Neurotosh. The best word from the entire Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference! There was Cordelia Fine, capturing perfectly her frustration at the manipulation of data and science in the service of stereotypes. Just pure neuro-nonsense.
The neurotosh in question was Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, an excellent representative of the neurosexism sold in recent popular books. It is popular, a bestseller translated into many languages, and it is simply bad science. In Nature Rebecca Young and Evan Balaban describe the book as “dressing the [gender] myth up in new clothes” and selling a “melodrama,” noting that “The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance.”
Cordelia Fine took us step-by-step through several passages, examining the supposed citations and supporting evidence. Gender differences were confirmed by (a) studies with only women, (b) studies on a different topic entirely, and (c) personal communication. Ouch.
Plenty of other people have gotten on the bash-Brizendine-bandwagon, helping to undermine the moral authority that Dr. Brizendine wields through her academic credentials and “scientific” claims. Language Log has several critical analyses of the gender difference claims about language (see here, here and here). Mother Jones takes Brizendine to task on her approach to medicine. The most popular Amazon reviews of the book lead with titles calling The Female Brain “disappointing” and “nonsensical.” Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks gets in on the pile-on-party as well.
Still Simon Cohn, a British anthropologist at the meeting, was rather nonplussed at Cordelia’s agonizing over the data and methods and claims made by Brizendine. As Simon said to me, “It’s called ‘The Female Brain.’ Doesn’t that tell you everything right from the start?” His point was that knowledge gets turned in the service of ideology and profit and power all the time.
But the specifics of how that happen matter, as Laurence Kirmayer brought up in the general discussion following Cordelia’s presentation. He mentioned an article he found on Brizendine, Men are from Mars, Women from Venus, Drug Firms from Pluto. The ending quote from Brizendine goes: “Biotech and pharmaceutical companies would do well to take the gender differences in pharmaceutical and genetics and protein synthesis seriously in the next generation of products. There’s a huge market in that.”
Dr. David Peterzell, the most prominent critic on Amazon, writes about Brizendine’s book that “The book felt like an advertisement for certain drug treatments, including controversial hormone therapies and the anti-depressant drug Zoloft… My radar went up when I kept reading about Zoloft. Zoloft is a popular antidepressant but just one brand out of many SSRIs (e.g., Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Lexapro). Why emphasize Zoloft?”
Zoloft is made by Pfizer, but it took some digging to turn up a link between Brizendine and Pfizer. Obviously neither Brizendine nor Pfizer are out there advertising their mutually beneficial linking. But scientific journals generally make their authors declare any “interests” they may have that could skew their study.
In The Journal of Family Practice, Brizendine has an article Managing Menopause-Related Depression and Low Libido. Basically the piece boils down to Brizendine prescribing, literally and figuratively, testosterone to improve “Anne’s” sex life. At the article’s end, there is this brief statement: “Dr. Brizendine is a speaker for Pfizer, Lilly, and Wyeth.”
Besides getting paid to represent these drug companies, Brizendine runs her own Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic. As the website declares in bold, “Please keep in mind that we are a clinic specializing in the psychological aspects of hormones on the female brain.” In other words, The Female Brain is an excellent ad for Brizendine’s services.
Drug companies, selling clinical services, playing to stereotypes to get that best-selling book. It all adds up to neuro-dosh. Dosh as in cash. Money makes the world go round, and Brizendine is working the system (hmm, she’s breaking her own stereotype, what does that tell us?).
Still, the system also works on her. Determinist biology and drug company money have her in their grips. Her website is full of nuggets like this, “oxytocin (a happy hormone)” and “You are as brave as your basal amygdala.” Human qualities, reduced down to whatever is the biological object in question.
That is the definite theme of The Female Brain—whatever gender differences there are (or, even more relevant, that we think there are), the different “brains” of men and women are the cause. That’s how she sells herself, saying she “specializes in the relationship dynamics that result from the neurobiology of male and female brains.”
Drug companies have given her the tools to manipulate those relationship dynamics. In her case study “Anne” has a stressful marriage which suffers from a lack of intimacy. Testosterone appears as the cure.
But, remember, Brizendine declared in Mother Jones that she is no fan of placebo studies—they are “cruel.” She is not actually interested in whether testosterone works. Her case study intervention, where treating a woman for depression, getting her to focus on rating her sexuality (only room for improvement), and talking about sex in her marriage, already has its foregone conclusion. What the drug companies give Brizendine works.
Is that last statement going too far? No, it’s not in the light of reporting on the close links between psychiatry and drug companies (as in all of medicine). The New York Times recently published “Psychiatric Group Faces Scrutiny Over Drug Industry Ties.” As the Times reports, in 2006 the drug industry accounted for over 30% of the American Psychiatric Association’s $62.5 million in financing. Big pharma also pushes their stuff on doctors themselves, with rather obvious results
While data on industry consulting arrangements are sparse, state officials in Vermont reported that in the 2007 fiscal year, drug makers gave more money to psychiatrists than to doctors in any other specialty. Eleven psychiatrists in the state received an average of $56,944 each. Data from Minnesota, among the few other states to collect such information, show a similar trend…
An analysis of Minnesota data by The New York Times last year found that on average, psychiatrists who received at least $5,000 from makers of newer-generation antipsychotic drugs appear to have written three times as many prescriptions to children for the drugs as psychiatrists who received less money or none. The drugs are not approved for most uses in children, who appear to be especially susceptible to the side effects, including rapid weight gain.
Today, over half the psychiatrists revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have drug industry ties, much as happened with the previous version. And if you want to know more about the drug industry and its often pernicious and corrupting influence, see Furious Seasons, a wonderful blog on the infiltration of psychotropic drugs into all areas of everyday life.
In Nigeria, to dash is just part of life, giving money to officials to make sure you get a favorable outcome. When I spent a year living there, it was the first thing I had to do on entering the country—dash the customs official to get a speedy pass-through without excessive “import taxes” on anything in my luggage.
But the drug companies have turned that around, dashing money to psychiatric associations, clinics, and individual doctors. In this case, it’s a much bigger showering of riches to shape official policy and decision making. It’s the neurodash.
So, remember, tosh, dosh and dash. Nonsense, money, and corruption. They feed each other. For critical neuroscience to be successful, we will have to take on all three.
