Sugar, spice and science

Mars, Venus, woolly mammoths -- no really, they did a study!


Kate Harding
July 4, 2008 1:10AM (UTC)

You've heard the argument a zillion times: Women are hard-wired for empathy, and men are hard-wired for total cluelessness about human emotion, on account of having to kill woolly mammoths and spread their seed or something. So what if those are gross generalizations that underestimate the complex social skills of both genders, not to mention the variations within each group? They did a study! It's scienterrific!

Amanda Schaffer has unpacked some of those arguments over at Slate and, not surprisingly, found them wanting for both evidence and logical consistency. For starters, most of the data supporting claims that women are more empathetic than men comes from questionnaires filled out by the subjects themselves. Generally speaking, women will get higher scores for empathy and nurturing behavior on these than men -- which could mean that women are the bigger softies or could mean men just don't want to sound like the bigger softies. Studies that go beyond self-reporting bear out the latter theory: The gender gap "all but vanished when other measures like physiological responses or changes in facial expression were considered." Furthermore, even among studies that rely on self-reported data, the difference between men's and women's empathy scores has decreased over the past 50 years, suggesting that as social pressure on men to be all stoic goes down, their willingness to admit they have feelings goes up, giving lie to the whole "hard-wired" bit. Gee, who could have seen that coming?

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But the "sex difference evangelists," as Schaffer calls them, aren't about to let facts get in the way of a good story. British psychologist Simon "Baron-Cohen calls the empathizing brain type E, or 'the female brain,' and contrasts it with systematizing brain type S, or 'the male brain,'" writes Schaffer. "But only 44 percent of women are type E -- not even a majority. Which makes the labeling seem odd. When I asked him about this, Baron-Cohen admitted that he's thought twice about his male brain/female brain terminology, but he didn't disavow it."

Oh, well, then. At least he used his fancy systematizing brain to think twice! I swear, even if I do have some innate capacity for caring about my fellow human beings, if I read one more argument on gender differences that boils down to "sugar and spice and everything nice" versus "snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails," it's gonna be right out the window.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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