think, as a sociologist, about the differences in male and female behavior. Which gender is the most violent? Which produces the most mass murderers?

So I beg you, don’t declare war on biology. It will not do you or your prospects as a woman much good, and it may blind you to some aspects of reality you need to take into consideration when making decisions. The enemy is not biology nor the finding that the sexes function differently; it is those people (usually non-scientists) who try to use scientific studies to influence a social agenda.


I guess I was lucky as a female child. My father was a scientist; the family was not religious; and I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do with my life (as long as it wasn’t destructive). I had one husband who tried to reverse that trend, and another who supported it to a considerable extent. I felt that I was not locked into any stereotype or situation. The key present reality (at least in the West) is that we women have choices. We are not bound culturally or biologically to doing or being what others think we should do or be.

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Are Women and Men Wired Differently?


A few days ago I came across a blog by a woman who is clearly intelligent and is a feminist in the best sense, but she seems to be resistant to the idea that men and women may be different in their minds as well as their bodies.

The writer was incensed by what she perceived as just one more attempt by males to marginalize and belittle the attributes of women by comparing them (unfavorably?) with those of men. This despite the fact that several coauthors of the study were female, and the qualities attributed to women in the article are highly valuable in our contemporary culture. This is the report that led to the angry response.

We, as human beings, need to stop being so defensive–so eager to be in denial–about scientific evidence, and particularly about biological evidence. Scientific data should be inherently value-neutral. It is we who add the value to any interpretation of scientific results. It makes no sense denying the reality of things. Is the average world temperature rising or not? Are the polar ice fields melting? Yes it is, and yes they are. Those data are supported overwhelmingly.

It’s like asking whether or not the earth is round (O.K., spherical or eliptoidal, if you wish). It is what it is. It’s certainly possible, even desirable, to ask WHY something is as it is. And if it is an unpleasant reality, it’s certainly useful to ask if and how it can be changed. Indeed, that willingness to question reality–and to address it at its core–is the source of almost all human progress.

As with other differences between human beings, mental differences are broadly distributed, and no two brains are identical in composition or wiring (no, not even in twins). Moreover, brain wiring is highly plastic and is strongly influenced by environmental experiences.  But it is becoming increasingly clear that at least a large part (maybe not a majority) of mental functions find their origins in our genes. And these mental functions are reflected in behavior. I was struck one time when I heard a cousin laugh in another room and thought it was my brother. Those two laughs were identical in pitch and cadence. They were somehow wired to sound like that, and that wiring has some genetic component, probably like bird songs.

So I responded to her commentary with a long comment of my own, which will form the substance of the next blog post.




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2013 in review

I’ll be back to original stuff soon, but this seemed like an easy way to start this year’s blogging, which has flagged in recent months. This is partly because I’ve spent so much time on a book which came out late in 2013. Check it out!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Mother to Daughter: A Questional Legacy – Part 4

This is the final installment of a set of meditations that began here/.

There was a time, when I was much younger, that I resented my mother a bit for not teaching me the rules about how to be a girl. I had to learn all that stuff all by myself—from books and experience. She didn’t tell me not to fight with boys, and she didn’t tell me not to climb trees or get dirty. She didn’t curl my hair so I’d be pretty, and she didn’t dress me like a doll. She didn’t tell me I wouldn’t be able to do things when I grew up. When, in the fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, she got me books on the planets and took me to meetings of the amateur astronomers’ club in a nearby city. I was totally unprepared for the “You can’t do it, you’re just a girl” attitude I would encounter later, beginning in high school, and continuing into college and graduate school.

My mother was a housewife, to be sure, but she was a housewife by choice and not by default, and that was always clear. My mother was very aware that she had a choice in matters that affected her life, and she felt quite free to exercise her options. She had had a career as a college English teacher, which she gave up when she married my father. But she didn’t passively give it up; she chose to become a housewife (although she hated housework). That was the kind of cruel choice that confronted women in those days. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for several other women of that era who made that choice another way and, against all odds, became competent and respected professionals. Unfortunately, none of them I know has daughters—or sons either, for that matter.

As a graduate student in English at Bryn Mawr, my mother wrote a master’s thesis correlating the events of Elizabethan England with the themes of plays from Shakespeare. In her thesis, she suggested–based upon some coincidences she found, and the point of view of several of the characters–that the author of some of the Shakespearean plays might have been none other than Queen Elizabeth, herself. When my mother first mentioned this to me, I was in high school, and I thought it was just some kooky idea of hers.

