Men, women, and squash

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I have a theory about women.

It’s actually my mother’s theory, but I subscribe to it, so I’m going to pass it off as my own. Besides being way smarter than me, my mother is also nice enough not to mind my hijacking of her ideas.

Kevin always says that, in the parental department, I hit the Lotto.

You remember the brouhaha, a couple years back, when Lawrence Summers, then at Harvard, dared to suggest that there might be innate differences between man and women that were partly responsible for women’s underrepresentation in the top echelons of scientific academia? Well, I think he’s right.

Women are underrepresented in the top echelons of many professions. World-class chess players, mathematicians, chefs, and musicians are disproportionately male. How could this be?

There’s no question that part of the answer lies is how we, society, treat women. They tend not to be groomed for world-class jobs of any stripe and, even if they go in that direction of their own accord, they can end up being discriminated against. There is evidence, for example, that when orchestra auditions are blind, more women are hired. But the better women are treated – and we’re treated much better now than we were three decades ago – the less satisfactory that answer is.

Cognitive neuroscience is giving us increasingly detailed looks at men’s and women’s brains, and the differences are remarkable. We’re different in how we respond to stress, communicate, process language, pick mates, and perceive pain. Pretty much every cognitive process that gets investigated proves to work differently in men and women. Neuroscience has yet to prove my theory about women, but I predict it will, and in my lifetime.

Ready?

Here it is: Women are underrepresented in the top ranks of demanding professions because they are more distractible that men.

Men evolved to focus. They were hunters and, if they got distracted by a rustle or a bird or an idea, the saber-tooth tiger got away. Women evolved to multitask. They were procreators and, if they didn’t get distracted by a cry or a smell or an absence, their children died, eaten by the saber-tooth tigers their distracted husbands didn’t kill.

Women evolved to multitask.

It seems that pre-adolescent girls perform quite similarly to boys in subjects like math and science, and that it’s only after puberty that the remarkable differences emerge. The culprit, I think, is estrogen.

Once we hit child-bearing years, we’re hard-wired to look up from whatever it is we’re doing whenever we hear a noise. That doesn’t bode well for our success in careers that require decades of rigorous training and single-minded focus.

The things that women seem to be better at – communicating, negotiating, empathizing – make us better suited than men for some kinds of jobs, but they’re generally not the rock-star jobs like chess champion, hot-shot academic, and, well, rock star. And commodity trader! Don’t forget commodity trader.

Which is not to say that women are never the musical, culinary, scientific, and intellectual rock stars. They’re just underrepresented in the ranks of the overachievers. This is why I understand the desire for male progeny. It ups the odds for rock stardom in the family.

It is this desire, I think, that is motivating my squash plants.

I planted some half-dozen squash in two varieties: butternut and Sasquash. Sasquash isn’t its real name, of course. It’s just a very big variety of winter squash that my friend Christl grows, and I wasn’t about to let a little thing like not knowing its name stop me from planting the seeds she gave me.

All of the squash plants are growing and some are downright thriving. They have long stems and big broad leaves and little curling tentacles that keep trying to throttle the pepper plants next door. And now they have flowers. Tons and tons of flowers. Open flowers, closed flowers, flower buds. Bazillions of them.

I used to think bazillions of flowers would, with time, equate to bazillions of squash. Now I know better. Squash have both male and female flowers, and it is only the female flowers that turn into actual, genuine squash. The rest of the flowers just fall off and die, unless you batter-dip and deep-fry them first.

Even the female flower isn’t a sure thing. For the squash to happen, the flower has to be cross-pollinated. This is usually done by bees but, if it happens that both your beehives died over the winter, you can hedge against the scarcity of pollinators by doing the job yourself. All you need is some patience and a Q-Tip. You find a male flower, pollinate the Q-Tip, and visit the female flower.

The lone female

This morning I went out to the garden, armed with patience and Q-Tips, and made a very disconcerting discovery. In all my bazillions of squash flowers, I could find only one female. One.

What the hell is this, China? How can I be so completely overrun with males?

