Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex

Rowena's and Sarah's posts brought up some interesting points about gender, sex and culture - no, not those points - and started me thinking. Those who haven't already run screaming may wish to stay to find out what I'm thinking about.

See, there are a whole lot of misconceptions about the differences between human male and human female, from - at one extreme - there being no more difference than whether it's an innie or and outie, all the way through the spectrum to the toxic notion that one gender or the other isn't fully human. Being presented with either pile of bovine excrement hits my hot buttons so hard I start shredding before I've settled on a target, usually with the sarcasmometer pegged out and ready to explode.

Starting with the uber-basics: at conception, the successful sperm is carrying either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome (yes, this is a very large simplification and doesn't include things like XXY, triple X, chimerism and the like. I'm trying to keep it simple). Eggs are always X chromosome. If the sperm has an X chromosome, if nothing goes wrong that egg will grow into a girl. If the sperm has a Y chromosome, the egg grows into a boy.

Each chromosome type (X or Y) carries a whole bunch of information that gets used as something rather like the 'recipe' for boys (Y) or girls (X). It's not as simple as "snails and puppydog tails" or "sugar and spice and all things nice" - it's more like sensitivity to certain hormones (males are relatively less sensitive to changes in the level of estrogens and progesterones, where females are relatively less sensitive to changing testosterone levels), skeletal development (female hip bone structure is quite different from the male version, partly to accommodate the requirement that the female incubate the offspring for 9 - 10 months and partly to lower the center of balance so those big fleshy bumps higher up don't cause problems. No, that's not why those changes happened - they happened because the females with them survived to have kids with them). Sex organs are involved, of course - the aforementioned innies and outies plus all the supporting tackle, and - probably the most influential when it comes to sexual differentiation - brain structure and chemistry.

That's right. Male and female brains are structured differently, and their brain fluid contains a different chemical mix. Obviously it's not a simple either/or thing - it's more that there are two partially overlapping normal distributions, one male, one female. The overlap is where the most effeminate men and least feminine women can be found.

Here's where things get fun: it's a known fact that psychotropic drugs alter brain chemistry. That's why they're used - they're a kind of blunt instrument to temporarily correct maladjusted brain chemistry (yes, even the illegal drugs. It's complicated, so I'm not touching that particular aspect of drugs expect to say that I personally take several prescribed psychotropic drugs and I know people who've found that they don't want or need the illegal drugs once diagnosed and prescribed legal ones. Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, nor is it knowledge). There's also a whole lot of evidence that non-psychotropic drugs do the same thing: if it can cross the blood-brain barrier, it can affect brain chemistry, and therefore mood and how people think.

Given that, it's simple logic that male thought processes are different than female thought processes. The different balance of estrogens, progesterones, and testosterones alone would be enough to explain that. Even without any cultural programming, you'd get differences.

It's also well-established fact - and taught as such in every teacher ed class I know about (mostly in Australia, about 20 years ago) - that male and female development rates are different. Girls usually learn language and social skills before boys, and boys usually learn math and spatial skills before girls. Again, it's well-established that an early differentiation usually leads to a much larger differentiation later, so it's not exactly surprising that males tend to show a much greater preference and ability with physical, spatial skill sets, where females tend more towards social and verbal skill sets.

Where does that translate to Rowena's observation that college-age young men are disinterested to hostile about whether movies and games misrepresent women, or young women being reluctant to raise any kind of concerns about how women are represented? I don't think it's systemic gender-based discrimination - it's more a function of the differences in thinking styles and the prevailing culture - which in Australia is strongly biased towards stoic acceptance, not whining or complaining, and 'making do'. And culture, as the saying goes, tends to change one funeral at a time.

To start with, at college age, young males haven't finished developing yet (neither have young females). They're still trying out techniques for dealing with the rest of the world, and hostile to anything not 'of the tribe' - which at that age is the same sex, similar age bracket, and similar interests. The opposite sex is undiscovered, unconquered, and possibly dangerous despite the exploratory forays not causing anything more than a temporary limpness. Males that age are also typically anxious to prove that they're adults, and to prove their masculinity (this is one of the reason teens and early twenties is such an obnoxious age). Young females do something similar, although there the emphasis is more on belonging and on being more equal than others. The teen-girl-collective is a terrifying thing, especially from the outside.