16 thoughts on “Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash”
Yikes! And here I thought that these stereotyping authors were just thick — some are far more mercenary that I could have suspected. I’d prefer not to wind up a conspiracy theorist, but when you start digging with someone like Brizendine, it’s really hard not to start seeing it everywhere. I tend to focus my irritation on the sloppy thinking, stereotyping, and ‘neurotosh’ nonsense, but this case shows its not just stupidity but greed driving some of the crap we have to constantly wade through. Thanks Daniel!
I’ve been working on a post on psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, another example of drug company money undermining research as well as advice to parents and physicians. It’s ironic because a news story here in Australia just came out about doctors in the UK being given guidelines for not over-prescribing antibiotics, and an American doctor was on the news complaining about doctors’ loss of ‘freedom’ to prescribe. Of course, the UK system has strong central controls; in contrast, the free market model gives everyone the ‘freedom’ to prescribe what they want. And to advocate treatments based on gamed research and dubious medical theories, deriving more from the warm feelings provided by ‘neurodash’ in the pocket than by any principled research.
http://ec.europa.eu/research/research-eu/women/article_women16_en.html. It is a snapshot
Special issue – April 2009
The brain, caught between science and ideology
Catherine Vidal, neurobiologist and Research Director at the Institut Pasteur (FR), does not limit her activities to her fundamental work, in particular on pain, memory and neurodegenerative ailments. This brain specialist also devotes her time to popularising science and to the relations between science and society.
Catherine Vidal – “As it develops, the brain integrates outside elements associated with its owner’s personal history.” © CNRS
Let’s start with a very direct question: is the brain sexed?
The scientific answer is, paradoxically, yes and no. Yes, because the brain controls the reproductive functions. Male and female brains are not identical, in every species, including our own, because sexual reproduction involves different hormone systems and sexual behaviours, which are controlled by the brain.
But the answer is also no, because when we look at the cognitive functions, it is cerebral diversity which reigns, independently of gender. For thought to emerge, the brain needs to be stimulated by its environment. At birth, just 10 % of our 100 billion neurons are inter-connected. The 90 % of remaining connections will be constructed progressively depending on the influence of the family, education, culture and society. In this way, during its development, the brain integrates external elements associated with its owner’s personal history. We call this cerebral plasticity; which is why we all have different brains. And the differences between individuals of one and the same gender are so great as to outweigh any differences between the genders.
In fact, behind your question is the fundamental problem of the degree to which behaviour is innate and to which it is acquired – an essential question that philosophers and scientists have been debating for centuries. This remains an ideologically-charged subject, which the media adore.
Absolutely. The media often echo works that argue that cerebral specialisation differs between male and female. They say, for example, that language functions are undertaken by both hemispheres only in women’s brains. What do you say?
The theories on the hemispheric differences between the sexes in language appeared over thirty years ago. They have not been confirmed by recent brain imaging studies which allow us to see the living brain at work. These theories are often based on observations carried out on very small samples – often a dozen people. People continue to quote these studies whereas contemporary scientific reality is very different. Meta-analyses, which draw conclusions from all the experiments published in scientific literature and cover several hundred men and women, show that there is no statistically significant difference between the sexes in the hemispheric distribution of language zones. This is explained by the fact that the location of these language zones differs considerably from one individual to the next, with this variability being more important than a possible variability between the sexes.
Another proposed idea is that the male brain is more suited to abstract reasoning, in particular mathematics.
These conceptions have no biological foundation. This is illustrated by two major studies that were published last year in Science. A first investigation took place in 1990 in the United States, involving a sample of 10 million pupils. Statistically speaking, boys did better than girls in maths tests. Certain people interpreted this as a sign of the inaptitude of the female brain in this field. The same study, commissioned in 2008 (1), this time shows girls scoring as well as boys. It’s hard to imagine that in less than two decades there has been a genetic mutation to increase their aptitude in maths! These results are due simply to the development of the teaching of science and the growing gender mix of scientific fields. Another study (2) carried out in 2008 on 300 000 adolescents, in 40 countries, has shown that the more the socio-cultural environment is favourable to male-female equality, the better the girls score in maths tests. In Norway and Sweden, the results are comparable. In Iceland the girls beat the boys, while the boys outperform the girls in Turkey and Korea.
One argument that is frequently advanced to explain unequal performances in maths is that men succeed better in three-dimensional geometric-type tasks. What is this idea based on?
Experimental psychology does indeed show that men often perform better on tests on the mental representation of three-dimensional objects. But one forgets to mention the influence of the context in which these performance differences take place. If, before carrying out this test in a classroom, pupils are told that this is a geometry exercise, the boys will generally get better results. But if the same group is told that this is a drawing test, the girls will perform as well as the boys. These experiments clearly show that self-esteem and the internalisation of gender stereotypes play a decisive role in the scores obtained in this type of test.
In the end, what are the challenges for research on the differences between men’s and women’s brains?
It is fascinating to look for the origins of these differences beyond the simple description of them. These origins are to be found in biology, but in particular in history, culture and society. One major advance of neurobiological research has been a revaluation of the extraordinary plastic capacity of the brain. It is not justifiable to invoke biological differences between the sexes to justify the different distribution between men and women in society.
But this ‘biologising’ vision continues to satisfy people as providing a sort of scientific justification for the existence of manifest inequalities. In this way people use the theory of evolution to explain that men find their bearings better in space because, in prehistoric times, they went hunting mammoths while the women remained in the cave looking after the children. This scenario is totally speculative – no one was there to see whether it really happened like that. Any prehistory specialists will tell you that no document – fossils, cave paintings, graves, or the like – reveals any details of the kind on the social organisation and division of labour among our ancestors.
How do you explain the renewed interest in these questions over the past 20 or so years?
First of all by the fact that these studies are easily taken up by the media – an aspect to which the publishers of scientific journals, including the most prestigious, are unfortunately sensitive. Second, by the development of cerebral imaging technologies which initially gave new life to the old theories on the inequality between men and women explained by the differences in their brains. But the more cerebral imagery progresses the more we observe, as I said, the major role of the plasticity of the brain and the variability of its functioning from one individual to another, independent of gender.
I find it regrettable that studies of doubtful scientific value continue to be so widely echoed. But other things are there to make me optimistic. The fact that the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine rewarding the discovery of the AIDS virus was awarded jointly to Luc Montagnier and his main female collaborator, Françoise Barré-Sionoussi shows that mentalities are changing. Formerly only the head of the laboratory was rewarded… Think back here to Rosalind Franklin, the British biophysicist who played a key role in elucidating the double-helix structure of DNA and whose work was taken over by James Watson and Francis Crick, the winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962. We are seeing a real awareness of women’s role in research. But this evolution is slow. And belief in change is, alas, stronger than change itself…
Interview by Mikhaïl Stein
C.Guiso et al., Culture, Gender and Math, Science (2008), 320: 1164-1165.