Later on, I heard and read numerous arguments supporting the hypothesis that the man we know as William Shakespeare could not have written the Shakespearean dramas. Several alternative authors have been suggested, among them Marlowe and certain male members of the court. But I have never heard or read the name of Elizabeth I of England mentioned in this context by established critics or scholars. Elizabeth was a brilliant woman as well as a devotee of the theater, and her father, Henry VIII, was a highly talented, creative man who wrote music under a pseudonym.

Just imagine, if you can, the greatest monarch of the English-speaking people and the classic master of the English language, both embodied in a woman! If that is even possible, then anything is possible.

The hardest question to answer is: How can a daughter examine the legacy she has received from her mother in a wise but critical way and question those aspects that diminish her sense of self-worth? Perhaps the first step is to stop and analyze the situation any time she feels a conflict between self-esteem and femininity—for example, between accomplishment and the favor of some man of the moment—and do the thing that enhances her sense of self-worth.

There is a temptation to take the easy way out, to try to find a man through whom one can obtain a vicarious sense of self-esteem. The hardest but most rewarding route is to take life into one’s own hands, to live it event-by-event, to take advantage of the real opportunities for choice which one does have and, in the process, to become convinced of one’s own worth as a unique human being.

Then, pass that legacy on to your daughters!


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Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 3

This series of blog posts began here/:

So what are some of the consequences of the images and roles that women learn to appropriate, and what kinds of conflicts and losses are thereby created for a woman herself, for her family, and for society as a whole?

For the woman herself, I would venture to say that the greatest loss she suffers is the loss of self-esteem. If a woman is lucky, she may be repaid for some of her losses by leading a life that is relatively protected and less demanding than she might otherwise be forced to endure. These days, less than half of the female population is so lucky.

Her family, too, pays a price. The children spend the majority of their time during their young and formative years with someone who doesn’t have a very high opinion of herself, and this is likely to make them feel quite insecure. The husband may pay a greater price than even he realizes. In addition to being legally attached to someone who does not value herself highly, he often comes to value her less and less as years pass, believing her story about herself. Moreover, he is often the victim of the sort of passive-aggressive tactics so commonly used by people with no power or authority—by slaves, disaffected employees, and women. These tactics consist of such maneuvers as doing something destructive because, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know any better.” Or allowing something to become irrevocably damaged because, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to fix it.” Or not doing something that really needs to be done because, “I’m sorry, that’s not my job.”

As for society, well, the loss to society is manifold, particularly in this technological age when it is crucial to have competent individuals operating the many gadgets and machines with which we are surrounded. When the females in the population are convinced that they are not competent to operate anything more complex than an on-off switch, there’s certain to be trouble. The loss of mind-power and creativity available to society when half the population has learned not to live up to its potential is staggering. And the genetic loss to society by forcing women to choose—or by making them think they must choose—between family and career, can hardly be measured. Many of the most intelligent and talented women of years past did not reproduce; this may have resulted in an irretrievable brain-drain.

So, the key question is: How can a mother teach her daughter to become a woman and a real person, a person with genuine self-esteem? Perhaps the most important gift a mother can give her daughter is the sense of possibility, the sense that she can do or be anything she chooses if she is willing to work for it. I used to think that my motivation and ambition were primarily the influence of my father. My father was from a poor family, but he worked his way through college, and he worked his way into one of the top executive positions in one of the major corporations in this country. But over the past few years, I have come to appreciate increasingly the role my mother played in allowing me to appropriate some of my father’s ambition.


(the final installment here)

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Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 2

This is part 2 of the UU  talk (“sermon,” delivered in 1976) that I had begun here:

A thousand pardons for such a posting delay! I was in the Michigan wilderness for two months this summer and had almost no internet or phone access.


So what is it that mothers teach their daughters about who they are and how their lives should be led? I realize I will be generalizing when I make the following observations, and there are certainly many individual exceptions to what I say. But as I read the mother-to-daughter legacy, which is transmitted most of the time by most mothers (and I am not excluding myself), it goes something like this:

  1. A mother says, “Don’t compete with boys or you’ll never catch a husband.” (In other words, don’t live up to your potential.)
  2. A mother says, “You should always look pretty.” (Appearance is the main item of value in a woman.)
  3. A mother says, “Wait until your father gets home and he’ll punish you for that.” (In other words, I, a woman, have no authority, and neither will you.)
  4. A mother says, “You have to clean your room and pick up your clothes, but your brother doesn’t.” or “You have to help with the dishes, but your brother doesn’t.” (In other words, you are going to become a drudge, and he will be free.)
  5. A mother says, “My name is Mrs. Charles Edward Jones, and my husband is an engineer.” (I, a woman, find my identity in my husband rather than in myself, and you will too.)
  6. A mother says, “Don’t trust other girls; they will take your boyfriend(s) away from you.” (A boyfriend is more important than girlfriends.)