An evolutionary digression here: evolutionary psychology has got itself a bad name because of the very human tendency to wrap everything into stories (which itself is a function of the damn near universal pattern recognition ability - predators that were better able to distinguish easy prey from dangerous prey, other predators, or stuff they couldn't eat were more likely to survive and pass that ability to their offspring. Prey animals that were better able to recognize nutritious food and distinguish approaching predators from everything else were more likely to survive and pass the ability to their offspring. It doesn't take many generations for abilities that make surviving more likely to become damn near universal). Stories are effectively uber-patterns that make it much easier to pass on knowledge - which in turn makes the recipient more likely to survive and pass their abilities and stories on to their offspring.

The thing to remember about evolution of any type is that there's no "end goal". What survives and breeds is what's better suited to the environment of the time. Evolutionary psychology seems to be an attempt to understand cultural evolution as compared to physical evolution. Along the way, some interesting aspects of sexual differentiation emerged, and humans being human and intensely interested in sex - instantly hit popular consciousness. Which promptly got a lot of it bass ackwards, not least because the disseminators of the interesting stuff are scientifically illiterate.

Here's the uber-simplified version. Biologically speaking, absent major tech advances women have to carry the babies and then be primary caregiver for a long period of time (up to five years, depending on when and where). That means they're physically vulnerable at the same time as they're protecting the next generation. The physical differences that allow a woman to carry a pregnancy from a microscopic egg to quite a few pounds of baby also reduce strength and speed so that even without pregnancy or children, a woman can't outrun or overpower a man of similar size (and most men will be bigger, because women are also generally smaller than men). If she's pregnant or has a small child to carry with her? Forget it.

So... the females who survived and whose children survived were better than their fellow females at 1) making alliances with other females to share child-watching and predator-watching duties; 2) moving themselves up the female hierarchy so their children had a higher priority than the children of low-status females; and 3) being chosen by a high-status male (which earned them better protection). All of these things take - you guessed it - language and social skills. It doesn't take all that many generations in a dangerous and highly competitive environment (most of them, absent modern technology) before skills like this are the norm, and a female subculture that continuously develops and reinforces those skills has arisen.

Meanwhile, the males who survived and sired lots of offspring were often the biggest, strongest, and best hunters - because while it's possible to live entirely on gathered food, meat packs a much bigger nutritional punch. He who brings home the big steaks has the best fed children, who grow up to be the biggest and strongest and best hunters. The abilities that were advantageous in that situation included mono-focus (the old jokes about men not being able to talk and pee come to mind), spatial awareness, and physical coordination (the latter two sharing a domain space with - ta da! - math).

Big surprise, over generations the mental and physical differences between male and female got more pronounced, and the male and female subcultures moved further apart. Add on the overall culture that evolved around male-female interaction and the local circumstances, fast forward a few thousand generations, and you get where we are today.

In Western cultures there's some reintegration - especially with single-sex schools becoming less common - and traditionally male and female domains no longer exclusive - but the process is a long way from complete and it may never be complete. Those biological differences will always be there.

So, men and women are still very different, and male and female subcultures are still very different from each other, complete with massively different priorities. That's universal - although the rules for interaction between male and female subcultures vary hugely around the world.

Ultimately, men and women are still going to think differently, no matter how close the subcultures get. If we treat that as "discrimination", we're headed for trouble. And yes, being writers we should be using this knowledge. Unfortunately it hasn't found its way to the gatekeepers yet - gatekeepers are like all authorities: they generally belong to the older generation and haven't adjusted to more recent cultural evolution - even when they think they have.

So... we write it, and we stealth it. But if we want to please the ultimate consumer - readers - we need to know what they're seeing when they look at the world. If we can understand it as well, we're more likely to catch their interest and attention.

In short - get the sex right!


MataPam said...

