Are men and women equal?

27 11 2016

Are men’s and women’s brains different? In other words, are the differences in how men and women think rooted in biology?

It is an 18th century question, according to Gina Rippon, an eminent neuroscientist. When I posed the same question to my 9 year old, just for the fun of it, he basically mirrored the above sentiment. He thought that the question is absurd. When I pressed him further on whether could there be a scientific and objective evidence that there’s indeed some difference, he refused to take the bait. He stood his ground and refused to consider the question because he reasoned, the question “are men and women equal?” in itself suggests that they may not and hence lead to discrimination, which is by all means an undesirable and an incorrect behavior. In other words, he treats it as a leading question. Oh boy!  What Gina means by her comment is that several advancements have happened since 18th century that effectively and conclusively answered that question in negative.

Regardless of any insinuations and despite our need to be politically right, I think it’s still an interesting and relevant question to think about even in this century. Among the many differences we commonly observe, some are myths, some are culturally driven, while some are rooted in biology and/or evolution. Take for example, the notion that women are more emotional than men. It’s not exactly true because what’s different is more expression of an emotion rather than the emotion itself. The observed difference could well have been only a result of cultural and social stereotyping. I guess more or less similar reasoning can be given to most of the stuff you find in the gospel – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. :). But some differences do exist.

With all the advancements in neuroscience and biology, we have greater insights into human brain now than ever. In fact, today’s neuroscience sees little difference in how women and men are fundamentally capable of thinking. Whatever stereotypes we have going around are just that – stereotypes largely based on deep cultural notions and the resulting psychological impact of acting on those stereotypes. For example, take a typical belief that women are  not (or cannot be) as good at math as men. In fact, time and again the test scores reveal the same. But capability is not at the root of this trend. When the cultural expectation is for boys to outperform girls in math, and the girls believe it as everyone else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the attitude towards competition and the anxiety induced resulted from cultural stereotypes that causes girls/women to under perform in certain areas (Study).

But some argue that nature and evolution cannot be overruled.  Historically, men had always been specialized in competing for mates, and women in caring for the offspring. According to Helena Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, the different reproductive strategies of two sexes with completely different sets of associated costs and benefits, lie at the root of all gender differences between men and women. This survival tendency has clearly established different patterns of behavior and thereby nurtured disparate strengths in men and women.

And of course, one should not rule out the role of biology. The male hormone of testosterone is clearly associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, dominance, assertiveness etc., while estrogen promotes stable mood, sense of well-being, improved cognition etc. (An interesting tidbit is that humans are naturally female and testosterone masculinizes boys in the womb.) As per Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done extensive research on autism observes that “higher levels of fetal testosterone could explain increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in males”, following the theory that “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize”.  Is this why women are considered more adept at social thinking and interactions compared to men. Testosterone is also strongly associated with violent and anti-social behavior. Hmm! Women also have testosterone, but men of course are characterized by much higher levels (10 times compared to that in women).

Another perception is that men tend to be more analytical than women or women tend to be more intuitive than men, hence the notion that men are largely left-brained and women are right-brained. Studies suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills while female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking. Men also perceived to be laser focused while women are multi-taskers. Women tend to absorb more and store it all in their brains compared to men. Could these differences be explained by the hunter-gatherer theory, the sexual division of labor, where men normally pursued risk taking activities of hunting, while women were relegated low-risk task of gathering rich calorie for nurturing? Or do they have true biological causes? There are a lot of contradictory arguments and lot of conflicting “evidence”.

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most important and fascinating discoveries in recent times. There is nothing static about ourselves – not our bodies, which regenerates itself with new cells every 6 months or so, to our brains, defined by the interconnections among neurons that can strengthen or weaken depending on the experiences and behavior thereby redefining them constantly. Isn’t it amazing? Change is indeed the only constant. 🙂 As our brains are getting continuously rewired, based on external stimulation, nature and nurture are so strongly intertwined that I think it’s difficult to disentangle them and say for sure where one ends and the other starts.

From the evolutionary perspective, we still have the same basic instincts as our primal ancestors. The gender differences (some if not all) too are rooted in them. But in today’s world, many of them maybe are irrelevant. We are not living in wild and are not facing the same kind of survival problems. Mankind’s development happened so rapidly that evolution and nature needs time to catch up. Am damn curious to know as to what the next evolutionary changes for us would be – what our basic instincts would be. Sometime in future when physical strength and all other evolutionary differences between men and women become less and less relevant for survival, can we achieve a gender neutral society? A society where no gender has an advantage over the other. Well, is it a good thing? It certainly sounds like it is. But who knows!

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8 12 2016
Fairness, not sameness | Peek Inside My Mind

[…] are obviously not same. (I touched upon some aspects of how and why in my earlier post – Are men and women equal?) They possess different sets of strengths and weaknesses. Despite the dissemblance, we ought to […]

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