Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much

Several incidents have recently created divisions within the skeptical community.  The latest one was over a casual comment Michael Shermer made in an online talk show. He was asked why the gender split in atheism was not 50/50, “as it should be.” He said he thought it probably was 50/50, and suggested that the perception of unequal numbers might be because attending and speaking at atheist conferences was more of “a guy thing.” They might have asked him to explain what he meant. They didn’t. He didn’t mean to say it was encoded in the male DNA. He was simply recognizing a reality of our society: male/female interests and behavior tend to differ due to all sorts of cultural influences. Among other things, women might find it more difficult to attend meetings because of lower incomes and the need to arrange for babysitters. Watching sports on TV with other guys and beer is a guy thing too, but not because it’s hardwired into the male brain. It’s a guy thing because of customs and attitudes in our society.  And it certainly doesn’t mean women are less capable or that societal influences can’t be overcome.

Nevertheless, Ophelia Benson assumed Shermer meant:

that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

That’s not what he meant. It’s not fair to judge him by one off-the-cuff remark. His record stands for itself: there is not a hint of sexism in his writings and he has always fully acknowledged women’s intelligence and their ability to think critically.

In a rebuttal article, Shermer quoted me:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

PZ Myers called this “a sexist remark.” He went on to say:

So sex differences are real, and we should just pretend that we don’t see sex and gender everywhere we look?…..

By the way, I hate the phrase “Science has shown” followed by some irrelevant fact…

There is no reason anywhere to think that women have less capacity for critical thinking, or that they are intrinsically more gullible and therefore more likely to be religious, or that they are less rational and so less suited to careers in science.

I was taken aback. I never suggested any such thing. I don’t think women have less capacity for critical thinking or are more gullible. And I certainly didn’t think I had made a sexist remark.

Neither did the man who e-mailed me to say:

It sounds like a perfectly reasonable statement yet Mr. Myers finds fault with it. He seems to criticize your statement in ways that aren’t clearly implied in that quote. He does say that “Science has not shown that women have significantly different cognitive abilities.”, and my sense is that he takes it as a given that there are no significant differences between what a female might be interested in or capable of compared to males (other than the obvious physical differences).

My correspondent referred to an article in Scientific American that showed a number of differences between the male and female brain.  He asked if I would write about what the latest science really had to say about gender differences. I thought I had better try to do that, and try to explain the misunderstanding.

Men and Women Are Different

No one can deny that there are real differences between men and women. Women have chest bumps; men have dangly bits. Women menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate. Men have more testosterone and can grow beards. Women have two X chromosomes; men have one X and one Y.

Science has shown numerous less obvious differences. For instance, men’s brains are larger (but for intelligence as for penises, size doesn’t matter). The information in the Scientific American article about other brain differences is fascinating; you might want to read it now and then come back.

Boys are more likely to be autistic, to be dyslexic, to have Tourette syndrome, and to have ADHD. On standardized tests, boys have better spatial skills and girls have better language skills. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Heart attacks tend to cause different symptoms in men and women. The effects of drugs can be different in men and women; this is why there has been so much criticism of drug trials that were done only on male subjects.

Some of these are innate differences grounded in genetic, anatomic and physiologic realities. And epigenetics tells us that environmental factors can influence how genes are expressed, not only in the individual but in the offspring.

Some Differences Aren’t Hardwired

Other observed differences may not be inherent; they may well be due to cultural influences. We are finding out that many things we used to attribute to nature can be better explained by nurture. These cultural influences can be very difficult to tease out in studies, and mistakes have been made.

Are men really more aggressive? In most species, males are more aggressive than females. Castration of males usually has a pacifying effect on their aggressive behavior (just think of stallions versus geldings). Science told us men are more aggressive than women, and I assumed that was true. But recent studies have made us question that assumption.

Studying aggression is tricky. How do you measure aggression? Is it different from assertiveness? Do increased testosterone levels cause aggressive behavior or just facilitate something that is already occurring? Assertiveness and competition are influenced by societal expectations. Adults are more likely to engage in rough-housing with boys. Girls are encouraged to avoid physical combat and to use other tactics like communication and negotiation. That’s a wise strategy for girls since they aren’t physically as strong. There are new studies showing that girls are as aggressive as boys or are aggressive in different ways. Differences are less in some cultures than others. The evidence is conflicting: I don’t think we have a clear answer yet.

