Is your ring finger long enough for this job?

Should companies hire according to generalized sex differences? What about finger length?


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 29, 2008 5:10AM (UTC)

This weekend, a BBC article based entirely on the authority of anthropologist Helen Fisher announced that female managers are good for business. The motivations of researchers who make such grand proclamations in the biological battle of the sexes can be subject to skepticism -- especially, perhaps, when it's a female researcher presenting a finding that is potentially beneficial for team XX. Well, whaddya know -- just under 20 words into the article, readers are offered this qualifier: Fisher isn't a feminist. Well in that case!

I started reading the article with skepticism (because I tend to think the same level of doubt should be applied to any research, regardless of whether the findings come from or support the so-called girls' team), but Fisher's declaration that she is "definitely not a feminist" only further raised my eyebrows. These kinds of findings are always fraught with controversy, but it's interesting that despite the recent surge in sex-difference research, you rarely see researchers offering a defensive disavowal of, say, sexism or misogyny when presenting a finding that could be used to exalt male biology.

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Let's move on to Fisher's actual argument, though -- or to be clear, the BBC's summary of her speech at the World Economic Forum. The guru behind Chemistry.com's personality test believes that in the same way understanding the differences between male and female brains is key to dating, it can also be essential to hiring the right employees. Women are "web thinkers" -- they are intuitive data-gatherers and long-term thinkers, she said. Men are "step thinkers" -- they are more analytical, linear and short-term processors. These differences are complementary, according to Fisher, and indicate that a business team balanced with men and women is ideal.

As the BBC reports, many of these differences come down to testosterone levels. While men generally have more testosterone at hand than women, there is of course a complex spectrum of hormonal variation. Somewhat clouding that important point, the BBC borrows Chemistry.com's informal, at-home testosterone test and suggests that its readers take a look at their ring finger. If it's longer than your index finger, it's likely that you were exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb. "Chances are that you are an analytical thinker (or very musical), regardless of gender, while a shorter ring finger suggests you have a more sympathising mind," says the article.

That's a great example of why the idea of broadly applying sex-difference research to business, as the article seems to recommend, worries me. Next we'll be asking to scrutinize a prospective hire's finger length. Don't get me wrong, this kind of research is fascinating and, contrary to popular myth, feminists aren't uniformly opposed to recognizing general and well-documented biological sex differences. But hiring employees based simply on the assumed skill set of a certain sex, and how it will complement the current gender makeup of your team, seems terrible business.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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