I could go on, but the above list is long enough to make the point. The consequences of all this very subtle and more-or-less continual conditioning is that, when little girls grow up to be women, they have pretty thoroughly incorporated ideas about themselves and about other women into their very sense of being, such as:

  1. I have no authority
  2. I have no mechanical ability
  3. I must have a man through whom I can find my identity and in the light of whose accomplishments I will be judged
  4. I must not defend myself overtly
  5. The condition of my house is a reflection of my personal worth.
  6. I am of value so long as I am attractive.

Women learn these things about themselves very thoroughly, and they often resent any challenge to such entrenched generalizations about their selfhood. It has become increasingly clear in the women’s movement during the past few years that the greatest obstacle to equality of the sexes exists in women themselves.

Sometime last fall, after a sermon by one of the male members of the congregation, another woman and I were discussing the service, and she said, “Oh, if only he and ___ and ___ (she named two other male members of the congregation who have given sermons from time to time), if only these three could take over, we wouldn’t need a minister.”

Now, there have been several female speakers in the pulpit over the past two or three years, some of them quite good. Several recent vestry chairmen have been women, and they have done a fine job of keeping the church functioning in difficult times. Several women have been active in organizing and running church programs at times other than the 11:00 am service. And certain women in the congregation take upon themselves readily, even automatically, such pastoral duties as visiting the sick and the elderly, and caring for those who are troubled.

And yet, none of these women was named to the suggested ministerial triumvirate. Why? Because—and I’m guessing now—a minister is a person of authority, and women have no authority.

I am guessing again when I say that I would bet if a man had been naming people to a team of substitute ministers, he might well have included a female’s name on the list, since men often have more respect for the abilities of women than do other women. And they are often able to be more objective about analyzing women’s abilities without the self-doubts that color women’s views of other women.


Next installment here/.

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Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 1

[The following is a transcription of a lay sermon delivered at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, SC on February 22, 1976. This was during the height of state efforts to ratify the ERA, and I was actively in support of it.

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At the time, I was an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and very pregnant with my third child. This is another meditation requiring more than one blog post. Let me know if you think things have changed. For the better? For the worse?]


I have a confession to make. It’s really something I’m ashamed to admit and something I cannot undo. But I can confess and “sin no more.” When I was pregnant with my first child, and again with the second, I wanted them to be boys. Why did I want boys? For a lot of reasons, most of them senseless.

With the first child, the underlying reasons were probably something like these:

  1. A boy can grow up and be somebody, can do something with his life. (I would be proud of a son who accomplished something.)
  2. My husband probably wanted a boy, and it would have been an act of submission to have had a boy (That was at a time when I was still submitting.)
  3. It somehow seemed more feminine to be the mother of a boy than of a girl. (Don’t ask me where I got that notion.)

With the second child, my reasoning probably went something like this:

  1. I’ve already had a girl, so now I should have a boy, just to make things even. (Why things should be even, I didn’t even consider.)
  2. The whole family has its heart set on having a boy. My husband would like a boy because all men think they want a son, and my daughter, perhaps, thinks a brother would be less competition for her. (And I should somehow comply with their wishes to make the family happy.)

In fact, I wished so hard for boys that I could hardly believe that the babies were girls when they came out. If I hadn’t actually been awake and watched them being born, I might have suspected that somebody had switched babies when they handed me a girl. (This was back before routine ultrasound.)

Does all this seem exaggerated to you? Grotesque, even? Ladies, look into yourselves. Mothers, does your own self-hatred or self-contempt reflect itself in an unwitting rejection of your daughters?

Much has been made by psychologists and psychiatrists of the effects of a mother’s behavior and attitudes toward her son. Does she reject him? Does she keep him dependent? Tied to her apron strings? Does she love him enough? Too much? Does she foist her unfulfilled dreams of success and romance upon her son? What does all this do to his manhood?

The effects of a mother’s attitudes and behavior upon her daughters have infrequently been examined in any depth until very recently. It is understood that one’s relationship with the parent of the opposite sex may condition other relationships with members of the opposite sex. It’s also important to realize that one’s relationship with the parent of the same sex conditions one’s relationship with oneself. This is the parent from whom one learns personhood or selfhood. Who am I? What is expected? What is desirable? What is necessary? What is possible?


See next installment here/.

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