Are boys really better at math? The accepted wisdom was that boys are better at math and at spatial skills and girls are better at language skills. A recent study looked at 86 countries and found that math scores are determined by culture, not biology. In some Middle Eastern countries, girls did poorly but boys did worse. Both boys and girls do better in countries with greater gender equality. Old assumptions about greater variation in ability in males and about the superiority of single-sex schools did not fit the data. The studies are far from conclusive; for one thing, we could ask how reliably math scores reflect innate math ability.

What does this mean? Studies disagree with other studies, every scientist’s methodologies are criticized by other scientists, researchers’ choice of what to study influences results, and brain imaging studies may not mean what we think they mean. There is very little in current science to hang a hat on; the field is in flux. I frankly don’t know what to believe at this point. I think what all this means is that true innate differences in ability and personality between the sexes are fewer than what we had previously perceived through the biased lenses of our culture and society. More study is needed. I think we should expect to find some true differences, because of the evolutionary pressures on the different roles of men and women early in the development of our species. Factors like the demands of childbearing and infant care must necessarily have led women to different behaviors and preferences to improve survival.

It’s wrong to interpret any of the data as showing women’s inferiority or superiority. It’s equally wrong to interpret the data as showing no differences between men and women. Carol Tavris wrote an entire book about such misinterpretations, The Mismeasure of Woman

Average Differences Don’t Tell Us Anything About Individuals

The point that often gets overlooked in these discussions is that gender differences are averages for the group. They are irrelevant to a discussion of what jobs any individual woman is qualified for or interested in. And it doesn’t mean we can predict what proportion of men or women will gravitate to any given area of human endeavor.

Women can fight. On average, men are bigger and stronger. But an individual woman can be bigger and stronger than an individual man. Now that combat jobs are being opened to military women, there will be many women who qualify and are motivated. There will be many men who are not qualified or motivated. On average, more men will be qualified. Naturally, there will always be more men than women in combat jobs, and I don’t see that as a problem.

Men can’t breastfeed, but plenty of them enjoy nurturing infants. There is no reason they can’t bottle feed; there is no reason why two gay men can’t do a great job of raising an infant. There is no reason men can’t serve as primary caregivers for infants. But I don’t foresee a day when as many men as women choose that occupation. For one thing, although formula feeding is a viable option, breast is best.

We used to hear some of the most ridiculous reasoning about jobs women “couldn’t do.”  They were too emotional, less rational, they would go all weird during menstruation, they lacked intellectual capacity, they were too delicate, they would have nervous breakdowns, they would become masculinized. In 1874, Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke predicted that women seeking advanced education would develop “monstrous brains and puny bodies [and] abnormally weak digestion.”

As recently as 1974, there were objections to my assignment to an ATH (Air Transportable Hospital) unit because “women can’t lift as much weight” and “the guys like to take their shirts off in the field and use swear words.” I was sorry to see some of the same old tired, silly arguments recycled as objections to the recent policy change about women in combat.

In the 70’s I heard a man say there were a lot of jobs a woman simply couldn’t do, like garbageman or butcher or taxi driver. Another man protested, “Hey, my mother was a taxi driver, and she was a good mother!” As more women go into those jobs, attitudes change.

Women in Medicine

The first woman to attend medical school in the US was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1847. The faculty had no intention of admitting women. They let the students vote, saying that if even one man objected, she would not be accepted. The students thought it was a joke and voted unanimously in favor.

Progress was slow, and the percentage of women physicians actually decreased during the first half of the 20th century. In 1949, only 5.5% of entering medical students were women. I lived through a period of transition enabled by 3 developments: Title IX prohibited federally funded institutions from discrimination based on gender, the women’s movement happened, and effective contraception gave women control over their fertility. When I started medical school in 1966, 7% of the doctors in America were women. Today approximately half the students in medical schools are women.

There’s a ways to go. Women are still less likely to reach the highest academic echelons or leadership positions or to become surgeons.  We need to try to understand why and to look for remedies like better childcare options and prejudice-reduction training. But it’s now abundantly clear that women can be doctors and they want to be doctors. I see medicine as a field that is particularly attractive for women. I anticipate that even more women will naturally gravitate to the profession as they see more female role models in the media and in real life. If the percentage of women surpasses 50%, will anyone start calling for reverse affirmative action to reduce it? What should the percentage be? 50% women? 60% women? 80%women? We can’t know until all the remaining barriers are truly gone.  It will all sort itself out eventually. As I said, remove the preventable obstacles and then let the chips fall where they may.

