[Neuroscience] Re: Gender Differences in the Human Brain

Bill via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by connelly.bill from gmail.com)
Sat Aug 16 18:22:26 EST 2008


Here is another post on a similar subject

A while ago, I read an article in PLoS Biology, by Dr Peter Lawrence
called "Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science". Not only was it
interesting to me because it stated many facts I didn't know, and also
because it expounded it's argument extremely well, but it truly amazed
me because it seemed to me such a controversial view and I was
surprised it was published in one of the highest impact journals
available.

Dr. Lawrence suggested that there are more men than women in science
because, at least in part, men are simply better at it that women. He
pointed out numerous studies that show that men and women are
different, and importantly, difference since birth. Like the findings
that in 1 day old infants, girls preferred to look at a picture of a
face, while boys preferred to look at a mobile [1]. If you read my
post Sex in the brain you'd know that men and women have different
aptitudes, men excel at spatial tasks, while women are better at high
interference memory tasks. This again is likely to have a biological
etiology. The male hormone testosterone, which babies are exposed to
from around three months of gestation, improves the spatial ability of
older men [2]. It was also argued that autism, a disease that men
suffer from 4-9 times more than women, can be seen as an extreme form
of maleness, where sufferers have trouble communicating and
empathizing and tend to treat people as objects and be obsessive (also
men develop OCD earlier than women). Finally, he states that these
traits help men excel in science, i.e. you need to be a ruthless,
obsessive bastard to be a good scientist.

So cut to today, I'm reading the latest issue of Nature and I stumble
across a very interesting reply by Dr. Ben Barres. What makes this
reply so spellbinding is that Ben Barres (a neuroscientist at
Stanford), used to be a women. Dr. Barres tells many interesting
anecdotes about his transformation and the change in people's view
towards him:

"I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a
hard math problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend
must have solved it for me. I was not given any credit. I am still
disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost
to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the
Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my
application was much stronger (I had published six high-impact papers
whereas my male competitor had published only one). Shortly after I
changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say "Ben Barres gave a
great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his
sister's.""


Now while this article is an excellent read, it is missing an
important factor that most articles in scientific journals have:
science. And the reason for this is obvious, Dr. Barres feels that a
statement that women on average are less capable at progressing in
science is a personal insult, indeed he says "The comments of [Dr.]
Lawrence about women's lesser innate abilities are all wrongful and
personal attacks on my character and capabilities". They are not. Dr.
Lawrence repeatedly and carefully uses the words "on average". Men are
more likely to rape, kill, assault and steal on average, but that
doesn't not mean that I am a rapist, a murdering or a violent thief.
When I say there is a lack of science, I mean that there was a lack of
careful research. Dr. Barres states "There is no scientific support,
either, for the contention that women are innately less competitive".
Again, this is not true. Men enjoy competition more than women [3].
Men score higher on antisocial competitiveness scales [4].
Interestingly, women with higher testosterone tend to be more
competitive [5]. All men astronaut teams are more competitive than
mixed gender teams [6]. And there is less competition between female
same-sex friends than male same-sex friends [7]. While none of these
studies are complete enough for me to happily conclude that men are
more competitive than women, it certainly shows that the statement
"there is no scientific support for the contention that women are
innately less competitive" is a falsehood.

Ultimately, I don't know why there are less women than men in science.
I suspect elements of both sides are true. There will certainly be
sexism, both from men and women. I suspect women find the idea of
being an obsessive scientist, on the whole, less appealing than men.
What is more important though, is making sure that the science that
does get published, is free from discrimination of all kinds, not what
sex the authors are. Finally, men and women are obviously different,
and I would be shocked if men and women were exactly as apt at each
other at all areas of science.


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