Much of my life has involved trying to understand people. Since more than half of my patients were females, it follows that I should know something about women by now. Unfortunately there is that gender barrier which makes it difficult for me to put myself in their shoes, both literally and figuratively. Even though I feel I must have learned something after all those years, I identify with Freud, who allegedly said that after all his years of study, women still remained a mystery to him.
In my case, the problem was made more difficult because I had no sisters. As a child, I viewed girls as fragile little flowers who must be protected by those of the opposite, stronger and more sensible sex. Although some admittedly showed signs of intelligence, I thought their inherent sentimentality impaired their ability to make rational decisions. At that time, there were already signs that this societal norm was fracturing in spite of a great deal of male resistance. For example, the right for women to vote was still viewed as a big mistake by many.
RESPECTED OR DEVALUED?
Since I grew up as a compliant, conservative midwesterner, I was naturally compliant with the rules I was taught about girls. Consequently, I learned to open the door for them, not to swear in front of them, and never ever to strike or physically harm them in any way. This latter admonition was considered to be not only unfair due to man’s superior strength, but unmanly, and manliness was all important for almost all boys, and still is for most of us.
At about the age of five, I learned all about the anatomical differences between girls and boys from a very worldly 12 year old distant cousin. Detailed exploration of her physique proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were anatomically different. The experience did explain why my mother frequently chastised my brother and I for not lowering the toilet seat.
In the old days, boys got most of their sex education from locker room banter, which was, as you might suspect, not always accurate; needless to say, I entered medical school not nearly as sophisticated in such matters as I pretended to be. We learned a lot about the anatomy and physiology of women but not much about the experience of being a woman. During our clinical rotations, we were privileged to participate in the treatment of women, the treatment of their family members, and the birth of the women’s children. It was heady stuff. From there, it was on to a stint in family practice and eventually to psychiatry, where there was not much emphasis on the study of the differences between the male and female psyche.
WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD
It was by living with a spouse and three daughters that I began to understand a bit about how female brains work. From the beginnings of their lives, it was clear that the girls were more prone to outward displays of emotion than their brother. Based on a totally unscientific study of these four kids, I remain convinced that the differences were present at birth.
Some have suggested that the female’s nurturing instinct is simply a learned behavior, for one would not expect to see significant hormonal influences in toddlers. Yet I believe I have seen evidence of such behaviors very early in my daughters’ lives, which leads me to believe female brains are hardwired for nurturing. Indeed, the job of nurturing is done without training by females throughout the animal kingdom, so why would we expect Homo sapiens to be any different?
NO WONDER I AM A SUCKER FOR GADGETS
In his book, The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains And The Truth About Autism, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen concluded that boys and girls exhibit different behaviors at birth. Female babies were noted to pay more attention to social stimuli, such as human faces or voices; while boys were attracted more to nonsocial, or spatial, stimuli, such as the movement of a mobile above his crib. Baron-Cohen concluded that these traits will persist as these babies grow into adulthood because male and female brains are wired differently. Additionally, the use of modern scanning technologies shows great promise toward the enhancement of our understanding of such differences.
REAL MEN DON’T CRY
It has long been said that females are more sensitive to others’ feelings and, therefore, are more empathic than men. This does not mean that men are devoid of empathy, but that their empathy is perceived differently. Researchers have identified two different kinds of empathy which they call affective and cognitive. Affective empathy actually involves experiencing another person’s feelings and is more common in women, while cognitive empathy, characteristic of men, is triggered by imagining oneself in the same situation. To feel sorry for another’s misfortune is different from actually experiencing his or her sadness. In light of this, it is safe to say that when a woman says “I feel your pain,” she actually means it. Likewise, she will also be capable of sharing in your joy. A survey of the women in my life has confirmed this phenomenon exists, and they gave examples of situations in which their ability to function was affected from sharing a friend’s grief.
As women strive for equality, there has been an effort to minimize the differences between genders, which has led to serious debates and questioning of conventional wisdom. It could be characterized by the lyrics of that song in the 1950 musical film Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything thing you can do, I can do better.” In one definitive study, a large group of students in the grades 2 and 3 were given tests designed to measure empathy, then retested when they had reached an average age of 14. The results verified the hypothesis that the girls were more empathic than the boys, especially on the affective scales. Moreover, the difference that was present at the younger age increased as the children grew older.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
These days, if one wants to learn about human behavior, he needs only to look at marketing research, for these people know more about us than we know about ourselves. The power of the internet has allowed them to accumulate massive amounts of data which has been used to chronicle much information about both individuals and groups. One such treatise on the subject confirms “that there are inherited differences between… the way men and women think, perceive, and remember information.” It goes on to say, “Girls watch faces. Boys watch objects.”
The authors conclude that “segmenting by gender is crucial if businesses are to make their websites more enjoyable and profitable.” One might conclude that if the bean counters think it, then it must be true that men are really from Mars and women from Venus.
IT MIGHT GET STICKY
That these differences exist makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view since the talents of both sexes allow them to function at a high level when performing the specialized functions required of members of traditional families. Nevertheless, it is true that times are changing, and those roles could change as technology turns us on our heads. We undoubtedly will see dramatic changes in our world, which will require many different kinds of talents. In many ways, it is conceivable that these changes may result in role reversals that we now find difficult to imagine. Many changes are already occurring, and I plan to ruminate further on the subject in my next blog.
Meanwhile, I very much agree with French experts who respond to comments about the disparities between the sexes with the phrase: “vive la difference.”