Science of the Sexes Reveals Differences

Cape Times (South Africa), August 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Science of the Sexes Reveals Differences


BYLINE: Helena Cronin

"When I was in college, there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl. Now you can say them, but you can't say 'girl'." Tom Lehrer's quip reminded me of the phrase "gender gap". Because I think that it should also carry a warning: handle with care - especially in the workplace.

With women entering jobs that were once all-male, "gender-distribution gaps" are emerging. Science? Men are from physics, women from psychology. Medicine? Men from surgery, women from paediatrics.

Flight? Men pilots, women stewards. Firefighters, car mechanics, construction workers, computer buffs - males. Kindergarten teachers, counsellors, nurses, receptionists - females. All gaps between men's and women's work.

Then there's the status gap - men overwhelmingly at the top, from professors to presidents, CEOs to chefs. And the notorious pay gap - women routinely earning less than men.

Why these gaps? Majority consensus claims it's "bias and barriers". Bias: too much sexist discrimination. Barriers: too few female- friendly conditions (creches, part-time working and the like).

So eliminating bias and barriers has become a major crusade for would-be feminists, sparking off "diversity" committees, policy-making, law suits and degrees in gender studies.

But hold on. There's a huge mistake here. For, however entrenched the biases and barriers, they can't be the full story. Why? Because, in addition, men and women differ, on average, in talents, tastes and temperaments. So the two sexes would end up in different places across the entire workplace anyway.

These sex differences are a product of evolution.

Why did they evolve?

Because, if you reproduce sexually, you must divide your reproductive efforts between competing for mates and caring for offspring.

Males specialise more in competing, females more in caring. So in humans, as in all other sexual species, males are shaped by all-out competing, females by committed caring - from brains to bodies to behaviour. So the question to ask about a species is never: are there evolved sex differences? The question is always: what exactly do the differences look like in this species?

Which brings us back to the sex differences that are showing up in the workplace. Now, this evolutionary understanding throws intriguing new light on "gender gaps".

Take evolved differences in talents. Men are on average more mathematical, more techy. They're far better at intuitive mechanics, particularly three-dimensional thinking - that is, being able to turn objects around in their minds, imagining how they'd look from different perspectives. If men are shown a picture of two glasses, one upright and one slightly tipped, and are asked to draw a line where the water-levels would be, most know intuitively that the line will always be horizontal.

But, astonishingly, up to half of the women who are asked (of all ages and education) get it wrong. These male talents are key for success in maths and heavy-duty sciences.

Meanwhile, women's talents are more verbal. So it's no surprise that, when it comes to working in science, it's men in the maths-heavy sciences, women in the "soft" sciences. Among women doctorates, psychologists and sociologists are common, physicists and engineers rare.

It's a similar story with innate tastes - that is, interests and values. Men are more interested in things, women in people. Even in babies less than one day old, girls prefer a human face, boys a mechanical mobile. Men like working with objects or abstract ideas; women shun people-free work, and care more about family and having a life.

"I'm happiest at work when I also make other people happy"; 50% of women, but only 15% of men, agree.

When women leave high-powered jobs to "spend more time with the family", it's truth, not euphemism.

In both the social and life sciences, most doctorates are women's. …

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