on October 28, 2014
[this is a long review intended for those who want to get a sense for what this book has in it -- fair warning]
This book was nothing short of excellent. It was superbly researched, well presented, and the author clearly allowed herself to go where the evidence took her, rather than giving in to preconceived notions or bias. I rather expected something different: I assumed that this would be a book largely devoted to showing how girls are disadvantaged. While that is one topic, she also shows the many ways that boys are disadvantaged as well - her main point seems to be that both boys and girls have advantages and disadvantages in life, and we need to address weak points to allow both boys and girls to be well rounded and successful. If there is a second main point, it is that while biology influences us, it need not define us - and men and women are not as different as our often different interests and physical appearance would indicate, and that nurture - and how we live - alters our brains in different ways but are not necessarily fated by biology. At the end of each chapter the author gives ideas about how to compensate for the small male/female differences.
This book is not excessively technical, and after explaining important scientific studies and the conclusions we can draw she often illustrates them using anecdotal evidence. Some reviewers have claimed that she has based her conclusions on anecdote, but this is not the case. All anecdotes are used to give life to the empirically gathered scientific evidence that she has already explained. It is not, however, light reading - she actually conveys real information in this book in a nuanced and balanced way, so don't expect something trite like Brizendine's "The Female Brain" which makes for easy reading but sloppy conclusions (she is rather hard on Brizendine).
In order to give you an idea of the topics addressed in this book I will summarize some of the key findings and ideas.
The introduction to this book is a real jewel. She explains how statisticians mathematically convey the average difference between two groups, and then shows what this actually means. For instance, one trait may vary by a difference value (d) of 2.6, another may vary by a difference value of 0.35 - the trait that varies by d = 2.6 is height (this should give you a sense for how the scale works) and the trait that varies by 0.35 is "close to the difference in science scores between men and women." It turns out that 0.35 is a rather large for a psychological difference. She later explains that this is not necessarily due to nature, though some of it probably is - but the point of the introduction is to note that when it comes to most psychological differences we are more similar than dissimilar.
It's important to take note that these numbers are a statistical average. The most revealing aspect of the introduction, and why it should be basically required reading, is that if you plot the graph with data points from all the people in the studies used to derive the data, there will be considerable overlap of individual men and women. 76% of the data points overlap on the graph for of d = 0.35: in otherwords, 76% of the men and women fell into the same range. This is hard to visualize without the graph, but the point is that the vast majority of men and women are like other men and women, falling into the same range. It is the extremes of the genders that define the difference. Keep in mind that this is a LARGE difference for a psychological trait.
So, we hear that women are more empathetic than men - yet if you plot the data, many men will be just as empathetic as women, and some men will be more empathetic than most women. We hear that men are better than women at science - but many women will be just as good, some better. And for all of these differences, at least some of the difference is due to something other than biological fate - though biology does play into it. The difference between men and other men is greater than that between men and women, so too with women. It's impossible to emphasize enough how much that matters: we are individuals, not just representatives of our gender.
The biggest differences I could find in this book were in interests - boys do like trucks, girls do like dolls - and physical size and appearance/sexual preference (i.e. most men prefer women for sex and vice-versa). In other words, in some really obvious ways we are different, but underneath the skin we are not nearly so different. This fits with my experience in life: I have met plenty of sympathetic and understanding men (and unempathetic women), and I have met plenty of mathematically inclined women (and disinclined men, like me) - even it is skewed as the stereotypes say. As she says: " the difference in achievement between the sexes remains much smaller than the gaps in achievement among different racial and economic groups, where we should no doubt be directing more of our energy."
The first chapter deals with the in-utero development of boys and girls. It turns out that at this stage boys are more vulnerable and develop more slowly. Girls thus seem more precocious - but this is in significant part because we compare 10 month girls to 10 month boys, a comparison that is not accurate (remember, many boys will fall into the range of girls - average differences obscure all the overlap of individual data points as outlined above). Boys and girls develop different things first, but the differences are very mild. It appears that prenatal testosterone is responsible for the more aggressive play of boys, rather than actively produced testosterone. Girls with older brothers will be far more likely to engage in male-like play.
Chapter 2 deals with small children. The biggest conclusion was that sensory differences are very slight between boys and girls - the largest auditory difference was d=0.15, which is very slight. A particular response to auditory stimuli was marginally larger, "but the effect is small, with a d value of 0.26, meaning the average girl's response is faster than about 60 percent of boys'." We hear how sounds bother girls more and how boys will learn less effectively through sensory cues, but this appears to be entirely based on remarkably small differences when you compare children of the same age straight across. There are so few motor differences that pediatricians don't even have separate charts. This has real consequences: mothers underestimate their daughters' abilities on motor tests, and tend to challenge their daughters to do less physically.
