Serena Freewomyn

New Studies Reveal Interesting Gender Patterns

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | July 11, 2008 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender differences, gender identity, IQ, men, nerds, Psychology Today, transgender, women, women's studies

The latest issue of Psychology Today has some articles about gender that I find highly entertaining, if not mildly offensive if they're not taken with a grain of salt.

The first article is called "Money Ain't a Thing." It summarizes a study by Christine Stanik of the University of Michigan. Stanik found that the higher a woman's IQ, the less likely she is to seek out a sugar daddy. Confident in her own ability to provide financially, she wants a man who can change diapers and do the dishes. Umm, duh! What self-respecting woman these days doesn't want a partner who shares in domestic responsibilities? The shortcoming of the study, of course, is that it fails to examine what lesbians look for in a partner. Nor does it take into account the gender and cultural biases of IQ testing. But hey . . . a professor's got to get published to get tenure. So at least there's that positive aspect.

The second article I found amusing was called "Eye-Catcher." And quite frankly, I'd expect to see something like this in an issue of Cosmo, not in a pseudo-science journal. Anthropologist David Givens hypothesizes in his book Love Signals that there are three steps to attracting a prospective mate: Getting noticed, advertising your attributes, and signaling safety. The article states that for women, the use of mascara can accomplish all three goals.

First of all, mascara draws attention to the eyes. Check this jewel of quote!

Simply having bothered to decorate one's lashes suggests a desire to be noticed. It's like putting out a welcome sign inviting others to approach and check out the artwork. And once they're caught in that frame of luscious lashes, they'll have a hard time looking away.

Women's faces as artwork . . . interesting concept. As sexist as this quote comes off, any Cosmo or Rules girl can tell you that there's a little bit of truth behind the statement. You always want to highlight your assets, whatever they may be. For instance, when I go out, I typically carry lipstick in my purse so that I can reapply it when I want to draw attention to my lips. Just ask my boifriend. It caught his attention!

The next little gem in this article says:

Approaching a stranger is always a little scary, but it is easier if they look sweet and innocent. Mascara can help here, too. Longer eyelashes bring adult facial dimensions closer to the proportions of a baby, possibly eliciting sympathetic, even protective, responses from a beholder.

Oh no they didn't! So much for encouraging women to have higher IQ's. We should look like babies in order to attract a man. Did they honestly just say that in print?!? Forget the heteronormativity of that statement. Let's just chuck it altogether for being repugnant in general.

The last article that tickled my funny bone was entitled "It's All Geek to Me." Author Benjamin Nugent introduces us to Erik Charles Nielsen.

Nielsen is a nerd--intellectually gifted but socially awkward. Nerds are good at thinking like machines, with pure reason, but less able to divine and follow non-rational rules. Nielsen's ability to analyze, figure out systems, and solve logical problems eventually helped get him into grad school, but it wasn't helpful for picking up unspoken guidelines for social behavior.

Oh, how I love a nerd boy! Most of my guy friends are nerds - they play Magic: The Gathering, enjoy and old school throw down of D&D, and are predictably addicted to World of Warcraft. At any given moment, you're just as likely to hear them debating the merits of Star Wars vs. Star Trek, and most of them consider Comic Con to be the social event of the season.

Nugent would have us believe that although "'nerd' is a vernacular label, not a scientific one," (just in case you didn't know), "nerdiness" is genetic:

Biology is partially responsible for creating... a "systematizing brain," or "S-brain" -- a brain good at figuring out logical rules. The opposite is an empathic brain; E-brains are good at divining what people are feeling, and people with E-brains develop sharper social skills. More men have S-brains than women, and more women have E-brains than men -- though men and women both fall all over the spectrum.

This hypothesis ignores the substantial role that socialization plays in shaping a child's interests and the development of their abilities. Intelligence is certainly something you are born with. But I believe (and many theorists would back me up on this) that our environment has a lot to do with the direction we take in life. There are many girls who enjoy playing chess, participating in the science club, and competing with the math-letes. On the other side of the coin, plenty of boys like to cook, knit, and play music.

