TV & Radio
The tattle of the sexes
Innate gender difference is far from proven - yet widely believed
Saturday July 16, 2005
Tomorrow night, on the BBC programme Secrets of the Sexes, viewers are to be told "what really separates the sexes". Among the mishmash of science and gossip that follows, there is a striking story about a transsexual woman whose intellectual abilities changed significantly after she began to take male hormones. A neurologist, Ruben Gur, explains that "what we are seeing really is a female brain turning into a male brain" as we watch her doing less well on tests of verbal memory and better on spatial tasks after years of testosterone injections.
Such a tale leaves the casual viewer in little doubt that scientists are entirely agreed about the way sex hormones affect people's intelligence. The story is used as clinching proof of the argument that men and women differ hugely in their innate abilities. But the fact is that scientists are far from in agreement.
Melissa Hines, a psychologist who has sifted through stacks of evidence about the effects of sex hormones on adults, has found a range of differing results. Some studies found cognitive changes in the direction expected, some found no change, and some found changes in the opposite direction - so that, for instance, some men who were given testosterone got better at so-called feminine tasks. Hines is one of many scientists who are getting more and more irritated by the way the media pretend that consensus exists in an area of energetic dissent.
If the BBC misleads viewers in this way it is hardly acting alone. Our culture is now eager to embrace studies that show innate sex differences in character and cognition - and eager to discount studies that do not. An experiment by Simon Baron-Cohen and his associates, which concludes that day-old baby girls look for longer at faces, and day-old baby boys look for longer at a mechanical mobile, is given admiring airtime in this programme. It has already been quoted all over the place by those who like to see in it some kind of proof that women are formed at birth to invest more in human relationships.
But another expert, the psychologist Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University, was scathing when I asked her how typical such a result is of research on young children's cognition. "This is one single isolated experiment," she pointed out. "Its findings fly in the face of dozens of studies on similar aspects of cognition carried out on young babies over decades. It is astonishing how much this one study has been cited, when the many studies that show no difference between the sexes, or a difference in the other direction, are ignored."
People are naturally drawn to those findings that bolster the stereotypes they already hold - and when it comes to sex differences these stereotypes are held with immense tenacity. There have been many changes in the way that men and women behave in family and working life over the last few generations. But obviously a bedrock of inequality remains. Men continue to take more powerful roles in society and women continue to do the bulk of unpaid domestic work and childcare. Many people, rather than criticising this reality, are now shrugging their shoulders and saying this is just how men and women are - not because society encourages them to be like that but because biology enforces it.
Almost all the scientists who work in this area would never suggest that more social change is impossible. After all, even those who hold most firmly to the idea that men and women differ fundamentally from birth still have to admit the powerful effects of social conditioning that work alongside such differences. Yet the way such science is being used in the mainstream feeds inertia rather than optimism.
If the situation for women is that they "want to win, but testosterone gives men the edge", then where is the injustice if women fail to gain more power in society? If, as this programme suggests, an experiment in which men fail to stop and help a little girl on the street should be taken as proof that men are innately worse at empathising, rather than proof that men are being discouraged from building up rapport with young children in our society, then why should we feel that men's absence from family life is a problem?
But it will never be possible for these siren voices of inertia to silence entirely those who are still asking for further social change. Even this particular programme also captures the way that some of the individuals who took part felt deeply frustrated by certain expectations laid on their sexes. The desire to rebel against the stereotypes that box us in clearly springs from roots quite as deep as the innate drive to conform to type. After all, if humans are innately anything, we are innately capable of change. We should not allow lazy use of science to blind us to that truth, which is the truth of our history and experience.