I Am Not a Sexist

I was criticized for using the word “preventable.” I meant that in two ways: obviously we can’t prevent an obstacle if we have not yet been able to identify it; and there are some obstacles, like pregnancy and breastfeeding, that are not so preventable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help women to deal with them, to work around the physical restrictions, to make their lives easier, to facilitate women’s life choices. And it doesn’t mean we should be complacent and stop trying to identify any remaining obstacles. More than one of my critics somehow managed to misinterpret my words to mean that I wanted barriers, that since I had had to overcome hardships I wanted other women to suffer as I had suffered. My statement of support for women was perceived as a sexist attack on women. I find that bizarre and hard to understand.

Steven Novella recently wrote about the divisions in the skeptical movement and the different conceptions about what it should be and should do.  There have been some online eruptions about feminist issues, with over-reactions and regrettable behavior on both sides. I’d like it all to die a natural death, but I do want to clarify what I meant by these words:

I’m a skeptic.

Not a “woman skeptic.”

Not a “skep-chick.”

Just a skeptic.

I applaud the accomplishments of feminist organizations. They have performed a great service by raising consciousness and enlisting more women in skeptical pursuits. I admire them, but I choose not to join them, for the same reason I have never joined women doctors’ or other women’s groups. It’s a matter of personal preference. I personally prefer to be identified as a member of the larger whole rather than singled out in a smaller subgroup. In a sense, identifying as part of a group of women only reminds people that we are women and only tends to delay the day when people will notice our accomplishments and not our anatomy. As for the word “chick,” I’ve never liked it. I think calling me a “doctor” or a “bird colonel” (for the shoulder eagle insignia) shows respect but calling a colonel a “chick” would be inappropriate and disrespectful. Especially at my age, where I would be better classified as a tough old hen.

We all want the same thing: for women to be treated fairly and to have the opportunity to reach their potential in a freely chosen field of endeavor. There are different styles of activism, and my personal style was not the one many other women chose. I knew my interests and talents didn’t lie with politics or public confrontations. Considering who I was and where I was, I fought discrimination in the only way I felt was a viable option for me at the time, the only way I thought I could personally accomplish something, even if only in a small way. And I did. I took my rightful place in a male-dominated field, quietly persevered, did a more than competent job, served as a role model, and paved the way for others to follow. There were no “hard” barriers to overcome, no regulations prohibiting me from what I wanted to do; but there were plenty of “soft” barriers in the form of discriminatory language and treatment that made my life more difficult. If you are interested in the details, they’re all in my book Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. 

I got into a discussion with a woman on Facebook. She said all the advances in women’s rights were made by political action, not by individuals like me. She said my personal experiences were meaningless and I shouldn’t even try to talk about the subject, since I didn’t have a degree in gender studies like she did. Some feminists would consider me an Uncle Tom and a coward, and criticize me for not following the same course of action they did.

I offer 3 anecdotes to illustrate that my approach did accomplish something:

  1. A teenage girl went home and excitedly told her mother she had just seen a woman doctor (me) working in the ER. She had always been interested in medicine and had planned to become a nurse; but it had somehow never occurred to her that a woman could be a doctor. Seeing me inspired a change in her career plans.
  2. At the end of my internship, my evaluator wrote that my performance was so good that it had convinced them to ask for more “lady interns.”
  3. I wrote to a woman doctor who had done the same residency where I had been the first female and who was currently working in the hospital where I had been the first woman intern (indeed, the first woman doctor, the only woman doctor in the whole gigantic medical center). I asked her what problems she had encountered as a woman in the Air Force and in medicine, and she didn’t even have the faintest idea what I was talking about.

In speaking about his personal brand of skepticism, Steven Novella said “I don’t pretend that anything I have done is the right way — it’s just the way I have chosen because it fits me”.  That’s exactly what I mean. He and I are in tune with Frank Sinatra: I did it my way.


  • There are probably some inherent gender differences in aptitudes and preferences.
  • We can’t yet define what they are.
  • It doesn’t really matter very much, because
    • The average tells us nothing about the individual
    • We can work to overcome differences due to nurture
    • We can compensate to some extent for differences due to nature.

I say again: it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every field of human endeavor.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama said “Our journey is not complete.” He was talking about society’s acceptance of homosexuals, but it’s true of society’s acceptance of women, too. And our journey will only be delayed by misinterpreting the science of gender differences, imposing arbitrary 50/50 goals, or squabbling amongst ourselves. I hope we can lay these disputes to rest and cooperate towards our mutual goals.

Women can be anything except fathers, and don’t rule that out just yet!



Posted in: Evolution, History

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