J.S. Hude et al., Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance, Science (2008), 321 : 494-495.
Find out more
Selected publications by Catherine Vidal
Sexe et pouvoir, with Dorothée Benoit-Browaeys, Paris, Belin, 2005. Translated into Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.
Féminin/Masculin: mythes et idéologie, Paris, Belin, 2006.
Hommes, femmes: avons-nous le même cerveau?, Paris, Le Pommier, 2007.
Cerveau, sexe et liberté, DVD Gallimard/ CNRS, col. «La recherche nous est contée», Paris, 2007.
Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. By Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 473 pages.
Spanish Translation: Cuerpos sexuados. Editorial Melusina: Barcelona, Spain, 2006.
Professor Fausto-Sterling’s most recent work, entitled Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, was published by Basic Books in February 2000. It examines the social nature of biological knowledge about animal and human sexuality.
Sexing the Body received the Distinguished Publication Award in 2001 by the Association for Women in Psychology. In 2000 it was chosen as one of the Outstanding Academic Books of 2000 by CHOICE Magazine, Published by the American Library Association. It was also co-winner of the Robert K Merton Award of the American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology.
From the back cover:
“Why do some people prefer heterosexual love while others fancy the same sex? Do women and men have different brains? Is sexual identity biologically determined or a product of social convention? In this brilliant and provocative book, the acclaimed author of Myths of Gender argues that the answers to these thorny questions lie as much in the realm of politics as they do in the world of science. Without pandering to the press or politics, Fausto-Sterling builds an entirely new framework for sexing the body-one that focuses solely on the individual.”
r e a c t i o n s
“A fascinating and essential book, at once vigorous, erudite, amiable and sly.”
– Natalie Angier
Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men And Women appeared in a second edition in 1992 which includes two new chapters on brain anatomy, sex differences and homosexuality.
In Myths of Gender, Biology Professor Fausto-Sterling examines numerous scientific claims about biologically-based sex differences between men and women. Is there evidence–biological, genetic, evolutionary or psychological–to support the notion that our brains differ physically and that this, in turn, causes behavioral differences between the sexes? At once a scientific and a political statement, Myths of Gender seeks to reveal the politics involved in science.
“In this book I examine mainstream scientific investigations of gender by looking closely at them through the eyes of a scientist who is also a feminist… This book is a scientific statement and a political statement. It could not be otherwise. Where I differ from some of those I take to task is in not denying my politics. Scientists who do deny their politics–who claim to be objective and unemotional about gender while living in a world where even boats and automobiles are identified by sex–are fooling both themselves and the public at large.”
-Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The biological connection: an introduction,” Myths of Gender.
Evelyn Fox Keller writes that the book “demonstrates in case after case the inadequacy of the evidence, and the abundance of alternative explanations, and the presence of circular reasoning…”
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould called it “A fine contribution to the empirical literature on human gender differences…a courageous book”, while Robert Attenborough, in a review of the book for Nature wrote “This book is closely and intelligently argued, well documented factually and carefully referenced…”
Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, 2nd edition (with two new chapters). New York: Basic Books, 1992
Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, New York: Basic Books, 1985
German translation: Gefangene des Geschlechts? 1988
Japanese translation: 1990
Brown University // Providence, Rhode Island 02912 // 401.863.1000
Last update: 8/20/2007
What Do We Mean by “Male-Female Complementarity”?
A Review of Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca M. Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds.,
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy
(Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004)
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Professor of Psychology and Philosophy, Eastern University, St. Davids PA
But as an academic psychologist and gender studies scholar who did not contribute to either volume, I am now going to try to explain (not for the first time)11 why this is a misguided exercise. My basic points are these:
Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture debate regarding gendered psychological traits or behaviors in humans, let alone pronounce on whether any of these should be retained or rejected. In a fallen world – however good it remains creationally — we cannot move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ on the basis of science alone.
2. There are very few consistent sex differences in psychological traits and behaviors. When these are found, they are always average – not absolute– differences, and for the vast majority of them the small, average – and often decreasing — difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the ‘bell curves’ for women and men (graphing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best – and deceptive at worst — to make essentialist (or even generalist) pronouncements about the psychology of either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on most of the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.
To adapt one of Freud’s famous dictums, we cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity. Thus, even when appeals are made to large cross-cultural studies that have found ‘consistent’ behavioral and/ or attitudinal sex differences, we cannot assume universality for those conclusions until we have controlled for the existence of differing opportunities by gender across the various cultures.
Let me now address these three points in more detail, after which I will make some modest proposals about how the social sciences might more reasonably be expected to be helpful to both sides in the egalitarian/hierarchicalist debate.
Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature/nurture controversy regarding gendered psychological traits and behaviors in humans:
The crucial terms here are the words ‘human’ and ‘psychological traits and behaviors.’ First of all, we should not be surprised that, given our creational overlap with all other living organisms (strikingly shown in the various genome projects that are underway) much can be learned about the structure, function, and healing of the human body from animal research models. But without doubt the most salient biological feature of human beings is the plasticity of their brains. The legacy of a large cerebral cortex puts us on a much looser behavioral leash than other animals, with the result that, more than any other species, we are created for continous learning- for passing on what we have produced culturally, not just what we have been programmed to do genetically.We are, as it were hard-wired for behavioral flex ibility.
So it is impossible to disentangle biological sex from the other genetic and environmental forces in which it always remains embedded, and with which it constantly interacts. This means that the two essential conditions for inferring cause and effect – the manipulation of one factor (sex) and the control of other (biological and environmental) factors – cannot be met. Consequently, “all data on sex differences, no matter what research method is used, are correlational data,”15 and as every introductory social science student learns, you cannot draw conclusions about causality from merely correlational data. “[I]n that sense, it is more accurate to speak of ‘sex-related’ differences than of sex [caused] differences.”16 So let us be very clear: when we read about a study – experimental or correlational — that describes an obtained, average sex difference of such-and-such a magnitude, that’s all it is: a description of the results of a study done in one particular place and time with a particular sample of persons, but unable (even experimentally) to disentangle nature from nurture. It is a description — not an explanation about the origins of any obtained sex differences.17
On almost all behavioral and psychological measures that have been studied, the distributions (‘bell curves’) for women and men overlap almost completely:
Ah yes, some will say, but look how large and consistent those sex differences are – in aggression, nurturance, verbal skills, spatial abilities and so on. Surely this strongly suggests (even if it can’t absolutely prove) that women and men have innately- different talents – “beneficial differences” in the language of both CMBW and (some) CBE adherents. Everybody knows that men are from Mars and women are from Venus – at least on average. Really? Just how large and consistent are such differences, after a century of measuring them in domains such as aggression, nurturance, verbal skills and so on? In other words, just how much do (or don’t) those ‘bell curves’ overlap for women and men? Because there is so much bad science journalism floating around about these matters (written by people of every political and religious stripe), some more comments on social science methodology are in order.
