Differences Between The Sexes

While discussing the Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ incident, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, detailed some of the overall settled differences between males and females:

Many of Summers’s critics believe that talk of innate gender differences is a relic of Victorian pseudoscience, such as the old theory that cogitation harms women by diverting blood from their ovaries to their brains. In fact, much of the scientific literature has reported numerous statistical differences between men and women. As I noted in The Blank Slate, for instance, men are, on average, better at mental rotation and mathematical word problems; women are better at remembering locations and at mathematical calculation. Women match shapes more quickly, are better at reading faces, are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material. Men take greater risks and place a higher premium on status; women are more solicitous to their children.

Of course, just because men and women are different does not mean that the differences are triggered by genes. People develop their talents and personalities in response to their social milieu, which can change rapidly. So some of today’s sex differences in cognition could be as culturally determined as sex differences in hair and clothing. But the belief, still popular among some academics (particularly outside the biological sciences), that children are born unisex and are molded into male and female roles by their parents and society is becoming less credible. Many sex differences are universal across cultures (the twentieth-century belief in sex-reversed tribes is as specious as the nineteenth-century belief in blood-deprived ovaries), and some are found in other primates. Men’s and women’s brains vary in numerous ways, including the receptors for sex hormones. Variations in these hormones, especially before birth, can exaggerate or minimize the typical male and female patterns in cognition and personality. Boys with defective genitals who are surgically feminized and raised as girls have been known to report feeling like they are trapped in the wrong body and to show characteristically male attitudes and interests. And a meta-analysis of 172 studies by psychologists Hugh Lytton and David Romney in 1991 found virtually no consistent difference in the way contemporary Americans socialize their sons and daughters. Regardless of whether it explains the gender disparity in science, the idea that some sex differences have biological roots cannot be dismissed as Neanderthal ignorance.

Since most sex differences are small and many favor women, they don’t necessarily give an advantage to men in school or on the job. But Summers invoked yet another difference that may be more consequential. In many traits, men show greater variance than women, and are disproportionately found at both the low and high ends of the distribution. Boys are more likely to be learning disabled or retarded but also more likely to reach the top percentiles in assessments of mathematical ability, even though boys and girls are similar in the bulk of the bell curve. The pattern is readily explained by evolutionary biology. Since a male can have more offspring than a female–but also has a greater chance of being childless (the victims of other males who impregnate the available females)–natural selection favors a slightly more conservative and reliable baby-building process for females and a slightly more ambitious and error-prone process for males. That is because the advantage of an exceptional daughter (who still can have only as many children as a female can bear and nurse in a lifetime) would be canceled out by her unexceptional sisters, whereas an exceptional son who might sire several dozen grandchildren can more than make up for his dull childless brothers. One doesn’t have to accept the evolutionary explanation to appreciate how greater male variability could explain, in part, why more men end up with extreme levels of achievement. (emphasis added)

These differences (along with others) have to be part of the reason why we find fewer women in fields where competition (CEO positions, for example) or a high mathematical ability is absolutely critical.

Or, to look at it from a different angle, these differences also help to explain why men have a virtual monopoly on the least attractive jobs.

8 Responses to “Differences Between The Sexes”


  • “Men take greater risks and place a higher premium on status; women are more solicitous to their children”.

    Women can do all………..take great risks, place premium on status AND be solicitous to kids. 😉

  • Nobody said they couldn’t.

  • Oh god, here I go agreeing with you again. This Summers thing got blown way out of proportion. People who don’t accept the biological differences between men and women (most of which I would actually say favor women … especially as the economy becomes less dependent on manual labor and accounting and more on creativity and design) are just as bad as those who think homosexuality is a “behavior” and not biological.

  • LOL. I never said that homosexuality is not biological. My arguments against homosexual marriage stand apart from whether or not homosexual acts are biologically caused or not. That is why I sidestepped the (controversial) issue.

  • Sidestepped just like your bro Bush in the debates. Spit it out homie.

  • LOL. My lips are sealed. 🙂

  • My initial thought on this was “Oh fawk, here we go again! These liberals are trying to stifle or silence intellectual discourse on subjects that counter there beliefs.”

    But I think I understand some of the concerns of those on the left. Should a Harvard president bring up for thought controversial and potential socially damaging suppositions that have little supportive evidence? I wonder what if he had substituted “race,” would “conservatives” be quick to defend his remarks?

  • Yes he should, especially if addressing those issues will result in what everybody wants, more women in the sciences.

    Steven Pinker, recognized internationally as an expert on this topic, writes (in the article quoted above), “Nor is a better understanding of the causes of gender disparities inconsequential. Overestimating the extent of sex discrimination is not without costs”. He than goes on to give examples of how ignoring these issues, and overemphasizing on discrimination, can hurt women in the sciences.

    So yes, ignoring these issues is bad for women.

    Second point, these are not, as you refer to them, “suppositions that have little supportive evidence”. In fact, it is Summers suppositions that have the science behind it, not the suppositions of his critics. Pinker writes, “But the belief, still popular among some academics (particularly outside the biological sciences), that children are born unisex and are molded into male and female roles by their parents and society is becoming less credible”. He also writes, “Regardless of whether it explains the gender disparity in science, the idea that some sex differences have biological roots cannot be dismissed as Neanderthal ignorance”.

    He also writes, “Summers’s analysis of why there might be fewer women in mathematics and science is commonplace among economists who study gender disparities in employment, though it is rarely mentioned in the press or in academia when it comes to discussions of the gender gap in science and engineering”.

    He even goes so far as to defend Summers, he writes, “But Summers invoked yet another difference that may be more consequential…One doesn’t have to accept the evolutionary explanation to appreciate how greater male variability could explain, in part, why more men end up with extreme levels of achievement”.

    This is how he concludes, “At some point in the history of the modern women’s movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred. The reasons are understandable: Women really had been held back by bogus claims of essential differences. Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as “not getting it” when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry”.

    So Summers did what someone who truly cares about solving the problem of getting more women in science should do, he brought up all the issues that might effect whey there are less women in science. If some decide to ignore some of those reasons, because of their utopian views, than they do so at the expense of solving the problem.

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