I think it's important for writers to see where they sit on the continuum of their gender, and where the members of the opposite gender they know the best sit. I suspect a lot of us are outliers and we need to know what "normal" is.

It's all well and good to have the Main Characters as outliers. But the Girl Genius Engineer is going to live, realistically, in a world filled with male engineers and women who care more about fashions than wrenches. All the other characters need to be a lot closer to the norms, or the world is going to look very odd.

Now, as a female, sitting out here in outlier land, with excellent spacial and math skills, incapable of multi-tasking, and with barely adequate social skills, I think there's a whole lot more overlap in _abilities_ than you realize, and that it is socialization that produces the differences in _skills_.

I think girls are more pliable than boys, and can more easily be diverted into a "proper" interest, and away from "It sounds interesting, but you'd get dirty and anyway, girls aren't good at that" than boys.

And no, I don't think men oppress women. Women do most of the cultural steering during early childhood. It's the women who praise boys when they play with trucks and blocks, and girls when they dress up their dolls.

And yes, my mother did teach me how to change the oil in my car's engine. The only way _I_ deviated from _my_ upbringing was to quit to raise children and act like a typical woman.

Lucius said...

As long as we're opening this can of worms, why don't we make it useful, and talk about the differences with a view as to what might be useful to other authors?
(Or at least anecdotes presented with an eye towards entertainment.)

I'll start.
In general, women would much rather be right than happy.

From the safety of my bunker, I'll provide an example.
If a friend has set you up on a blind date, and just beforehand says, "She's had a bit of a rough patch, and has decided that there are no good guys left. That's why I decided to introduce you two." Then your friend is going to owe you, big-time.

When your wife/gf/whatever looks at you and asks "What are you thinking about?" she isn't interested in hearing your thoughts about whether that fly just did a half-roll or half-loop to land on the ceiling. Her eyes will glaze over faster than yours do at Pottery Barn.
(What's she actually looking for? I don't have the foggiest idea. My personal experience is that entertaining lies like "taking you into the bedroom and ravishing you" don't tend to have the desired effects.)

Lucius said...

Dangit, should have previewed it. The formatting removed my asides about donning asbestos underpants, hefting a can of napalm, diving for cover, and the like.

Gotta keep *this* discussion light-hearted.

Dave Freer said...

While I agree with the general thrust of your argument, where I come to a different conclusion is thus:- all men carry an x haploid chromosome (and the full complement 53 others, making up 27 pairs) It carries along with it considerable genetic information besides that of sex. Men share thus the genetic potential for almost any ability - besides childbirth, that women do. Any inability to deal with these potentials is due in large part to hormonal effects on gene expression. Therefore you will meet men who are excellent at social networking and power games.

Female, not male, is the default vertebrate. All vertbrates (including males) carry every possible female gene within their population.

However here is Frank Herbert got it utterly, absolutely WRONG. There is no secret genetic heritage that women can enter and men can't. But there IS the other way around. Except for xxy's there is a chunk of genetic data carried on the Y haploid... that no woman has.

Only male vertebrates carry that genetic information.

Sufficient hormone interferance could get men in touch with their female side. They have one. No amount of hormonal messing about will penetrate the male mystery (it probably sucks and isn't up to the x club - that men go to anyway, but it's an exclusive club, men only.) ;-/ -- and that is possibly the most unpopular, un-PC fact out there.

MataPam said...

Lucius, Your example not only has nothing to do with the premice it is supposed to be about, you fail to mention the gender of your friend.

::Innocent look:: I thought men were supposed to be logical?

To impress your W/GF, I suggest honesty, dressed up. "I was trying to solve an aerodynamics problem."
As for what she's actually looking for, that was a generic conversation opener. I'd recommend either talking or doing something of a social, not sexual, nature with her. Surely there are some things you both enjoy? If not, I suggest you find some. Play cards, do the crossword puzzle, take a walk.

Dave Freer said...

To modify my earlier comment, men cannot have babies, but they have the genetic data to have babies of either gender. Women do not have that bit of genetic data carried on that Y chromosome. Seeing as I am stirring, I'll posit what I think it is. Real stir approaches. If you are unable tothink rationally and argue dispassionately, read no further.