I begin with what is known among social scientists as the “file drawer effect.” Since the time that psychology journals began publishing over a century ago, there has been a heavy bias against accepting studies on males and females that find no statistically-significant sex differences. In this kind of research, it appears that no news is bad news for your career, because studies finding no effect for sex are likely to remain unpublished (thus ending up in the author’s file drawer). You can see what this means: even when we do a literature review of many sex-comparative studies (concerning any of the usual suspects: verbal or spatial skills, aggression, empathy, activity levels, etc.) done over many years, our conclusions – at least by the reigning statistical criteria — will be selectively tilted towards finding more, rather than fewer, sex differences because of the publishing bias I have just described.18
My second – and more important — point has to do with the misunderstanding that continues to surround the term ‘statistically significant.’ Another basic methodological caveat is this: a research result that is statistically significant is not necessarily of practical significance. According to the most common tests of significance, if an obtained, average difference between two groups (e.g., women and men doing a math test, volunteer subjects taking an experimental drug versus those taking a placebo, etc.) could have occurred fewer than five times out of a hundred ‘by chance’ then it is deemed a ‘significant’ difference. However, with large enough samples and a small enough variability among scores, even a tiny average difference between two groups –i.e., groups whose bell-curve scores overlap almost completely — may be ‘significant’ in this statistical sense – whereas (because of the file drawer effect) a much larger average difference that ‘just misses’ being statistically significant will not likely see publication, even though its potentially practical significance may be much greater.19
As a result of such criticisms, a statistical technique called meta-analysis was developed in the 1970s, for use in all areas of psychological science, including research on gender.20 As its name implies, this refers to a ‘super-analysis’: one that can combine the results of many (e.g., several dozen – sometimes over a hundred) studies on sex differences in a given domain: aggression, verbal ability, or whatever. This technique differs from earlier ways of reviewing the literature, which simply gave equal weight to all studies examined, did a tally of how many did or did not show statistically significant sex differences, and came to an ‘eyeball’ or intuitive judgment as to whether reliable sex differences existed in a given domain.21 Instead, meta-analysis converts the findings of a large sample of studies into a common metric known as the average effect size across those studies. This is done not just by ‘averaging all the average sex differences’ across the studies, but also by taking into account the size of each sample and the variability of the scores found in each.22 Meta-analysis allows us to ask, across many studies of sex differences of a certain trait or behavior, just how large that difference (known as “d”) is, or how far apart the tops of the two bell curves are, — the tops representing the place where the male and female mean scores are.23 In other words, across many such studies, just how much do the male and female bell curves (or ‘distributions of scores’) overlap?24
As you can see from Appendix A, even when an average effect size (or d) is 1.00 (as was found, for example, in a meta-analysis of studies comparing self-reported empathy in men and women)25 the range of scores within each sex is much greater than the average difference between the sexes. But in the many meta-analyses of gender differences that have been done since the 1970s, an effect size (d) even as large as 1.00 is almost unheard of. Most are in the range from 0.0 (no detectable difference) to .35 (a small difference) — and even the latter means that less than 5% of the variability of ALL the scores can be accounted for by the sex of the participants.26 This underlines my previous assertion: it is naive at best, and deceptive at worst, to make essentialist pronouncements about either sex when the range of scores within each sex is, for almost all traits and behaviors measured, much greater than the difference between the sexes. (See Appendix B for some representative meta-analytic results of studies of behavioral and psychological sex differences).
It gets worse, folks: meta-analysis is full of embarrassments for gender essentialists, but also for ‘gender influentialists’ who think that even small average sex differences are pregnant with interpersonal, ecclesiastical, and policy implications.27 For example, as previously noted, the meta-analytic d for women’s versus men’s “empathy” scores based on self-report measures is around 1.00, in the direction of women being more empathetic than men. But when based on unobtrusive measures (i.e., studies where people do not know they are being measured for empathy), the meta-analytic d shrinks to about .05. You don’t have to be a professional social scientist to know what that contrast suggests. Meta-analyses can also be divided according to the particular era in which the studies were done. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of gender differences in verbal fluency done prior to 1973 (when gender roles were more rigidly dichotomized) found an overall, small effect size (d) of .23, in the direction of women scoring higher than men. A similar meta-analysis of studies done after 1973 found an effect size of .11, less than half the size of the earlier one. You do not have to be a professional social scientist to know that sudden genetic mutations in men and/ or women since 1973 are unlikely to have caused such a shift. Genes in humans just don’t mutate and spread that fast.
Attempts to Evade These Findings: What do convinced gender essentialists (along with careless science journalists and trendy Mars-Venus advice book writers) do with such findings? The most common strategy is simply to ignore or distort them: to pretend that small, shifting tendencies are absolute gender dichotomies, or something close to it, or to assume that statistical significance is always the same as practical significance. All too many people yearn for simple black-and-white explanations of complex relations, including those involving men and women. (As one of my students memorably observed, “Tendencies don’t sell books.”)
Joan Burgess Winfrey is thus right, in ch. 25 of DBE, to express concern that “the church may once again opt for a Venus-Mars gender rubbish in the interest of cementing roles and putting up divider walls.”37 Even if Mars-Venus rhetoric is used only to cement different gender styles rather than roles 38 it gets virtually no support from the meta-analytic literature which, as we have seen, show almost complete overlap in the gendered distribution of traits such as nurturance, empathy, verbal skills, spatial skills, and aggressiveness. The romanticizing and /or rank-ordering of gender archetypes is biblically questionable whether it is done by gender-role traditionalists, by cultural feminists who reverse the hierarchy by valorizing the stereotypically feminine, or by evangelical writers who baptize the trendy Mars-Venus rhetoric with a thin, Christian-sounding veneer. More in keeping with both the biblical creation accounts of humankind and the overall findings of the social sciences is the bumper sticker which reads “Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth: Get used to it!”