Those of you who take issue with my theory of sex differences will no doubt believe these are my just desserts. A potent reminder of the value of females. If any of the rest of you happen to know why a squash plant would generate such a male-heavy crop of flowers, I would appreciate your letting me know.

I look forward to having my child-bearing years safely behind me – any day now – so I can concentrate on my gardening.

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Comments

  1. Since that conversation in your living room, i have brought your theory (and tip of the hat to mom since its hers) up amongst almost everyone I know. Here is my conclusion: this is a theory shaded by age.

    Everyone I’ve spoken to has been within my age range roughly: 25-45. Chefs, artists, engineers, programmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. In each discussion setting, everyone including the men thought that exactly the opposite was true: men are more easily distracted, but that even making that generalization is dangerous and everyone expresses a level of shock that such a statement would be voiced to begin with. So much of who we are is NOT genetic disposition but environment and what good could such a statement breed?

    Yes, much of what we are IS genetic disposition, but I maintain my original conclusion to this entire conversation, ALSO shaded by age (or lack thereof)….. dude. That theory just sucks.

  2. Sasquash? I thought that was another name for Big Foot…
    No ideas about growing things, as I tend to kill rather than grow them. However, I thank you for enlightening me about squash blossoms. I always wondered why one would eat a squash blossom rather than let it grow into a whole squash.

  3. So, I was supposed to be working this afternoon. But then I got distracted by Twitter, and then by your blog. You, on the other hand, seem very focused. I mean, if you’re able to head out into the squash patch with a Q-tip, then that seems to suggest that you’re very nurturing but also very focused. So I, too, have some doubts about your theory.

    But speaking of squashflower gender ratios… Maybe try the same count later in the week? Could it be that the male flowers arrive first so they can be all ready when their time comes, but then later that same plant will still have several more female flowers???

  4. There is short-term distractability, and there is long-term distractability, and you and Amanda are discussing the wrong kind. Maybe women are likelier than men to look up from what they’re doing when they hear a noise. I wouldn’t know. You can construct a plausible evo-bio tale for why it might be so, but you can construct an evo-bio just-so story for whatever you please.

    In any case short-term distractability is largely beside the point. After all you can always return directly to the task at hand. Where men obviously have an edge is in long-term distractability. There are a hundred men who will devote themselves obsessively to mastering a task for every women who will. This goes for important tasks, and for trivial ones — for particle physics, and for level 72 of Super Mario. I can invent an evo-bio reason for this if you insist, but to see that it is so you need only look around.

    Amanda wants to know “what good” it will do to advance such a theory. (I assume, as seems to be her case, that you have no interest in knowing what is true for its own sake.) Its policy implications seem obvious. If there are genetic reasons for female underrepresentation and underperformance in, say, hard science, then it may not be such a clever idea to spend vast amounts of time and money on dismantling institutional barriers that may never have existed, or been very significant, in the first place.

  5. Having just enjoyed cheese-filled and fried squash blossoms last night which were served atop a simple fresh tomato sauce (prepared by a female, Chef-owner Melissa Perillo of Frances restaurant, SF 🙂 I feel compelled to comment –
    That women are more distractible than men is mostly true, and true of me at least, most times, except when I’m cooking. In fact, I’m happy to report that by having a seat in this particular restaurant, were I was lucky to see the kitchen at work, where there were 3 women and 1 man sharing the small space, there was focus as evidenced by their culinary creations plate after plate.
    Now when I’m gardening, with or without Q-tips 😉 I’m distracted by the sun, wind, something I see or smell, the birds and bees, my cat, weeds, I could go on…..,

  6. Don’t squash put out male blossoms for about two weeks before the females arrive? And if you are only frying those male blossoms you are missing out. Try stuffing them with breadcrumbs, herbs, tomatoes and cheese, then baking them. (recipe at epicurious.com) For company presentation, stuff the females while the blossom is still on the little squash. yum.

