Yesterday I came across a blog post called Gender, Brain Science and Wrong-Headed Notions (written by Rebecca Jordan-Young, author of Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference) that argues that none of the research on gender differences in brain stands up to tighter scrutiny. There is no difference in the functioning or structure of male and female brains as described in books like Leadership and the Sexes or The Female Brain and The Male Brain. I had two reactions: 1) perhaps the lady doth protest too much and 2) does it matter?
Back in my days on the faculty at Stanford Grad School of Business, the only cognitive gender difference recognized as genetically determined was spatial visualization with males generally being better at it than females. Oh- that and the fact women generally had a thicker corpus callosum. At that time, there were very few women in leadership positions not to mention women students in MBA programs (there were only 5 women out of 600 students when I first arrived on campus). I was happy that known research at that time said the differences were pretty much all nurture. But then, over the years, when I spoke to some of the women MBAs, they shared examples of how they instinctively felt differently about things than their male counterparts. They were telling me that they felt there were differences in how their minds worked.
Then came research indicating behavioral differences that may be associated with gender derived brain structures/functions. [All the research has come with the caveat that there was a wide variety of individual variation within each gender.] Based on my experience, it made sense. So there are differences in how men and women perceive/process ideas, emotions, etc. but they have their advantages and disadvantages. And it says nothing about the ability to function with equal effectiveness. It does help explain why men and women initially react differently to certain situations and to provide opportunities for both sexes to learn from each other.
Do cultural influences impact the development of gender differences? Of course they do. But it’s hard to argue there isn’t something more and acknowledging that doesn’t make one sex or the other better suited to any particular job or status. [Note: I have not read Jordan-Young’s book but plan to do so.]
As for- does it matter. Bottom line- not really. First- because the brains and behaviors of men and women are in overlapping bell curves. Secondly- because whatever skills are needed can be developed. Nature or nurture? Who cares?
A separate issue raised in the article is one I wholeheartedly agree with. How the achievements and behaviors of men and women are perceived really do differ. Time and again, studies have show that given identical work products- when attributed to a man, the rating is higher than when attributed to a woman whether the raters are male or female. Now that’s an issue worth tackling.
What do you think?