It's the data that makes men into the gentler sex. Yes, you read that right. Men are in fact the gentler more soppy, less agrssive sex. The base material has to be... you see, they spend their entire lives with a particularly nasty substance, which as a side effect makes them male. Give xx women the level of testoterone that males have as a norm, and they turn into sex mad aggressive homocidal maniacs, with zero tolerance for any other lifeform but the object they will rape, and not a lot for that, especially if there is any non-co-operation. Of course they also grow beards, get stronger and smell worse, but compared to the behavioral changes, these are minor. Yet, with exceptions, men manage to get along with each other and women, and sex is largely consentual, and by volume of sex largely by seduction rather than force. They do this despite a mysogenistic, homocidal brain and physiology affecting drug in their systems. Women have PMT and mood swings, causing irrationality and aggression for a few days a month as a result of hormonal changes. Men... have the equivalent of PMT from puberty. It does not go away, and gradually they learn to handle the hormone levels, to control the aggression, and the sex drive. In fact they do it well enough to declare murder and rape as vile. This is IMO only possible if the default Y data(sans testosterone) is a lot less aggressive and more co-operative than default X. This too is a selected for situation, probably starting very early in vertebrate evolution. It's like breeding really big dogs. If Great Danes were as aggressive as Pekes... we'd have none of them.

Kate Paulk said...


Part of my point was that there is overlap in abilities - AND that women will generally approach any given topic differently than men.

Girls are more attuned to "fitting in" - if you know to watch for it you can see the adjustments happening. Who they fit in with depends a lot on their cultural models and who they admire - and a girl with bad "fitting in" skills but typical girl abilities is in a whole lot more trouble than one with outlier abilities and good "fitting in" skills.

When I go into this kind of territory, I speak in generalities and deliberately simplify the outliers off. They exist. But if you were to randomly pick someone, chances are you wouldn't get one of the outliers, you'd get what I'm talking about.

Kate Paulk said...


Who's the supplier for those asbestos undies, anyway? I've been needing to get a new set since the last flame war I got into left nasty scorch marks. Besides, you just can't clean the splash marks off.

And yeah, "What are you thinking" is usually an invitation to make small talk. "Does this make me look fat?" on the other hand, is a question that should only be answered with, "You look wonderful, honey." If the item in question does enhance plumpness, you may be able to safely redirect with something along the lines of "I thought you were going to wear that (item you know she looks stunning in)".

Now, can I join you in the nuclear bunker? I don't think the asbestos undies are enough for this topic!

Kate Paulk said...


Thanks for that extra data. And yeah, you're quite right there. No women can ever have the Y chromosome stuff - although I can guarantee you any Y-chromosome envy I may express has more to do with the many conveniences of an outie where public lavatory facilities are few and far between.

As for that secret male club, I thought Pratchett revealed the sordid truth? The hang around the Long Man, drink scumble, and sink rude songs, right?

Kate Paulk said...


Inference... Given the topic, the friend is clearly female, and matchmaking. Also sucking up with more force than a black hole, implying that this guy can overcome a serious case of "all men are bastards".

Pretty simple logic, I thought :)

Kate Paulk said...


I'd be sitting here shouting, "Yes! Yes! What he said!" if it wasn't kind of pointless. Besides, it doesn't exactly further discussion.

Males who got as aggressive as females do with that much testosterone got themselves killed way early, I suspect. Sex-crazed aggression will only get you so far - if you can't harness it in some fashion (oh dear. I really didn't want that mental image.) and channel that energy to something that doesn't destroy things, people and yourself, you end up as something's lunch pretty quickly.

To swing way into non-PC territory, just take a look at the cultures with much less in the way of restrictions on acceptable male behavior.

It makes a lot of sense that the default programming on the Y chromosome be strongly anti-aggression, otherwise there wouldn't be a civilization at all, just a singularly nasty collection of small tribes whose men guarded their women with paranoid obsessiveness and killed anything that looked like a challenge - and of course got killed when a successful challenger showed up.