Even in speech differences between boys and girls seem to be remarkably small. A 2004 study debunked the idea that boys make less eye contact than girls (again, individuals vary, but don't base gender differences on the sample size of your children). Boys are more fussy, harder to soothe. Girls are moderately more empathetic than boys: "the d value of 0.26 in infants translates to about 60 percent of boys falling below the average girl in ability to detect emotion in other people. This means that 40 percent of baby boys are actually more attuned to other people's expressions than the average girl..." (pg 78)
Chapter 3 and 4 heads into kindergarten and elementary school age kids. One paragraph kind of sums it up: "There's a good reason why parents so often comment on boys' and girls' different toy preferences: this is one of the largest differences between the sexes that psychologists have uncovered. In one Swedish study, the effect size, or d value, was as high as 1.9 for three-year-olds choosing between stereotypically boy and girl toys. This means that 97 percent of boys were likelier to spend their time playing with toy vehicles, balls, and weapons than the average girl, when given a choice between those or stereotypical feminine toys. This difference is much, much larger than any of the cognitive or personality differences between the sexes, which makes it fascinating, but also misleading, should parents mistakenly assume that boys' and girls' toy interests predict comparable differences in their later verbal, social, mechanical, competitive, or other tendencies." (pg 106) Interestingly, children are VERY strict about conforming to gender norms - the author speculates that perhaps children must learn broad categories before they can learn exceptions and grey area. Children also segregate by gender quite naturally.
What I thought was interesting here was that the author points out that while girl's play style is accepted, boys rough-and-tumble play is not, so boys tend to play outside of the view of adults, leading to two very different modes of socialization: one which views authority with distrust and seeks to circumvent it, and another which does not. We should accept little boys and allow them to play naturally. "Rather than constantly suppressing or disapproving of boys' physicality, we need to adapt to it and structure their environment so young boys can express this drive in safe, respectful ways... most boys don't end up as violent offenders though most do play with pretend guns at some point, even if it is just a stick or their own thumbs and forefingers." (pg 126-127) Also, "Clearly, many boys have a strong developmental need to act out the roles of warriors, heroes, allies , and leaders. There really are good guys and bad guys in the world, and how are children going to learn the difference if they don't have a chance to role-play and pretend?" (pg 128) By working with boys rather than against, we can get better outcomes. However, different play styles do emphasize certain traits over others, and we should try to encourage other kinds of play, too, to strengthen the missed parts of their play development: active and risk taking play for girls, fine motor skill and verbal play for boys.
One large difference in children, too, is inhibition control. "According to one large summary study, girls' advantage in inhibitory control is about the largest sex difference of any temperamental trait among children between three and thirteen years old." (p[g 150) This makes allowing male style play even more important, as children who get and use recess are more able to focus.
Chapter 5: adult men and women speak a similar amount (though it varies depending on the setting) and there appears to be no actual difference in how men and women process language. I appreciated this: I am so glad nobody told me when I was a child that I couldn't achieve what a girl can when it comes to language. I speak several of them, and I love to write. Eliot: "most language and literacy differences are small and largely fixable if parents and teachers focus on these abilities in an early and consistent manner. Average sex differences simply can't be an excuse to let boys slip through the cracks..." (pg 173) Even so, little boys do perform less well on writing and reading, in part because penmanship is not emphasized by male play (and thus lags). Boys do lag on verbal skills (on the average). Boys are more likely to develop dyslexia and autism. Differences lag even after males catch up developmentally. Yet it does not appear to be a fixed trait, and males actually do better on vocabulary.
Adult differences are much smaller (plenty of excellent journalists and authors are male). Socioeconomic differences matter more. By encouraging boys to engage in play and activities that strengthen these skills they can do just fine.:"Girls get more verbal from hanging out with other girls, boys get less verbal from hanging out with other boys, and boys who hang out with girls benefit, at least at two years of age, from having a more verbally inclined conversational partner." (pg 195)
Chapter 6, math and science. Boys start out behind in language, but generally catch up. Girls start out just fine in math and science, but slide in adolescence and don't recover. This means that this really is an important area to address. Still, "in spite of stereotypes, girls are doing pretty well in science and math. Though they score a little lower than boys on standardized tests, the difference is smaller than the gap in reading and writing, and also not as universal. Girls' grades are higher, and they are taking more science and math classes with each passing year. What's the problem then? The real issue arises toward the end of high school, when girls-- now young women-- must choose colleges, pick majors , and get the training they need to compete in well-paying careers." (pg 209)
One reason is there are so many males at the top of sciences and math is that they more variable: "Greater variability means that more males turn up at both ends of a distribution: "More geniuses, more idiots," as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it." (pg. 212) The real story on male/female strengths and weaknesses on this topic is complex. Men perform better at visual rotation tasks. Men have sharper visual acuity, but general vision is not better. Women have an advantage at 3-D perception. Women navigate by landmarks, men more by ordinal directions. Women have better object location memory ("mom, where are my shinguards!"). But all of these things seems to be more influenced by the type of interests and play that are different from an early age between men and women rather than potential. Chinese women do better than American men in spatial and math skills. "While boys from wealthier homes outperformed their female classmates, boys from poorer families did not. In other words, boys are not predestined to trounce girls in visuospatial tasks but need opportunity and practice at sports, video games, building toys , and the like to hone such skills. Some families are better equipped to provide such experiences..." (pg 233) Also, special skills can be learned - video games and the like help with this. Science and math is viewed as less feminine, so adolescent girls (the vanguard of gender-based polarization) shy away - and it doesn't help that girls often don't like to get their hands dirty in science class. All of which can be changed and is not due to inherent brain wiring.