    As for gender theory, that was one of my exam fields in grad school, and am so sick of thinking about it that I put my fingers in my ears and lalalalala during discussions of it. Maybe in ten years. 🙂

    • Yep – there’s always a rush of male blossoms before the females show up. I wonder if that’s so the pollinators will have figured out where the squash patch is by the time the female flowers show up?

  7. My husband could always sleep, eat and read the paper when the babies were crying. Guess who was more competent during the day? The person who had slept, eaten and was informed about world events.

    I don’t think I’m more distractable than my husband, I just expect to do more tasks somewhat competently than he does, he expects to do one, maybe two and he can be excellent at those because he doesn’t arrange childcare when we both work or work on the grocery list sporadically through the day as things occur to him. today I picked green beans, consoled a friend who is divorcing over lunch, sent out a client quote, fed children, did laundry yadda yadda…he has worked at the computer. Period. He limits what he does. The women I know highest up the business food chain hired all those side jobs out thus…allowing them to live more like a man. I’m not sure they are the most interesting folks to talk to….kind limited as to subjects.

    For no good reason at all I sure wish someone had an answer to your squash blossom query.

  8. Oh those cognitive scientists again! It’s no longer fashionable to cite Freud or Jung, Pavlov and Skinner are no use at all. But those cognitive scientist, especially the MIT crew, well…they seem to have us all figured out. The brain of a baby, a child, a girl, a boy, a tween, a teen, an adult….it’s all there on cognitive scientist’s PET scan in living color.
    We know next to nothing about our brains, but this doesn’t stop us from using them and the little we know of them to make up stuff we call theories. Of course, these “theories” are far from scientific theories. Theories are how we test and explain what is. For whatever reason, we probably get it from school, we’ve come to think of theories as the opposite of facts.

    In any event, a mother’s wisdom is worth its weight in lobster tails and oysters, so I’m gonna put my money on Mom’s folk wisdom.

    That said, Biologists, not as important nor as apt to spring theories as cognitive scientists, for they must spend half their funding and time fighting the fundamentalists who have managed to discredit the most important theory in the field, Evolution, pronounced Evil – lution in the state court houses in the bible belt, would, if they had the time and money cognitive scientists are raking in from Google & Co., argue that hierarchies, and the patriarch is one, hold their decisive and coercive power not because the wires in their brains are different or wired differently, but because sexism, like racism, ethnocentrism serve and support elite, in this case, male control of women.

    Yesterday, the American women lost because they were distracted, Bu they lost to the Japanese women. How does a cognitive scientist explain that?

  9. I always thought women were better multi-taskers 🙂 My husband is not that great at multi tasking. Too many balls in the air and he will drop them all, but if you give him one thing to focus on he does an amazing job.
    I get bored quickly. I need variety. Working on one task for a long time sounds like torture to me. 🙂

    As for your squash. I have turned into a little bee myself. With the lack of honeybees these days pollinating the squash is just one more daily chore in the summer. I just use my finger.
    Going to try it on the cucumbers too. They have had loads of flowers, male & female but none of them grow.

  10. Amanda — The cool thing about science is that you can prove it. What investigations have been done into the way men and women focus do show that women are better at doing several things at once while men tend to devote all their bandwidth to one thing.

    I find those kinds of investigations fascinating and compelling. Polling your friends and saying “this theory sucks,” not so much.

    The worst reason to dismiss a theory is that you don’t want it to be true.

    Tania — The creature is Sasquatch. Sasquash is just my nickname for the truly giant squash.

    Al — Although our experience of the world is useful in suggesting theories and paths of inquiry, I think we all do best when we discount our personal experience when we parse scientific evidence. Humans are notoriously bad at remembering, understanding, and making sense of their own experience. We’re all too bound up in our own self-image and self-interest.

    As for the squash blossoms — I hope you’re right.

    Aaron — Yes, the evo-bio explanation isn’t nearly as important as the emprical fact. I also buy two kinds of distractibility, but I suspect they’re linked. Part of what enables somebody to focus obsessively over long periods of time is the ability to filter out at least some distractions.

    I have nothing to add to your explanation of what good it does to advance such a theory.