Perhaps the most cautious way of responding to the meta-analytic literature on gender comes from behavioral biologists, who (arguing largely from animal research) suggest that both sexes are capable of the full range of human behaviors, but that the thresholds for various behaviors may vary by gender.39 This would mean, for example, that men and women are both capable of (even violent) aggression, but men would tend to yield to such impulses more readily than women. This might help explain why meta-analyzed gender differences tend to be smaller for laboratory studies than for ones done out in the real world. Laboratory settings are deliberately shielded from a host of real-world influences, and so may allow for ‘possible’ behaviors to trump more or less ‘probable’ ones in both sexes. But in the end, this distinction about thresholds doesn’t help gender essentialists much, because even in the animal research on which it is based, the thresholds themselves are variable within male and female subject groups, and the resulting distributions overlap, just as they do for actual behaviors. Moreover, as I noted previously, it is always risky to generalize from animal to human behavior, because human brains are structured for much more behavioral flexibility than those of even their closest primate neighbors.
3. We cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity:
Representative Uses of the Term ‘Complementarity’ in
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy
37 p. 446. The “Venus-Mars” reference is to John Gray’s popular volume, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). Such dichotomous views of the sexes seem to be popular because many people yearn for simple solutions to complex human challenges. As one of my male students memorably observed, “Mere tendencies don’t sell books.”
Sex,Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men, and Relationships By Dr.Gary Wood
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
a fairground ride, 10 Mar 2005
By chughes – See all my reviews
Fast moving and colourful, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes by Dr Gary Wood is a slim volume that could be read in a week-end, but you won’t want to read it that quickly; you’ll want to digest and discuss with friends and lovers some of the eclectic ideas and evidence presented before reading on, maybe even compare scores on some of the quizzes designed to reflect back attitudes on sex and gender to the reader.
The book is an intelligent response to the kind of books (typified by the different planet mentality) that perpetuate the myth that what divides men and women is more important than what unites us as human beings; an example of what he refers to as binary thinking. The last chapter is wonderfully titled, “Men are from earth and women are from earth, get over it.”!!!
The book draws together research and ideas from a broad spectrum that includes the classics, anthropology, biology and psychology, but the tone is conversational, witty and openly persuasive. Dr Wood has a knack of making facts funny and memorable. I will always think of Procrustes now as “a kind of Greek Basil Fawlty”.
Ultimately, this book is a plea that we embrace and celebrate the notion of complexity in our relationships; that we move beyond a polarising and adversarial stance, in favour of seeking win/win solutions for our own health as well as for the good of others. He concludes with advice on how we might go about improving our communications with others. I found the book highly enjoyable, thought provoking and useful and ultimately reassuring.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Great Accurate Debunking Of Mars & Venus Myths!, 24 Mar 2006
By fab4 (U.S.)
I ordered this great helpful book last year and Dr.Gary Wood as a social psychologist who specializes in relationships,and has a lot of research studies and experience to debunk all of the common harmful limiting gender myths and gender stereotypes that the Mars & Venus books written by John Gray (who got his “ph.D” from Columbia Pacific University,a mail order diploma mill that was closed down by the California Attorney General’s office in 2001 as a phony operation offering totally worthless degress!) re-enforces to millions of people. More people should know about and read this true sensible important helpful book! Help other customers find the most helpful reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Star dust not star wars, 24 Feb 2006
By cz (Uk) – See all my reviews
Great to find a relationship book that actually has something new to say and indeed challenge some of the well worn paths that books usually cover. The book makes serious points in a fun and lively way and looks at the biases we have in society about men, women and relationships. The book is back with thought-provoking quizzes and tips and challenges us to look at what we have in common (star dust) rather thanb exaggerate the petty differences (star wars). It’s got take away value and I’ve tried the colour-coded gender questionnaire on all of my friends. It’s the kind of self-help book that really does want you to help yourself and never suffers from the ‘so what’ factor’. Throroughly recommend it
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Like atlas shrugging, 18 Jan 2006
By Gabriel (UK. London) – See all my reviews
Deceptive little book that combines fun, poetry, quizzes, academic evidence. Very thought provoking and covers a whole range of topics in its journey to challenge gender stereotypes. Some passages of prose and the most beautiful I’ve ever read in self-help books, especially the ‘Declaration of Inter-dependence’. Enormously optimistic and inspiring. A perfect anti-dote to the usual ‘battle of the sexes’ stuff. A must read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Cooperation not sabotage., 19 April 2008
By K. T. Blaydon – See all my reviews
Having got the author’s excellent ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . .Swim Out To Meet It’, suitably impressed, I was intrigued by this, now quite rare, book. Quite simply, it is a breathtaking tour of gender myths. It focuses on our profound similarites rather than surface differences and offers a model of relationships based on cooperation rather than competition. Dr Gary Wood’s parody of the Mars and venus mythology is hilarious and exposes the nonsense of the ‘different planet’ approach. Hopefully it won’t be too long before this is back in print.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Gender Myth Buster, 15 April 2008
By Nick Green (London, UK) – See all my reviews
Really busts all of the gender myths that endlessly do the rounds. Discovered this after reading the author’s personal development book ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . Swim Out To Meet It!’. Both are great read and really say something that other books miss. Although I’ve only skimmed so far, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes covers a staggering amount of ground in a small space. I skipped to the chapter ‘Warning: Gender Stereotypes are bad for our health’. Fascinating stuff. I get the feeling that the book can be read on a number of levels which unfold after repeated readings.
Sex,Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men, and Relationships by Dr. Gary W. Wood (Paperback – 1 Mar 2005)
Used & New from: £0.01
Opposite Sexes or Neighboring Sexes?
C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and
the Psychology of Gender
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
Gender and Modern Social Science
C. S. Lewis was no fan of the emerging social sciences. He saw practitioners of the social sciences mainly as lackeys of technologically-minded natural scientists, bent on reducing individual freedom and moral accountability to mere epiphenomena of natural processes (See Lewis 1943 and 1970 b). And not surprisingly (given his passion for gender-essentialist archetypes), aside from a qualified appreciation
of some aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis (See Lewis 1952 (Book III, Chapter 4) and 1969). “Carl Jung was the only philosopher [sic] of the Viennese school for whose work [Lewis] had much respect” (Sayer 102).