My observation is that as things stand, men are usually more overtly aggressive, but women are nastier and will nurse a grudge for years while cheerfully smiling at the target and making small talk every day - before sinking the knife into the back when they can do it and be reasonably sure they won't run into any unpleasant consequences.

Lucius said...


Well, if the friend is male, he's likely just naive. [grin] If that friend is female, you can be pretty sure she's got a good idea of exactly what she did. She deserves the best practical joke you can come up with.

Oh, I know she's looking to start a conversation. ;) I also know she's got a specific conversational topic in mind, know I won't guess it, and have a quirky sense of humor.

;) I've been known to say, "If I'm going to get in trouble anyway, I might as well deserve it."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave is right. Pam, you're wrong.

You're an extreme outlier, is all. My son Robert is almost one the opposite way -- great social skills, great verbal skills. Lousy spatial skills, but pretty good in math (but so was I.) I'm an outlier, not as extreme as you are (great verbal. Digit dyslexic which messed with math grades, but not comprehension. Lousy visual. Can't STOP multitasking.)

It's NOT social. Oh, sure, a society where women are encouraged to be test-drive pilots will have a lot of females who are, but it might still have more males.

My impression is we should be open to each little outlier doing whatever, but not force pattern people to. Which is what the "it's all social" field tries, including shaming stay-at-home-moms (no, I was never one, as I was working on publishing, but until I was PUBLISHED I passed for one, and oh, the scorn and derision.) Or assuming all men are as good at looking after toddlers as most women. (TRUST me, if my husband was working, the kid could have flopped dead in front of him, he'd not have noticed. It's what makes him a great mathematician.)

That said -- Dave, my premise for the story that almost didn't get published was that men could be modified to produce "erzatz eggs" and carry, but women, in space, (since their sex cells are with them from birth, just undeveloped) got their eggs damaged. So only men (even if turned into an hermaphrodite form) could go to space. Women were confined to Earth and more or less obsolete. Oh, the howling and rage at this submission... very amusing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

and a girl with bad "fitting in" skills but typical girl abilities is in a whole lot more trouble than one with outlier abilities and good "fitting in" skills.

I am living proof of this. By college, I'd achieved "most popular" status.

Kate Paulk said...


Or she's pulling a fast one on her friend - and that deserves retaliation, too.

Kate Paulk said...


Gosh, I have no idea why a story concept like that would cause such weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I'm sure it couldn't be because it didn't agree with someone's beliefs.

Um. Where did that sarcasm shovel come from?

Kate Paulk said...


Me too. Except I never got "most popular" anywhere. I got "walking dictionary". When your only interaction with people is "Kate, how do you spell...?" it gets... weird.

Anthony J Langford said...

..what Dave said...

C Kelsey said...

Dave hit it spot on I do believe. I've no idea what women say about men when they're in their little groups (I can guess though). What men say about women however... Here's the thing. We play this dumb little social game where men supposedly can't fathom the communicative and manipulative skills of the woman. BS, pure and simple.

Ladies, we actually get you quite well. We also are genetically and hormonally programmed to really like being around you. No correctly functioning male is ever going to let on that he knows what you're doing... we want you to keep doing it.

One thing... there's a lot of focus on testosterone as the male hormone that causes aggression. Well, sure, to an extent. But it does a whole heck of a lot more than that. Improved eye sight, improved spatial abilities, etc. Testosterone has gotten a bad rap because aggressive guys have so much of it. It's not the male sex hormone, it's the hunting/survival hormone.

Great post Kate.

MataPam said...

1765--first US medical school opens.

Eighty years later they admit their first female student.

Now more than half of all medical students are female. As they graduate and older men retire, that will be reflected in the percentages of working doctors.

Do you think the female half of the human race has just had an evolutionary leap? Or did a cultural barrier come crashing down?

C Kelsey said...

Cultural barrier came down because all those old men realized that when they were on their death beds the last thing they wanted to see was another dude... :P

Kate Paulk said...


Oh, yeah. When Dave speaketh, you listen :) He's always got good and interesting things to offer.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris K,

I can't speak for normal women, not being one myself (normal, that is. Last time I looked I was equipped with all the "woman bits"), but I think there's a similar game going on on the female side.

