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GENDER STUDIES

When Are You Guys Going to Get It?

February 13, 2005|Deborah Blum | Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection."

In Victorian times, scientists argued that women's brains were too small to be fully human. On the intelligence scale, researchers recommended classifying human females with gorillas.

The great 19th century neuroanatomist Paul Broca didn't see the situation as quite so dire, but he warned his colleagues that women were not capable of being as smart as men, "a difference that we should not exaggerate, but which is nonetheless real."

The president of Harvard University suggested that a lack of "innate ability" might help explain why women couldn't keep up with men in fields like math and science ... oh, wait, that one happened just last month.

Hold for a minute -- OK -- while I dig out my corset and bustle.

If that sounds snotty, I mean it to be.

I, for one, am ready to leave the 19th century behind. Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers can apologize all he wants, but the fact is that -- from a position of power -- he felt comfortable speculating about women's inadequate intelligence and ignoring years worth of science that proved him wrong.

I don't find that excusable. Period.

And I wonder why we women are so willing to tolerate this kind of behavior.

Summers raised the issue of women's lesser capabilities in an economic conference in Cambridge, Mass., in mid-January. And the most consistent response from women -- the one still resonating across the country -- is defensiveness.

A litany of female scholars quote studies proving that, yes, we girls can do long division, actually understand a chemical formula, comprehend a physical law or two and not only become professional scientists but do good work.

In fact, when allowed, women have done excellent science for decades, even since the corset-and-bustle days. The physicist Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes -- in 1903 and 1911 -- for her work in France with radioactive elements. As one Stanford University professor assured her audience last week, "clearly, girls are as capable" as boys.

No argument there from me except this one: Why does that have to be said at all? How well must women perform before the question of our competence gets taken off the table? How many times do we have to make the point before people actually believe it?

I wonder when it was that male academics last organized a conference to explain that their brains worked as well as those of their female colleagues. Perhaps they should have. At least, if more attention was given to the limits of male brain function, Summers might not have made quite such a fool of himself.

If that sounds like a cheap shot, I mean it to be.

Thanks to brain-imaging studies, we can quantify the average size difference between men's and women's brains. It runs between 6% to 8%. Imaging studies also tell us the brains are packed a little differently.

Preliminary evidence suggests that the average female has more cortical complexity -- a little more sophisticated material in the region that handles cognitive processing -- than your average guy. A whole bunch of studies -- to use one of those technical terms -- indicate that the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the right and left hemispheres, is larger in females.

Not unexpectedly, research also shows that women seem to use both sides of their brain in certain tasks, such as verbal processing, when men use only one. The result, though, in terms of quick and accurate response, is about the same.

In other words, minor brain differences with minor effects. But as Dr. Ruth O'Hara of Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science points out, even such subtle differences can be used against women. In one report, the scientists suggested that men have better control over brain activity and therefore don't need to slop into a second hemisphere.

"You wouldn't think that more activity would be a bad thing," she notes. "But apparently that's a matter of interpretation."

Does it strike you, as it does me, that Summers missed the important question? The one that goes like this: If men and women are basically equal in ability, why is there not a more equal balance of power?

That's complicated terrain, perhaps more than he wanted to take on. Still, I'd like to propose this simple scenario: One gender gained the power position and has been really, really reluctant to share the space.

It's possible that dominance has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with size and strength. That early in human history, males muscled their way into control and have stayed there because they're bigger (an average 17%) and because they play tough.

In our civilized times, muscle mass isn't that necessary. Why use physical force when other techniques are so effective: put-downs, dismissals, suggestions that, geez, we'd love to see women advance in those challenging intellectual fields -- if only they were up to it.

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