But the social sciences concerned with the psychology of gender have since shown that Sayers was right, and Lewis and Jung were wrong: women and men are not opposite sexes but neighboring sexes—and very close neighbors indeed. There are, it turns out, virtually no large, consistent sex differences in any psychological traits and behaviors, even when we consider the usual stereotypical suspects: that men are more aggressive, or just, or rational than women, and women are more empathic, verbal, or nurturing than men. When differences are found, they are always average—not absolute—differences. And in virtually all cases the small, average—and often decreasing—difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the “bell curves” for women and men (showing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best (and deceptive at worst) to make even average—let alone absolute—pronouncements about essential archetypes in either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on all the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.
This criticism applies as much to C. S. Lewis and Carl Jung as it does to their currently most visible descendent, John Gray, who continues to claim (with no systematic empirical warrant) that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (Gray 1992).
And what about Lewis’s claims about the overriding masculinity of God? Even the late Carl Henry (a theologian with impeccable credentials as a conservative evangelical) noted a quarter of a century ago that:
Masculine and feminine elements are excluded from both the Old Testament and New Testament doctrine of deity. The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as “he” the pronoun is primarily personal (generic) rather than masculine (specific); it emphasizes God’s personal nature—and, in turn, that of the Father, Son and Spirit as Trinitarian distinctions in contrast to impersonal entities… Biblical religion is quite uninterested in any discussion of God’s masculinity or femininity… Scripture does not depict God either as ontologically
masculine or feminine. (Henry 1982, 159–60)
However well-intentioned, attempts to read a kind of mystical gendering into God—whether stereotypically
masculine, feminine, or both—reflect not so much careful biblical theology as “the long
arm of Paganism” (Martin 11). For it is pagan worldviews, the Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna reminds us, that are “unable to conceive of any primal creative force other than in terms of sex… [In Paganism] the sex element existed before the cosmos came into being and all the gods themselves were creatures of sex. On the other hand, the Creator in Genesis is uniquely without any female counterpart, and the very association of sex with God is utterly alien to the religion of the Bible” (Sarna 76).
And if the God of creation does not privilege maleness or stereotypical masculinity, neither did the Lord of redemption. Sayers’s response to the cultural assumption that women were human-not-quite-human has become rightly famous:
Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being
female; who had no axe to grind or no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is not act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel which borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about women’s nature. (Sayers 1975, 46)
It is quite likely that Lewis’s changing views on gender owed something to the intellectual and Christian ties that he forged with Dorothy L. Sayers. And indeed, in 1955—two years before her death, Lewis confessed to Sayers that he had only “dimly realised that the old-fashioned way… of talking to all young women was v[ery] like an adult way of talking to young boys. It explains,” he wrote, “not only why some women grew up vapid, but also why others grew us (if we may coin the word) viricidal [i.e., wanting to kill men]” (Lewis 2007, 676; Lewis’s emphasis). The Lewis who in his younger years so adamantly had defended the doctrine of gender essentialism was beginning to acknowledge the extent to which gendered behavior is socially conditioned. In another letter that same year, he expressed a concern to Sayers that some of the first illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles were a bit too effeminate. “I don’t like either the ultra feminine or the ultra masculine,” he added. “I prefer people” (Lewis 2007, 639; Lewis’s emphasis).
Dorothy Sayers surely must have rejoiced to read this declaration. Many of Lewis’s later readers, including myself, wish that his shift on this issue had occurred earlier and found its way into his better-selling apologetic works and his novels for children and adults. But better late than never. And it would be better still if those who keep trying to turn C. S. Lewis into an icon for traditionalist views on gender essentialism and gender hierarchy would stop mining his earlier works for isolated proof-texts and instead read what he wrote at every stage of his life.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
This essay originally was presented as the Tenth Annual Warren Rubel Lecture on Christianity and Higher Learning at Valparaiso University on 1 February 2007.
Evans, C. Stephen. Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology: Prospects for a Christian Approach. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.
Gray, John. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Hannay, Margaret. C. S. Lewis. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol. V. Waco, Texas: Word, 1982.
Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. III. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
_____. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1964.
_____. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905–1931. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
_____. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. II: 1931–1949. Walter Hooper, ed. San Francisco:
_____. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Reprinted in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed., Walter Hooper, 22–34. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
_____. “Priestesses in the Church?” . Reprinted in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, 234–39. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970a.
_____. “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,”. Reprinted in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, 287–300. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970b.
_____. “Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,”. Reprinted in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper, 286–300. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1969.
_____. [N. W. Clerk, pseudo.] A Grief Observed. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
_____. The Four Loves. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960.
_____. Till We Have Faces. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956.
_____. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. London: Collins, 1955.
_____. Mere Christianity. London: Collins, 1952.
_____. That Hideous Strength. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1945.
_____. The Abolition of Man. Oxford: Oxford University, 1943.
_____. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University, 1942.
_____. Perelandra. London: The Bodley Head, 1942.
Martin, Faith. “Mystical Masculinity: The New Question Facing Women,” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter 1998), 6–12.
Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martins, 1993.
Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken, 1966.
Sayer, George. Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,”. Reprinted in Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women
Human?, 37–47. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1975.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night. London: Victor Gollancz, 1935.
Sterk, Helen. “Gender and Relations and Narrative in a Reformed Church Setting.” In After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, ed., Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 184–221. Grand Rapids:
Copyright © 2007 Valparaiso University Press http://www.valpo.edu/cresset
Psychology Matters Homepage
Glossary of Psychological Terms
Men and Women: No Big Difference
Studies show that one’s sex has little or no bearing on personality, cognition and leadership
The Truth about Gender “Differences”
Mars-Venus sex differences appear to be as mythical as the Man in the Moon. A 2005 analysis of 46 meta-analyses that were conducted during the last two decades of the 20th century underscores that men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership. Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, discovered that males and females from childhood to adulthood are more alike than different on most psychological variables, resulting in what she calls a gender similarities hypothesis. Using meta-analytical techniques that revolutionized the study of gender differences starting in the 1980s, she analyzed how prior research assessed the impact of gender on many psychological traits and abilities, including cognitive abilities, verbal and nonverbal communication, aggression, leadership, self-esteem, moral reasoning and motor behaviors.
Hyde observed that across the dozens of studies, consistent with the gender similarities hypothesis, gender differences had either no or a very small effect on most of the psychological variables examined. Only a few main differences appeared: Compared with women, men could throw farther, were more physically aggressive, masturbated more, and held more positive attitudes about sex in uncommitted relationships.