    Michele — As you point out, distractibility doesn’t prevent us — either as a gender or as individuals — from cooking, gardening, eating, or even doing physics and math. It might even keep life interesting.

    Jo — That’s the second vote for female squash blossoms coming later, and I’m a believer. And we can talk squash blossoms for at least ten years. Gender theory discussion is entirely optional!

    Karen — It may be precisely that dynamic that explains women’s distractibility. The demands of keeping the home fires burning, the food prepared, the children fed, clothed, and happy have fallen to women since time began. This, while men focused on hunting and warmongering. Would it be surprising that women who were good multitaskers were more likely to pass on their genes, as were men who were good focusers?

    And I’m hoping that the answer to the squash blossom question is that the females are on their way, and the males are just waiting. We’ll see.

  11. I noticed this very same problem a few weeks ago. Mostly male flowers and only one female flower on my patty pan squash. I did some research and found that early on in the flowering stage most of the flowers will be male-usually if you wait a few weeks you’ll get more females. However, I’ve waited those “few weeks” and I still have very low female to male ratio. I called the seed company and they sent replacements, suspecting the seeds came from a bad lot. Too late to plant again this year. Hopefully better luck next!

    • amanda blum says:

      environment. you can’t suggest that women are genetically predisposed to be distractable (which is more negative than “they are multitaskers” which i far prefer) since the women being tested have been exposed to an environment that tells them they are. how could one construct a test to see if given different environment where there were no expectations, people perform the same.

  12. Goose — Jung and Freud fell out of fashion because they just made shit up. As for Pavlov and Skinner, they both made important contributions, thanks to actual, genuine experimentation.

    And I wouldn’t say cognitive scientists are any more or less apt to form theories than biologists or other kinds of scientists. Theories are attempts to explain facts, in any science you choose to name. I can’t join you in pooh-poohing those PET scans; I think we’re learning more about the brain, faster, than we ever have, and those scans are playing a big part.

    Melissa — So I’m not the only one playing bee in the garden, eh? I hope to not have to do that next year, if only my bees will cooperate.

    Erica — You’re raining on my parade. Here I was harboring hope for a late-season female surge. Is there a dance we’re supposed to do or a chant we’re supposed to intone for it?

  13. Insofar as Jung and Freud went out of fashion it was not because they just made shit up, but because the particular shit they made up was no longer fashionable. Just making shit up never goes out of style.

    But I wouldn’t be so sure that either of them is unfashionable, except by name. No one invokes Jung, but everyone invokes the hive-mind, and what is that but Jung’s collective unconscious? Freud, too, is the victim of his own success. The traumatic childhood, the alienating effects of civilization — there are such standard modern tropes that we sometimes forget to whom we largely owe them.

  14. Kingsley says:

    I’ve probably commented this before, but: we’re all just cavemen in suits. Sure we have nicer caves and better food, but much of our life & habits are straight out of the forest.

    So while the men hunted, ate, or stood around looking good in their reindeer-skin posing thongs; the women cooked, foraged, gossiped, had children, fed children, raised children and sorted out inter-family problems (which were probably caused by the gossip anyway). Ignoring social pressures, that’s still a fair list of toil, which all must happen simultaneously. If women are easily distracted, it’s because they needed to be.

    I read once that the myth of leaving (or being removed from) paradise alludes to when we gave up the hunting and started farming, which is perhaps a bunch more work. (if you believe some anthropologists, we started farming for beer – so perhaps it wasn’t such a bad trade.)

    But we spent millennia as human-animals, and while we catch trains and buses instead of throwing rocks at them. Just under the surface we’re a bunch of simple hunter-gatherers. So yay! for women that manage to throw off that extended family history and excel.

    Re: squash/pumpkins – the internets tell me they grow male flowers first.

  15. Amanda — While our culture can certainly shape our behavior, it’s unlikely that it shapes our brain structure. The inferior parietal lobule (IPL) is what’s thought to be responsible for some of what’s involved in multitasking, and women have larger ones than men.

    There’s also a huge body of research indicating that nurture is weak and nature is strong in shaping who we are and how we behave. Studies of twins raised apart and adopted siblings show the power of genes.