There's nothing inherent in our biology that dictates which interests we will develop. Just because I have a vagina, it doesn't mean that I can't balance my checkbook. Instead of recycling tired old stereotypes that women are emotional creatures and men are rational beings, I would like to see "scientists" and so-called "academics" pushing the boundaries of research by discovering what exactly in our brains drives personality. Now that would be news.

Furthermore, Nugent's article fails to examine the nature of the transgender brain or the way that nurture/nature affects their intellectual and/or emotional development. For example, if someone is born female but identifies as a boi, are they more or less likely to be rational or emotional? What if someone is born male but identifies as a woman? Will they be more emotional and less rational? How much of that has to do with gender socialization, and how much of it is hardwired into their system? Can any of us ever know for sure?

There is a much more persuasive article on Psychology Today's website, called "Why Gender Doesn't Matter," by Dr. Daisy Grewal. She summarizes a study done by Janet Shibley Hyde, a professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at UW-Madison. (The full text of Hyde's study is available here.)

Hyde examined the major meta-analyses that had already been conducted on gender differences. In a sense, she did a meta meta-analysis in order to see what gender differences are true or not. She started out with the hypothesis that most differences between the two sexes are negligent to non-existent. In fact, that is exactly what she found-with a few exceptions. The largest gender differences are in the domain of motor performance (such as throwing velocity and distance). A second area is sexuality, particularly in reported masturbation activity, and attitudes about casual and uncommitted relationships. Although much publicity has been given to gender differences in aggression, the differences are only moderate. Furthermore "relational" aggression which has been publicized as more common among girls shows no consistent gender difference.

The reason that I find this study persuasive is its breadth. And despite my small female brain (which is supposed to be less logical, and unable to understand math or science), Grewal's phrase "meta meta-analysis" got me all giddy because I love geeking out on stats. For those of you who don't enjoy dissecting stats, it means that Hyde literally reviewed hundreds of studies about the biological roots of gender identity. If there is little biological evidence to suggestion that gender differences are innate, then the most logical explanation is gender socialization. This seems to suggest that for men, women, and trans folks, our gender identities are socially constructed. Thank Goddess for that Women's Studies degree! I knew I wasn't totally wasting 6 years of my life learning that gender was a myth!

I ultimately agree with Grewal's conclusions about the impact of Hyde's study:

The question is then, why do most of us believe so strongly in gender differences despite the evidence that shows they are minimal for most things? For one, overinflated claims of gender differences appeal more to our intuitions. They sell more magazines and newspapers. They make for interesting non-fiction book titles, and they allow researchers to publish papers that gain them scientific recognition. Perhaps we start out believing in gender differences and therefore see them wherever we look.

Unfortunately, as Hyde points out, there are big costs to our beliefs in gender differences. Social psychologists have shown that beliefs often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, the more we believe something is true, the more we are likely to act in a way that makes it come true. Men are taught to believe that they aren't good at communicating, that they lack tact, and are not good at interpreting emotions. Women are taught to believe that they aren't cut out for leadership, they're bad at math, and they should stick to certain careers that bring out their "natural" abilities. The costs for our beliefs are huge for both genders; and, given the lack of scientific data to support any of them, ought to be seriously re-evaluated.

So the next time you hear someone say that we'll never have a female president or that women make bad CEO's because of some "biological difference" between men and women, why don't you ask them for the scientific evidence to support that theory. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!


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Oh, Serena, you have to read this. Is exactly what you're talking about studies that prove gender differences getting more press.

Biology is partially responsible for creating... a "systematizing brain," or "S-brain" -- a brain good at figuring out logical rules. The opposite is an empathic brain; E-brains are good at divining what people are feeling, and people with E-brains develop sharper social skills. More men have S-brains than women, and more women have E-brains than men -- though men and women both fall all over the spectrum.

Wow. There's more than one potential confound (ie, a stumbling block that makes the validity of a theory suspect) here.