Furthermore, Hyde found that gender differences seem to depend on the context in which they were measured. In studies designed to eliminate gender norms, researchers demonstrated that gender roles and social context strongly determined a person’s actions. For example, after participants in one experiment were told that they would not be identified as male or female, nor did they wear any identification, none conformed to stereotypes about their sex when given the chance to be aggressive. In fact, they did the opposite of what would be expected – women were more aggressive and men were more passive.
Finally, Hyde’s 2005 report looked into the developmental course of possible gender differences – how any apparent gap may open or close over time. The analysis presented evidence that gender differences fluctuate with age, growing smaller or larger at different times in the life span. This fluctuation indicates again that any differences are not stable.
Learning Gender-Difference Myths
Media depictions of men and women as fundamentally “different” appear to perpetuate misconceptions – despite the lack of evidence. The resulting “urban legends” of gender difference can affect men and women at work and at home, as parents and as partners. As an example, workplace studies show that women who go against the caring, nurturing feminine stereotype may pay dearly for it when being hired or evaluated. And when it comes to personal relationships, best-selling books and popular magazines often claim that women and men don’t get along because they communicate too differently. Hyde suggests instead that men and women stop talking prematurely because they have been led to believe that they can’t change supposedly “innate” sex-based traits.
Hyde has observed that children also suffer the consequences of exaggerated claims of gender difference — for example, the widespread belief that boys are better than girls in math. However, according to her meta-analysis, boys and girls perform equally well in math until high school, at which point boys do gain a small advantage. That may not reflect biology as much as social expectations, many psychologists believe. For example, the original Teen Talk Barbie ™, before she was pulled from the market after consumer protest, said, “Math class is tough.”
As a result of stereotyped thinking, mathematically talented elementary-school girls may be overlooked by parents who have lower expectations for a daughter’s success in math. Hyde cites prior research showing that parents’ expectations of their children’s success in math relate strongly to the children’s self-confidence and performance.
Moving Past Myth
Hyde and her colleagues hope that people use the consistent evidence that males and females are basically alike to alleviate misunderstanding and correct unequal treatment. Hyde is far from alone in her observation that the clear misrepresentation of sex differences, given the lack of evidence, harms men and women of all ages. In a September 2005 press release on her research issued by the American Psychological Association (APA), she said, “The claims [of gender difference] can hurt women’s opportunities in the workplace, dissuade couples from trying to resolve conflict and communication problems and cause unnecessary obstacles that hurt children and adolescents’ self-esteem.”
Psychologist Diane Halpern, PhD, a professor at Claremont College and past-president (2005) of the American Psychological Association, points out that even where there are patterns of cognitive differences between males and females, “differences are not deficiencies.” She continues, “Even when differences are found, we cannot conclude that they are immutable because the continuous interplay of biological and environmental influences can change the size and direction of the effects some time in the future.”
The differences that are supported by the evidence cause concern, she believes, because they are sometimes used to support prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory actions against girls and women. She suggests that anyone reading about gender differences consider whether the size of the differences are large enough to be meaningful, recognize that biological and environmental variables interact and influence one other, and remember that the conclusions that we accept today could change in the future.
Sources & Further Reading
Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8, 291-322.
Barnett, R. & Rivers, C. (2004). Same difference: How gender myths are hurting our relationships, our children, and our jobs. New York: Basic Books.
Eaton, W. O., & Enns, L. R. (1986). Sex differences in human motor activity level. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 19-28.
Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429-456.
Halpern, D. F. (2000). Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (3rd Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Inc. Publishers.
Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13 (4), 135-139.
Hyde, J. S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139-155.
Hyde, J. S. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 6.
Leaper, C. & Smith, T. E. (2004). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in children’s language use: Talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Developmental Psychology, 40, 993-1027.
Oliver, M. B. & Hyde, J. S. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 29-51.
Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M. & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P., (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250-270.
American Psychological Association, October 20, 2005
For more on GENDER ISSUES, click here.
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Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills
Research debunks myths about cognitive difference
What the Research Shows
Are boys better at math? Are girls better at language? If fewer women than men work as scientists and engineers, is that aptitude or culture? Psychologists have gathered solid evidence that boys and girls or men and women differ in very few significant ways — differences that would matter in school or at work — in how, and how well, they think.
At the University of Wisconsin, Janet Shibley Hyde has compiled meta-analytical studies on this topic for more than 10 years. By using this approach, which aggregates research findings from many studies, Hyde has boiled down hundreds of inquiries into one simple conclusion: The sexes are more the same than they are different.
In a 2005 report, Hyde compiled meta-analyses on sex differences not only in cognition but also communication style, social or personality variables, motor behaviors and moral reasoning. In half the studies, sex differences were small; in another third they were almost non-existent. Thus, 78 percent of gender differences are small or close to zero. What’s more, most of the analyses addressed differences that were presumed to be reliable, as in math or verbal ability.
At the end of 2005, Harvard University’s Elizabeth Spelke reviewed 111 studies and papers and found that most suggest that men’s and women’s abilities for math and science have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood but give men and women on the whole equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as six months on tasks such as addition and subtraction (babies can do this, but not with pencil and paper!).
The evidence has piled up for years. In 1990, Hyde and her colleagues published a groundbreaking meta-analysis of 100 studies of math performance. Synthesizing data collected on more than three million participants between 1967 and 1987, researchers found no large, overall differences between boys and girls in math performance. Girls were slightly better at computation in elementary and middle school; in high school only, boys showed a slight edge in problem solving, perhaps because they took more science, which stresses problem solving. Boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any gender differences narrowed over the years, belying the notion of a fixed or biological differentiating factor.
As for verbal ability, in 1988, Hyde and two colleagues reported that data from 165 studies revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless, despite previous assertions that “girls are better verbally.” What’s more, the authors found no evidence of substantial gender differences in any component of verbal processing. There were even no changes with age.
What the Research Means
The research shows not that males and females are – cognitively speaking — separate but equal, but rather suggests that social and cultural factors influence perceived or actual performance differences. For example, in 1990, Hyde et al. concluded that there is little support for saying boys are better at math, instead revealing complex patterns in math performance that defy easy generalization. The researchers said that to explain why fewer women take college-level math courses and work in math-related occupations, “We must look to other factors, such as internalized belief systems about mathematics, external factors such as sex discrimination in education and in employment, and the mathematics curriculum at the precollege level.”
Where the sexes have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a role. Spelke believes that later-developing differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but rather cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that really kick in during high school and college.