    In species up and down the food chain, females behave differently from males in all kinds of ways. Their brains are different, their bodies are different, and so it would be mind-bogglingly counterintuitive if their behavior was the same. Humans are just another species.

    Aaron — Don’t get me started on how deeply Freud is rooted in our ideas of how our brains work. Thanks to him, we have the therapeutic model — the idea that finding the “cause” of our neuroses is the essential first step in dealing with them — which I reject utterly. Not to mention that he ruined fiction for all time.

    Kingsley — That’s exactly what we are. Cavemen in suits. We’re ruled by the same limbic drives that rule the lesser species. Always were. Always will be.

    • Tamar, culture and experiences almost certainly shape brain structure. A recent study even suggested that internet use shapes brain function. Neuroplasticity is not a new concept. Ummm, it is hard for me to think of a good example from day to day life. It’s almost Lamarckian, only it’s not heritable (or so we think at present).

  16. Kim Graves says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19google.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.mc_id=SC-SM-E-FB-SM-LIN-AGS-071911-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

    Tamar, you’re confusing an interesting story for a scientific theory. I was a theoretical physics major in college, so let me see if I can demonstrate the difference. The finals in class were called “Zog 4” tests. Zog 4 was an imaginary world where the laws of physics were different than they are here. So for example gravity was proportional to the inverse cube of distance rather than the inverse square as it in our universe. The test was to derive the physics in this imaginary universe. These were good and very hard tests that really made us think about the structure of physics. But the important thing to remember is though the physics was real, the world was not. Zog 4 physics was not science it was just a story. It was an act of creativity and imagination.

    To be science there has to be evidence to support it. Newton’s development of the mechanics was based upon an observation of an inverse square proportion. Now this is not to say that there may in the future be observed a world where Zog 4 mechanics applies. And often this is how physics is actually done. Einstein once said “believe no observation until it is proven by theory.” But until that time, Zog 4 remains a fun story.

    You’re mother’s “story” that women are more distracted than men – what’s the status of that statement? Is there any evidence to support it? Any mother who tries to get kids out of bed, fed, dressed, in the car and bucked up in order to get to school on time will tell you that such an effort takes enormous concentration and focus. “Oh, damn. I forgot to make your lunch,” just doesn’t cut it.

    Over the years there have been efforts to equate gender, race, ethnicity, etc. for policy purposes using “science” to back them up. For example: the Nazi’s use of eugenics; Jim Crow; apartheid; the class structure in England/India etc. These policies haven’t worked (because they’re not science) and because they are cruel. These policies were used to justify the status quo and maintain power and financial structures.

    So here’s my question to you: Would you personally tell any of the three women mentioned in the link above that they can’t do science because as women they’ll get distracted; get married; have babies? Personally I couldn’t do that.

    • Kim, Kim, I would have hoped you knew me better than that! A theory is an attempt to explain the facts on the ground. In order to be considered, it has to be a better explanation for those facts than any current explanation, and jibe with whatever evidence there is (and the thing about theories is that they generally pre-date a lot of the evidence because the research is done to test the theory). My theory does both. So far, nobody’s done a compelling job of explaining why women are so severely underrepresented in demanding professions. Studies of men’s and women’s brains show very significant processing differences, and a larger IPL (the part of the brain that is believed to be involved in processing multiple stimuli) in women. I look forward to the research that specifically tests for distractibility in men and women.

      And I know I don’t have to tell you that counterexamples of a theory that explains gender differences in aggregate do not disprove the theory. I’ll go out on a limb and say that men, on average, can bench press more than women, on average. Still, some women can bench press an astonishing amount — more than most men. It doesn’t change the aggregate.

      There’s no denying that men and women learn, think, communicate, and process information differently. That’s a fact. There’s no escaping the conclusion that, therefore, men are going to be better at some things and women are going to be better at other things. Why does this bug people so much?