And yes, testosterone does a lot more than just generate aggression. It's such a shame the idiot fringe seems to think that's all the stuff does.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It's one profession, and a snap shot of two very different areas, concentrating on a high perstige but not particularly masculine/feminine field.
That's completely different. Yes, we know there were cultural barriers there. But Doctoring is a "caring" profession and right now there are more women than men in ALL colleges (ask me about that early development, the fact most teachers are female and verbal facility is prized above all others.) Fifty fifty might be about right for doctors, though I wouldn't know. We have our own distortions in place.

BUT that doesn't prove gender is cultural. NOW if you told me more than half the boys were home husbands and more than half the little boys aspired to being "daddies" and more than half the girls aspired to something like the military (which at least that many boys aspires to at any time) then I'd give you "it's all cultural." However, try to force little boys to play with dolls only. My son, exhiled to Portugal for three months, had only my stuff to play with. Who KNEW all my dolls were ninja fighters?

Chris L said...

"Ladies, we actually get you quite well. We also are genetically and hormonally programmed to really like being around you."

C. Kelsey

Second part - totally. First part - are we on the same planet?

Oh no, I just saw an evil Spock with a goatee. Must be that parallel universe problem again.

Mate, I'm not playing a dumb game when I say that I think differently enough from a your average woman to have significant difficulty deciphering her thought processes.


Kate Paulk said...


And your point is?

For the record, doctors are not pure scientists. Hell, in a lot of Western cultures until medical schools really got going healing was a female domain. And surgeons were hacks, and not much better than your local butcher.

The entire context of just about every profession (except possibly two of the three dirtiest - lawyer and prostitute (you can guess the third)) has changed enough that you can't make any kind of valid comparison - and that's before you touch the legal and social mores of whichever time period you're talking about.

Read Dave's comment. Then read it again. When you think you understand it, read it another time. Because based on your comments you're missing the point.

Kate Paulk said...


Absolutely. Acceptable expression of gender is cultural, but basic gender itself is not. There are some truly astonishing cases out there that demonstrate this.

Stephen Simmons said...

Pam - a little of both, I think.

The coalition of priests and doctors who drowned/burned generations midwives as "witches" were fighting to preserve a mis-adaptation, imho. Taken in macro-analysis and speaking in general terms, women (at least those who drasp maths well enough to handle the curriculum) are vastly better suited, both anthropologically and culturally, to the medical profession than men are. The medical diagnosis requires sifting a universe of disparate facts and figuring out which facts matter -- and which other facts they connect with -- to reach a successful diagnosis. The multi-tasking and multiply-interconnected data-processing style that is more "normal" for women's brains than men's is much more apt for this. The very mono-focus and linear reasoning that makes men (on average) better hunters and/or engineers is actually a detractor for this.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

It's sort of like the difference between thinking in circles and thinking in straight lines.

Since I don't think in either, I have issues with the whole of humanity, but I've learned to fake it.

Kate Paulk said...


I think less of the "evolution" and more of the "changing cultural mores". In times when it's believed that too much thought will overheat a woman's brain and make her faint (the actual issue was corsetry laced fashionably tight and making it impossible to breathe properly) even if she can enter college a woman isn't really going to have many places she can go after that.

Now, the assumption - at least in the Western middle class - is that college is how you get a job and you have a career. If you marry, there's a good chance your husband won't be supporting you because you've got to be making serious money to actually have a family on a single income (and not be constantly dreading the next major expense). At least, on the female end it is. I have no idea how males view college/work/marriage/family.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


In support of your maladaptation theory -- my older son is in pre-med and he found the thing that the med schools think is most predictive of success is... verbal scores on tests. Which is a distinctly female ability.

Kate Paulk said...


Yep. And the single biggest predictor of whether a doctor will get sued for malpractice is - wait for it - patient rapport.

Chris L said...


When I pretend to know what a woman's thinking, it invariably blows up in my face.

Better to display my ignorance openly and deal with the consequenses as they arise.