In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What’s more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.
Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility — Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.
How We Use the Research
If males and females are truly understood to be very much the same, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, “Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics.” They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. They also refer to boys having more access to problem-solving experiences outside math class. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys; resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Hyde is concerned about the costs of scientifically unsound gender stereotyping to individuals and to society as a whole.
Sources & Further Reading
Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (1988). Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 53-69.
Hyde, J.S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139-155.
Hyde, J.S. (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-592.
Spelke, Elizabeth S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: A critical review. American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958.
Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
American Psychological Association, January 18, 2006
Learn more about EDUCATION, TESTING AND ASSESSMENT or GENDER ISSUES
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Below is an email I wrote to Oxford University Gender communication professor Deborah Cameron author of the great important book,The Myth Of Mars and Venus Do Men and women Really Speak Different Languages?.
I recently read your great important book, The Myth Of Mars & Venus. I read a bad review of the book, The Female Brain on Amazon.com US by psychologist David H.Perterzell.
I also thought you would want to know that John Gray got his “Ph.D” from Columbia Pacific University which was closed down in March 2001 by the California Attorney General’s Office because he called it a diploma mill and a phony operation offering totally worthless degrees!
Also there is a Christian gender and psychology scholar and author psychology professor Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leewuen who teaches the psychology and Philosophy of Gender at the Christian College Eastern College here in Pa. She has several online presentations that were done at different colleges from 2005- the present debunking the Mars & Venus myth.
One is called , Opposite Sexes Or Neighboring Sexes and sometimes adds, Beyond The Mars/Venus Rhetoric in which she explains that all of the large amount of research evidence from the social and behavorial sciences shows that the sexes are very close neighbors and that there are only small average differences between them many of which have gotten even smaller over the last several decades which she says happened after 1973 when gender roles were less rigid and that genetic differences can’t shrink like this and in such a short period of time, and that most large differences that are found are between individual people and that for almost every trait and behavior there is a large overlap between them and she said so it is naive at best and deceptive at worst to make claims about natural sex differences. etc.
She says he claims Men are From Mars & Women are From Venus with no emperical warrant and that his claim gets virtually no support from the large amount of psychological and behavioral sciences and that in keeping in line with the Christian Ethic and with what a bumper sticker she saw said and evidence from the behavioral and social sciences is , Men Are From,Earth ,Women Are From Earth Get Used To It. Comedian George Carlin said this too.
She also said that such dichotomous views of the sexes are apparently popular because people like simple answers to complex issues including relationships between men and women. She should have said especially relationships between them.
Sociologist Dr.Michael Kimmel writes and talks about this also including in his Media Education Foundation educational video. And he explains that all of the evidence from the psychological and behavioral sciences indicates that women and men are far more alike than different.
Yet Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen says that there are no consistent large psychological sex differences found.
I have an excellent book from 1979 written by 2 parent child development psychologists Dr. Wendy Schemp Matthews and award winning psychologist from Columbia University, Dr.Jeane Brooks-Gunn, called He & She How Children Develop Their Sex Role Idenity.
They thoroughly demonstrate with tons of great studies and experiments by parent child psychologists that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike than different with very few differences but they are still perceived and treated systematically very different from the moment of birth on by parents and other adult care givers. They go up to the teen years.
I once spoke with Dr.Brooks-Gunn in 1994 and I asked her how she could explain all of these great studies that show that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike with few differences but are still perceived and treated so differently anyway, and she said that’s due to socialization and she said there is no question, that socialization plays a very big part.
I know that many scientists know that the brain is plastic and can be shaped and changed by different life experiences and different enviornments too and Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen told this to me too when I spoke to her 10 years ago.
Also there are 2 great online rebuttals of the Mars & Venus myth by Susan Hamson called, The Rebuttal From Uranus and Out Of The Cave: Exploring Gray’s Anatomy by Kathleen Trigiani.
Also have you read the excellent book by social psychologist Dr.Gary Wood at The University of Birmingham called, Sex Lies & Stereotypes:Challenging Views Of Women, Men & Relationships? He clearly demonstrates with all of the research studies from psychology what Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen does, and he debunks The Mars & Venus myth and shows that the sexes are biologically and psychologically more alike than different and how gender roles and differences are mostly socially created.
Anyway, if you could write back when you have a chance I would really appreciate it.
Hello. Thanks for an excellent article (and thanks for mentioning my review!. Have you read the many comments that followed it?)
I think that special congratulations are due to the author (dlende) and Cordelia Fine. I’m not sure which of you tracked down Dr. B’s link to the drug companies, but as far as I’m concerned, you found a smoking gun. As you noted, I suspected a drug company link but didn’t realize that it was this explicit. That was excellent investigative reporting! It is a valuable find given how heated the debate seems to have become. Dr. B has had ample opportunity to mention her proprietary interests in interviews and articles, but as far as I can tell (I could be wrong), she hasn’t always been transparent about these interests. Well, I guess she was transparent in the article you found…
Of course nearly all of us in the health professions face these sorts of conflicts of interest. Public awareness of these conflicts needs to grow, I think. One person who has helped raise awareness (I don’t know her at all well) is a brave and truthful medical scientist at UCSD (and Salk Institute) named Beatrice Golomb. Keep an eye on her heroic work! As a clinical psychologist, I don’t have prescription privileges, but the drug companies still court my favor in various ways. The drug companies seem to know that psychologists have considerable influence over psychiatrists’ pharmacological choices, even if we don’t prescribe the drugs. And of course, drug researchers at universities (including scientists) need to bring in grants, and these grants sometimes come from drug companies. Conflicts of interest abound.
When I wrote my review, I had no idea that it would attract so much attention, both friendly and hostile. After writing my review (the first negative one from an academic, I believe, but not the first by scientifically-minded reviewers at Amazon), I watched as the book became extremely popular with the public and many in the media who didn’t have scientific backgrounds. In fact, I’ve had numerous bright non-scientist friends and acquaintances (who didn’t know I wrote a review of the book) tell me how much they enjoyed Brizendine’s FB. I was a bit relieved when other academics from other disciplines posted negative reviews. Each additional academic reviewer found additional flaws that I had missed. At the end of the day, there seem to be no positive reviews of the book by academics, but there are negative reviews by psychologists, linguists, neurobiolgists, and others.
David H. Peterzell, Ph.D., Ph.D.
Very descriptive article, I enjoyed that a lot.
Will there be a part 2?