  17. Kim Graves says:

    “There’s no denying that men and women learn, think, communicate, and process information differently. That’s a fact. There’s no escaping the conclusion that, therefore, men are going to be better at some things and women are going to be better at other things. Why does this bug people so much?”

    And this man processes information differently than other men and other earthworms. What does the colors on the screen have to do with what I’m good at? That’s the leap. A leap without justification. It’s a bias structure justified with pseudoscience. It’s an old story. And a bad one. It’s the story of bias looking to justify itself. As I said: “go tell those girls they can’t be scientists because they process information differently than men.”

    • amanda blum says:

      what she said 😛

    • That’s the difference between the aggregate and the individual. And that’s also why we don’t use the aggregate to make judgments about the individual. If I’m looking to hire a worker, and the sole consideration is strength, I ignore the fact that men are, on aggregate, stronger than women, and I take the strongest person I can find. There’s no bias in acknowledging differences.

      • You might be more informed, but the rest of society seems to have no problem with applying ideas about the aggregate to the individual.

    • Kingsley says:

      Please let me miss-quote you:
      “go tell those boys they can’t have babies because they process information differently than women.”

      Men & women are different, and all the political correctness in the world wont make it otherwise. Citing a bunch of bad science and poor social policy won’t change gender differences.

      I am part of a large family of husband + wife scientists. By no means do I consider that women perform less-well at the sciences. But denying there is any difference in they way genders think & learn in the general sense is ridiculous.

      • I’m with you on Nature over Nurture, Tamar. Human Male and Female bodies have evolved and adapted to do different jobs. The brain and distraction? That one squashes me. I can’t focus on that one. I’m getting hungry now.

        A fine essay from Stephen Jay Gould, “Women’s Brains.”

        an excerpt

        One may affirm the validity of biological distinctions but argue that the data have been misinterpreted by prejudiced men with a stake in the outcome, and that disadvantaged groups are truly superior. In recent years, Elaine Morgan has followed this strategy in her Descent of Woman, a speculative reconstruction of human prehistory from the woman’s point of view–and as farcical as more famous tall tales by and for men.

        I prefer another strategy. Montessori and Morgan followed Broca’s philosophy to reach a more congenial conclusion. I would rather label the whole enterprise of setting a biological value upon groups for what it is: irrelevant and highly injurious. George Eliot well appreciated the special tragedy that biological labeling imposed upon members of the disadvantaged groups. She expressed it for people like herself–women of extraordinary talent. I would apply it more widely–not only to those whose dreams are flouted but also to those who never realized that they may dream–but I cannot match her prose. In conclusion, then, the rest of Eliot’s prelude to Middlemarch:

        The limits of variation are really much wider than anyone would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.

        Read the essay here:

        http://s.spachman.tripod.com/CollegeWriting/womensbrains.htm

      • Innate difference seems to be an excuse for difference in recognitions and honors and validity. I’m not arguing whether or not men and women are different neurologically. I don’t have any kind of evidence-based claim to make on that case. But I will argue that the perception that they are different is just an excuse for discrimination.
        Take the case of Ben Barres at Stanford. He had the unusual case of beginning his career as a woman, then undergoing a sex-change operation after he got tenure. At what should have been one of the proudest moments of his career, he presented his work at Harvard-MIT’s Whitehead Institute. The bulk of that research that he presented was from when he identified as female, published as Barbara Barres. But as he finished that talk, he heard a scientist in the audience speak approvingly of his work– “Ben Barres’ work is much better than his sister’s.” Of course, he had no sister. The work that the individual was speaking of was his own work which he had just presented.
        I mean, this is the tip of the iceberg! I’m young, 21 years old, and I still feel some of this in my day to day and try to ignore it. I try to excuse it because it’s more damaging for me to stand up and speak about it, but for god’s sake it’s on my mind. I had a scientist in my lab joke to me the other day that the woman he was with didn’t understand his work on hydrogen peroxide signaling but thought that she did. He quoted her as saying that “she said she could see it was very important, as she used it to peroxide her hair!” You wonder, do these people actually think that I know what I’m doing?