I'm in my late thirties. Usually I learn quicker than this...Dang...

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

There's a Rule about that. One of those ineffable ones. You see, even if you do get it right, she's not going to admit it. It takes away the Air Of Mystery.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate - I don't have any idea how "typical" males view these things, either. I've never been accused of even having the vaguest notion of what neighborhood "normal" lives in ... that said, what I've been observing since I left the Navy and started my second career has shown me a few glimmers of insight into the folks I share my gender with.

The majority of young-ish, "marriageable age" (under 30) guys generally don't seem to think very far in the direction of kids-family-support-long term plan. We are raised to believe we are immortal, and that we can always find a way to make it through whatever comes our way, somehow. (The American, slightly-more-nuanced variant of "no whinging", you might say.) But with or without that cultural programming, our brains don't seem to be wired for obsessing over the long-term. That seems to be a learned behavior, which creeps in gradually as we acquire "important and valuable stuff" and/or familial responsibilities.

As Rita Rudner put it, "Men don't live well by themselves. They don't even live like people -- more like bears with furniture."

Stephen Simmons said...

Chris L - something to ponder:

If a man speaks in a forest, and there's no woman there to hear it ... is he still wrong?

MataPam said...

I am not claiming that abilities are not genetically confered. I believe that they are. I am trying to say that culture biases which abilities are developed in each individual. Generally by repressing girls and encouraging boys at all the skills that are "masculine."

A look at crime statistics is a reasonable gauge for the effect of testosterone on aggression.

But if testosterone also enables spacial and math skills, why have I never read about how violent female mathematicians and engineers are? Not to mention their reproductive problems, requiring hormonal treatment.

Yes, there was obviously a cultural barrier keeping women from becoming doctors. The reasons sound so silly, now, don't they? Give engineering another century, and I think we see a similar efect.

Chris L said...



To tell the truth, I can more than hold my own in a 'discussion'.

Problem is, the high-ground ain't prime real estate when you're there on your own.

Dave Freer said...

Cough. Kate, MataPam - All I have said is that there cannot be a genetic reason (hormonal and nurture yes, maybe) why a man cannot do anything a woman can just as well, be it multi-task or gathering or nurturing or linguistic. This is a myth that has been gathering credence: woman are genetically better negotiators, peacemakers etc. This is not possible for genetic reasons. Women have no genes a male does not _also_ have. There _may_ be genetic reasons why women cannot do something men can do, but as I haven't seen any examples in professions (of complete physical/mental impossibility) I doubt that the Y chromosome makes matheticians/engineers/doctors. I think it makes for a cancelling out effect on aggression, causes more testoserone, and also pattern baldness and color-blindness. It may in combination with other genes cause other effects, but they're not really proven.

All I've said is genetically there is no exclusive women's club. All of their genes are carried by men too.

Lucius said...

The doctor thing is a bit of a misnomer. Up until about 70 years ago, the practice of medicine was pretty darned barbaric. Let's face it, it takes a good of strength to saw through a bone. Or to hold down a patient while you cauterize a wound. [shrug] It would be more accurate to say that medicine made an evolutionary leap. The nursing half of medical care has long been dominated by women. As the physician side has become more holistic, more effective, and less brutal, they've started to dominate that side as well. (Barring a few specialties like orthopedics, which still require the application of brute force and/or have a narrow focus.)
In short, correlation does not prove causation. [shrug] The institutional and cultural barriers were gone for a significant period of time before the numbers equalized, so even the assertion of correlation is a bit sketchy.

Or to look at it from another perspective, there are currently no institutional or cultural barrier to women becoming engineers. (Instead, there's a good bit of outreach and affirmative action encouraging them to do exactly that.)
That not many women choose to become engineers is just that, the sum of their individual choices. And there's nothing at all the matter with that.
(Or from another angle, nearly half of new CPAs over the past few years have been female. Accounting isn't exactly a math-light endeavor. If the culture pushes girls away from math, it's doing awfully poor job of it.)

