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Thinking Differently: Differences Between Men and Women

K. Smythe's picture

From the time that we are little we learn that there are innate physical differences between males and females.  Though there may be middle ground between these extremes we have created a classification system-male and female-which as a population we use to classify both ourselves and others.  The question I wish to explore here is whether our physical differences, social treatment, or both have created cognitive differences between males and females, and whether this is a subject that we should be concerned with.  One recent controversy surrounding this issue is that of women in the sciences, especially in academia.  We see women severely underrepresented, taking up only about 10% of the science related tenure track positions in elite universities (Dean, 2006, Pinker, Spelke, 2005).  This statistic raises many questions: are women less cognitively adept at skills required for the sciences, are women being discriminated against in this job market, or are women simply not as interested in these types of jobs as men?

There are four main arguments when it comes to cognitive differences between men and women: there are no cognitive differences between men and women, cognitive differences are due to biological differences between men and women (nature), cognitive differences are due to cultural and social influences (nurture), and cognitive differences are due to a combination of biological and cultural factors (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).

            It is well accepted that there are no differences in the general intelligence (g) or basic cognition between males and females, the issue is whether each category is innately better at certain, very specific, skills.  The cognitive differences that have been put forward include men being slightly better than women at tasks that involve the mental spatial rotation of an object, spatial perception and visualization, and math problem solving.  Women seem to score slightly better on tasks that involve visual memory, word and landmark recall and math calculations (Kimura, Doreen, 2002, Pinker, Spelke, 2005, Newcomb, Nora et. al., 2005).  It is important to remember, when we sees assertions such as these, that these are general trends and that not every individual is held to them.  Although both men and women as populations tend to do better at certain tasks, the margin of difference is quite small.

            The argument regarding the sciences here is that most of the higher level, profound work is based in the skills that men tend to better at than women.  Einstein once said “the physical entities which seem to serve as elements in my thoughts are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.  This combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there any connections with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs”.  His and the memoirs of many great creative minds in science fields seem to attest to the importance of mental perception and visualization as the first step in their discoveries (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).

            To support the argument that men and women have generally different cognitive strengths there must be an underlying mechanism.  There is evidence that biology plays at leas some role in the cognitive differences between men and women.   The first piece of evidence is that the biological mechanisms are different.  If we are to believe that the cognitive differences between males and females are innate then we would expect to see some biological differences which could account for them.  Women have been shown to have bigger corpus callosum and anterior commissures, structures which connect two hemispheres of the brain.  Another difference is in an area of the hypothalamus known as the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN).  This area is significantly larger in men containing more as well as larger cells (Kimura, 2002).  High levels of estrogen have also been linked to relatively depressed spatial abilities as well as to enhanced speech and manual skill related tasks.  This has been tested in females using the natural hormone fluctuations over the menstrual cycle as well as over longer periods of time and hormone fluctuation.  Studies have also been done in males whose hormone fluctuations tend to be seasonal (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).  Another piece of evidence toward cognitive differences being biologically linked is their prevalence across cultures.  Although math related tests are often difficult to administer across cultures the studies that have been done using spatial tasks show that these difference appear to be cross national and cross cultural (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).  Studies regarding navigation abilities have also been done in rats and have show that female rats (like female humans) tend to use landmarks to navigate where as male rats tend to use geometric angles.  Interestingly the female rats were able to modify their strategy if landmarks were not available where as the male rats had a much more difficult time if not able to rely on their preferred method of navigation (Kimura, 2002).

            It is interesting when discussing possible cognitive differences to look at how we are determining these trends.  Although men tend to do better on tests such as the Math-SAT (where they score an average of 21 points higher),  and other standardized, timed tests, we must look closely at these tests as ways to rank skills and ability.  One argument that has been made is that there is no difference in the intrinsic ability or males versus females but there is a difference in the way in which the two genders go about solving problems.  In terms of spatial abilities, especially mental rotation of an object, it has been shown that men use a holistic approach, visualizing the entire object at once where as women use a point by point feature comparison.  Women are also more likely to use equations where men will use strategies such as Ven Diagrams.  In navigation, women prefer to use landmarks while men use geometry.   These different strategies take different amounts of time, and are best suited to certain types of problems.  On a timed standardized test the questions may be easier to solve using male-preferred strategies or female-preferred strategies may take longer.  Either of these could cause the trend we see in males scoring higher on certain categories which we consider “science related” (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).