The first and most obvious of which is that a 'spectrum' is posited, which implies a continuum of brains that are (only?) good at S tasks at one end, some in the middle that aren't strongly patterned toward either task, and the opposite end of the spectrum where the brains that are (only?) good at E tasks tend to reside. It's implied that brains good at S-type organization are less capable of E-type organization, though it's never made clear (and one suspects, the data may not actually demonstrate) why this would be so. Indeed, it seems more reasonable to assume that S-type organization and E-type organization are two fundamentally different tasks, and that each individual's abilities falls onto a separate continuum for each task. In other words, some individuals will be strong in one area and weak in the other (as the 'spectrum' posits), but others will be strong performers in *both* types of processing, others may be bad at both. In other words, rather than a single trait that oh-so-coincidentally meshes or aligns with the just-so stories we tell ourselves about gender, the traits in question could well be multivariant.

The second of which is the assumption that because an observed difference between genders exists, that the cause is necessarily biological. Correlation does not imply causation. Even if the brains of more men can be shown to exhibit a particular trait vis-a-vis the brains of women, it doesn't necessarily imply that male physiology is responsible. The interaction between brain and behavior is a two-way street; biological changes influence the way one behaves, but one's patterns of behavior also have the potential to change the brain's structure and function in subtle ways. Therefore it's exceptionally difficult to look at any observed sex difference in the brain and conclude that biology alone is responsible, due to the numerous ways that men and women are socialized differently in many societies. In other words, being treated like a man by others and having an interest in 'male' hobbies and activities could result in a more male-seeming set of brain functions, and vice versa with respect to 'female' hobbies. Social pressure and selective reinforcement are incredibly powerful behavior-modifying tools. Chalking everything up to biology is overly deterministic.

Thanks for including meta-meta-analysis... it's nice to see that the assumptions aren't going unchallenged. And yes, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding sex differences isn't that any exist, but rather why we tend to believe that even more differences exist than the evidence actually supports... and furthermore, the extent to which our strong tendency as a society to believe in and embrace sex differences gives those presumed differences power to shape our behavior... giving rise to the self-fulfilling prophecies you mentioned.

Fascinating. What a find, Serena.

Arkades, you're such a logical person. I guess you must have an S-brain! ;^) Thanks for debunking the study for us.

The interaction between brain and behavior is a two-way street; biological changes influence the way one behaves, but one's patterns of behavior also have the potential to change the brain's structure and function in subtle ways. Therefore it's exceptionally difficult to look at any observed sex difference in the brain and conclude that biology alone is responsible, due to the numerous ways that men and women are socialized differently in many societies. In other words, being treated like a man by others and having an interest in 'male' hobbies and activities could result in a more male-seeming set of brain functions, and vice versa with respect to 'female' hobbies.
All true, and worthy of far more investigation than the subject is currently getting.

So, when do we re-start "reparative therapy", to attempt to change biologically-related sexual orientation via social modification?

That's the problem: we've already done that particular experiment, and shown fairly conclusively that in that particular case, nature trumps nurture. Now that doesn't mean that it always will, or that the brain can't be modified by external experience. It can, and trivially it does get so, every day, when we lay down memories. Less trivially, prolonged torture and trauma can cause PTSD, giving rise to changes visible on fMRI scans.

We must be careful to set ethical limits on our experimentation. Apart from memory, the only changes we've been able to produce have been highly destructive, and are not precisely targeted: torture to change gender or sexual orientation may work, but only in the way that a forest fire may prune a particular tree, or an A-bomb rearrange the furniture in a particular apartment.

No subtle, "surgical" effects from benign methods have ever been demonstrated. Conversely, some Mengeleresque methods have been used, and continue to be used, on non-conformant children, especially girls. I'm thinking in particular of Dr Zucker and his team at CAMH. Their success has been at best limited, at worst, indistinguishable from the noise. They really need to go further, not just mild torture but actual electrodes and thumbscrews to get results. Even this may not be enough, which is why such techniques are not used very much these days. They were though, and not that long ago.

Zoe, you make such a good point. And can I say that your little analogy about the A-bomb made me giggle? Nice!

Seriously, though, I think that when we look at how trans kids are currently being treated by so-called professionals like Zucker, it definitely raises the question of how much do we have to modify the brain and/or someone's behavior before they are "appropriately" gendered? Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that there is no biological basis for gender identity. But I think the biological differences as a lot smaller than we currently think. And I think that socialization has a much more powerful influence on the end product.

Great discussion, ya'll!