I have to admit that I am currently a stay-at-home father. The girls have definitely learned that if one of them distracts me, the other two have a window of opportunity to raise some havoc. (To some extent, I admittedly bring it on myself. I want them to aggressively seize opportunities when they grow up.)
[shrug] The hardest thing to get through their little skulls is the whole concept of "fighting fair". They just look at me like I'm an idiot.
(To my horror, and despite my best efforts, they still love pink and dolls.)

MataPam said...

Does it seem odd to any of you that you are so sincerly arguing that there's no cultural barrier to women becoming engineers, all the while arguing that some unknown genetic or hormonal effect or their own choice keeps women from being engineers?

You guys _are_ the culture that girls grow up in. Do you think they don't pick up on your bias?

By the time the University is trying to recruit women into the school of engineering, it's too late. They're already headed for law and medical school.

Kate Paulk said...


Don't forget there's also a lag time from when the cultural barriers go down and when things settle out. Engineering, to take one example, is a field that's also physically demanding and requires a certain amount of getting one's hands dirty. All the fields where that's the case attract fewer women than men - unless they're seen as "caring" fields.

Also, don't equate "equally capable" with "following the same methods" It doesn't work that way. You can have the former without the latter.

Kate Paulk said...


I never said there was a purely genetic reason why men can't do the same things women can (barring child incubation and birth, at least so far). Genes are the starting point: the rest gets built in with hormonal influences and composition, culture, experience and the like.

Under all this yapping is massive frustration with an unending stream of books that have either men with boobs and female names or women with dicks and male names. That and the opposite end where they're this completely different impossible to understand critter that's not as good as "us" (whichever gender "us" happens to be).

Kate Paulk said...


Early (as in up to about 5 to 6 years of age) ability tends to be a predictor of later skill-sets. Established fact.

That means if you take a bunch of pre-schoolers who are better at numbers than a second group, then take a peek 20 years later, the group that was better at numbers is probably mostly still better at numbers. If you pick it up easily, you tend to prefer doing it than if it's hard or you don't get it.

This isn't rocket science. By all means encourage girls in preschool and earlier to like numbers. By all means encourage boys to like words.

Early small differences in ability become big differences in skill over time. Absent active intervention this will hold. Even with intervention this will be "sticky". That doesn't mean don't intervene. It means don't go screaming about "discrimination" when you're looking at the accumulation of twenty plus years of small differences that have pointed two people in different directions.

Kate Paulk said...


The pink and dolls thing is exactly what I'm getting at. Mind you, my dolls wore pink, but I still beheaded them. Um. Best not go there.

Put a small boy in an all-girl environment, treat him no differently, and watch him turn the Barbie dolls into super soldiers, and Barbie's Car into a dump truck. I still remember my sisters screaming over that one.

As for playing fair, the rules probably should be "Play fair as long as the other side does. Once they start cheating, so do you - but don't get caught."

Lucius said...

Choosing to become an engineer isn't the path of least resistance for anybody, regardless of sex.
Nor should it be. There are millions of dollars and numerous lives depending on the engineer's diligence on each and every project. If you do not have a deep-seated desire to be an engineer, then you should not be an engineer.

Heaven forfend that not enough women want to be engineers! Who do these women think they are, making their own decisions, and pursuing their own happiness! Why, the nerve of them! [/sarcasm]

Women are doing quite well in any number of math-intensive fields. The argument that women are steered away from math and math-related fields of study is demonstrably false.

Nor do women participating in math-related fields seem to face a social stigma for doing so.

Women who want to be engineers are enthusiastically welcomed (and have an easier time finding work after they graduate). There is no basis for saying that the industry or educational establishment places any barriers in their way.

Primary education has been oriented more towards girls than boys for quite some time, with the vast majority of teachers being female.

So where, exactly, is this bias?

My goal is something along the lines of "you shouldn't walk up behind your unsuspecting sister and punch her in the kidneys". (The oh-so-eloquent eyes of the two-year-olds reply "But dad, that's *obviously* the best time to do it.")

But yeah, there's definitely some stuff hard-wired into little girls. I remember being horrified watching one of our girls actively attempting to manipulate people at only a few months of age. (And succeeding. Which was scarier yet.)