This leads nicely into Chapter 7, which addresses adolescence. Some quotes seem useful here:
--"Most of these gaps are amplified in adolescence, a period of gender intensification when boys and girls strive to differentiate from each other in the interest of appearing sexually attractive." (pg 252)
--Culture: it matters. "Men really do display less facial expression, cry less, and generally disguise their feelings more than women do. But this doesn't mean men aren't experiencing the same feelings. In laboratory studies, men respond even more intensely than women to strong emotional stimuli such as a violent movie or an impending electrical shock." (pg 254)
--"While girls get close by confessing vulnerable feelings, boys gain nothing and may even lose significant status if they display too much emotion in front of their peers." (pg 255)
-- "while the overall difference is on the small side (d = 0.21), males' self-esteem is higher than females' at all stages of life, with the difference growing during middle school, peaking during high school (when d = 0.33), and then closing up again during college and later adulthood." (pg. 258)
-- "the sex difference in empathy is another instance where the stereotype is accurate. As usual, however, the actual size of the difference is smaller than most people believe it is. There are many men, like David, who are much more empathetic than the average woman... the actual sizes of the differences are not large; one analysis of many studies computed a d value of 0.40, which means that a third of men perform better than the average woman at recognizing other people's facial emotions. And further research shows that the sex difference depends on who is looking at whom. Women do better at detecting the emotions on men's faces than on women's, while men are actually better than women at detecting anger but only when it's expressed by other men." (pg 260-61)
--" research has found little difference in the male and female threshold for anger. What differs instead is how each sex acts in response to hostile feelings: men aggress, and women suppress." (pg 264)
--" Overall-- considering both physical and verbal forms of aggression-- the sex difference is moderate (with a d statistic ranging from 0.42 to 0.63), meaning that the average man is more aggressive than about 70 percent of women. The difference is much larger, however, when you consider physical aggression alone: as high as 0.8 or 0.9 when peers (as opposed to subjects themselves) report the behavior." (pg 264)
-- "when most people think about aggression, they imagine the testosterone that floods through males' veins beginning at puberty... it does not, surprisingly, turn boys into raging combatants. As we've seen, the sex difference in physical aggression appears well before puberty. After its initial surge (lasting between the first trimester in utero and just a few months after birth), testosterone settles down in boys to a level barely distinguishable from girls'-- even while the sex difference in physical aggression remains significant. When testosterone does rise dramatically, during male puberty, there is no pronounced jump in aggressiveness in boys... researchers are increasingly finding that testosterone works the other way around in adults: it's more the consequence of male competition and aggression rather than the cause." (pg 268)
-- "Growing evidence suggests that the neurotransmitter serotonin is actually a better marker than testosterone for aggression and violence . Ironically, low serotonin levels are linked to both violent aggression and clinical depression in humans." (pg 269)
-- "Girls know they will be ostracized for physical aggression, so they resort to hidden tactics to intimidate their opponents. Boys, by contrast, generally gain stature through overt aggression , whether it's athletic prowess, pushing another kid around, or heckling a teacher." (pg 270)
--"It's ironic, but girls' greater empathy is also their greatest weapon-- knowing exactly how much another person will hurt when she is ignored, besmirched, or rejected by someone she thought was a close friend." (pg 271)
-- "males as a group are simply more comfortable than women are with overt contests of all sorts-- sports, games, spelling bees, and, most important, vying for a prestigious job or valuable promotion." (pg 273)
-- "And in striking contrast to males', female competition is largely covert , just like their aggression, the perpetrator hiding behind some anonymous insult or exclusionary tactic." (pg 275)
-- "No doubt anorexia and other eating disorders are a pathologic extreme, but they do show the lengths females will go to outcompete one another. They're not starving themselves to appeal to men, who generally state a preference for heavier figures than what women regard as beautiful." (pg 275)
-- "Do the raging hormones that so dramatically change children's bodies have as great an impact on their brains and mental abilities? The surprising answer is no. While androgens clearly trigger both sexes' interest in sex, neither these steroids nor the various ovarian hormones act as the neuropoisons adults assume they are..." (pg 288)
The last chapter basically says we need to do better for both our girls and our boys, and avoid making gender differences more entrenched by leaning on scientific indications about differences between boys and girls. Differences and tendencies can be different, but the human brain is remarkably plastic. We can educate in such a way that small male/female weaknesses are rectified and do not grow into large (damaging) differences.