            What then might be a better way to gauge ability in the math and science field-an un-timed test that allows for different solving strategies?  Sounds a lot like college.  Interestingly in college males and female get the same math and science grades (interestingly in high school women do better).  Math and science majors are also made up of an equal percentage of males and females.  This is evidence that if we remove the time factor and allow students to use their own preferred methods of solving problems, as occurs on homework and in the classroom, females and males do equally well.

This brings us to the issue of men dominating science positions in universities.  This is one piece of data that is often used to show men have a predisposition for science or science related skills.  It is true that men dominate science positions in academia but it is important to note that these are not the only math related occupations available.  Women in fact account for a higher percentage of accountants than men, which is clearly a math related field.  Another factor that has to be taken into account is whether men dominate tenure track positions in the sciences is because they are innately better at the skills necessary for this type of job or whether women are just less interested in this career choice.  There is also the issue of gender bias in hiring.  It has been shown that (again a very general trend) women tend to value family over status whereas men show the opposite trend.  A questionnaire given individuals who were tracked as particularly gifted in the fields of math and science also showed that, given their job of choice, the males would prefer to work more hours a week than the females.  All of these factors may be part of why women seem underrepresented in this field; they are simply pursuing math and science through other career paths (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).

            This brings up another issue, that of gender bias in the work place.  Though technically illegal there is evidence that this goes on subconsciously all the time.  An experiment was done using psychology professors as subjects.  Two types of applications for tenure positions were distributed to the subjects for review.  One type of application was for a stand-out candidate, someone every institution would love to have on their staff, the other application was that of a more average candidate, though still qualified, individual.  Either a stereotypically male or female name was attached to the application which otherwise identical.  For the stand out “applicant” the gender of the name made no difference, all the reviewers said that the “applicant” deserved the position.  However, for the average “applicant”, the gender of the name attached to the application made a significant difference in whether or not the reviewers believed that the “applicant” should receive tenure.  When the name was male 70% of the reviewers said the “applicant” should be tenured, when the “applicant” was female only 45% of the reviewers said they should be tenured.  These numbers were consistent whether the subject reviewing the application was male or female (Pinker, Spelke, 2005).  This is interesting in that both males and females (who we would assume to be particularly cognizant of biases against women) subconsciously discriminated against the female application.  So regardless of how aware we think we are there can still be a subconscious bias instilled in us.

            Another aspect of this discussion that is important is that of gender stereotypes.  Do we subconsciously (or consciously) reinforce social stigmas that encourage males specifically in the fields of math and science and or deter women from these fields?  The complexity of social and cultural factors leads me to believe that there is probably an effect here.

In discussing this issue we must also realize that we are taking a few facts on faith. In order to make these assertions about cognitive differences between the genders we are assuming that gender is defined by two polar opposites which are clearly distinct.  Realistically it is quite possible that gender is a spectrum with individuals in a population spread across this spectrum rather than grouped at the ends.  The above assertions are based on the idea that at least most of the population fits either extreme (what we call “male” or “female”) while realistically we cannot make this assumption.  It is of interest however that when individuals do classify themselves as either “male” or “female” we do see a statistically significant difference in some cognitive abilities.  Again, however, that we classify ourselves as male or female may be a socially constructed categorization.  It would be interesting to see further research in this field address the issue of a gender spectrum and repeat many of the experiments using this spectrum assumption rather than the polar opposite one.

My own personal beliefs are that there are a variety of factors that create what wee think of as cognitive differences between men and women.  I think that socialization and culture definitely play a role but I do also believe that there is space for biology and that there probably are cognitive differences in how males and females think and what strategies they use to solve problems.  I think it is important to recognize however that these differences are simply general trends.  They do not mean that women are less capable than men in any field and are no reason to believe women can’t do just as good a job in any career. To quote Gloria Steinem “there are very few jobs that actually require a penis or a vagina, and all the other jobs should be open to both sexes.”  I think we can study and recognize these cognitive differences as long as we continue to make an effort to conserve and protect feminism and equality between the genders in the process.


Works Cited

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Kimura, Doreen.  “Sex Differences in the Brain”.  Scientific American. 13 May 2002. 

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Dean, Cornelia.  “Bias Is Hurting Women in Science, Panel Reports”.  New York Times: Science.  19 Sept. 2006. 

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Sociology's picture


Thank you very much for this information.