  18. Unfortunately, part of the reason this type of ‘theory’- by the way, I wouldn’t call this a theory, which implies some kind of evidence-based, non-anecdotal support, but rather a ‘hypothesis’- is so damaging is because it has wider policy implications.

    Statistics inevitably break down when applied to the individual. As a woman preparing to enter a 7-8 year MD-PhD program in the biomedical sciences, I challenge you to say that I am less focused than my peers. And I think you might say that some women bench press more, etc. and that I am just a statistical anomaly.

    But the problem is, as Aaron Haspel illustrates earlier, some people will take this generalization and run with it to conclude that the reason for underrepresentation of women in say, leadership and business positions is due to innate rather than societal reasons and that it’s a waste of money, time, and effort to have legislature to establish gender-neutral starting ground. What a horrible shame, because women who do have the capacity for business and leadership will be considered immediately to be incapable.

    And this hypothesis is something that is purely anecdotal. I don’t have a very high opinion of this kind of anecdote-based claim, because everything that is societal becomes evolutionary. How can you tell them apart? The ‘hunter-gatherer’ explanation is even more flawed. How do you know men hunted and women gathered berries? Were you there? Or are these results being interpreted by individuals who themselves are subject to today’s gender bias? A lot of cultural anthropologists have pointed to gender-biased translations of old texts. For instance, in older Toltec societies, there’s a lot of evidence emerging that women hunted, were religious officials, and were part of the military. Part of the reason for the confusion? Spanish is a gendered language, and most of the earliest translations and notations simply referred to mixed-gender activities in the collective male form.

    I think that we underestimate the extent to which societal factors influence jobs and predilections. There are a number of ways we could address these issues– by having gender neutral sponsored day-cares, or by establishing mandatory paternity leave, by having universal access to reproductive education and healthcare, to name a few. And we do see greater levels of gender equity in areas which have more of these policies in place.

    One last bit of proof- look at how race and gender intersect. White women occupy more high-level business positions in America than women of other races, per capita. Do you really think that this is a racial issue, or a societal issue? If you think this is due to inherent racial differences– after all, the different races lived and hunted and evolved in very different conditions!– you’re in good company with this original argument.

    • Kim Graves says:

      You go gurl!

      Just think, this women doesn’t need a man to defend her position. She can defend herself even if she thinks differently than a man.

      No one would argue that men & women & earthworms think differently. But arguing that this is a reason for their not being allowed to do whatever they want to do is no less the immoral. There is overwhelming evidence for bias in the workplace and the theory to back it up. That’s real science.

  19. Amy, thanks for joining the discussion. I think ‘hypothesis’ is definitely a better word than ‘theory’ to describe what I’m offering up here.

    As for experience shaping brains — I’m all about neuroplasticity. It gives me hope that I can continue to learn things well into my doddering old age, and there’s no question that it can shape which areas of the brain will fire under certain circumstances. But when we see consistent differences in brain shape, size, and function across cultures, times, and ages, it’s not a stretch to conclude that men and women have different kinds of brains.

    The crux of the issue seems to be this. Most of you agree that men and women process information differently, and the fear is that knowledge of this aggregate difference will be used as the basis of discrimination. I am in favor of understanding differences between genders. I am opposed to discriminating on the basis of what we find out. And Aaron wasn’t supporting discrimination either, he was merely pointing out that unequal representation does not necessarily mean unequal opportunity. It might, but it might not. There are hardly any Jews in the NBA (but plenty in the ABA). Discrimination? I think not.

    I don’t think there’s any question that societal forces and out-and-out discrimination play a role in women’s underrepresentation in the ranks of top achievers. I just don’t think those are the only dynamics at work.

  20. I wish I could have civil conversations like this with folks in real time without someone stomping off angry…

    • accidental Mick says:

      I’m with you Karen. Thanks Tamar for starting this off and thanks to everyone who contributing to an absorbing discussion without degenerateing into “Sez you” type comments.

  21. Leave it to you to make a connection between evolution, estrogen, and squash. What an incredibly entertaining story and theory. Loved it. Thanks for the stirring the pot!