The evidence for substantial innate sex differences is mounting. I’ve long been a strong advocate for acknowledging this research, instead of trying to ignore it for ideological reasons, such as the postmodern feminist stance that all gender differences are culturally constructed. On the other hand, I usually take a very conservative approach, and write phrases such as “there are certain innate differences that cannot be ignored”. However, I don’t know if that conservative approach is warranted any more. As the research is progressing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that sex differences are substantial, and not limited to a few specific areas.
This doesn’t mean that we forget about culture, or the plasticity of the human brain that allows us to adapt to a range of situations–regardless of our gender. But it does mean that we need to start acknowledging that the very organ that filters our experience of life, and the “software” that runs that organ, are substantially different between an average man and an average woman. This also means that the inner experience of being a man is different from the inner experience of being a woman.
Recently, I was sent a very interesting link about new research that has been carried out to map the relationship between gender, testosterone and risk aversion (Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone. Paola Sapienzaa, Luigi Zingalesb and Dario Maestripieri, 2009). The strength of this research is that it connects a well known gender specific variable (testosterone) to a specific behavior (risk aversion). It is one thing to prove that there are innate biological differences between men and women, but it is far more convincing when a biological variable can be shown to directly affect behavior.
Let’s see what they say about the experiment:
Prior research has shown that testosterone enhances competitiveness and dominance, reduces fear, and is associated with risky behaviors like gambling and alcohol use. However, until now, the impact of testosterone on gender differences in financial risk-taking has not been explored. [...]
The researchers, using an economic-based measure of risk aversion, found that higher levels of testosterone were associated with a greater appetite for risk in women, but not among men. However, in men and women with similar levels of testosterone, the gender difference in risk aversion disappeared. Additionally, the researchers reported that the link between risk aversion and testosterone predicted career choices after graduation: individuals who were high in testosterone and low in risk aversion chose riskier careers in finance. [...]
Overall, men exhibited significantly lower risk aversion than women in the study, and also had significantly higher levels of salivary testosterone than women.
In other words, the levels of testosterone that men routinely have, lead to increased risk taking, compared to the levels of testosterone that women usually have. Women who have higher than normal levels of testosterone, approach the risk taking behavior of men, simply by having increased levels of this hormone.
This is not to say that there aren’t a rangeÃ‚Â of other factors that can increase or decrease risk taking, but those factors in no way detract from the result of the researchers.
Additionally, the study demonstrated that prenatal levels of testosterone, which are much higher in boys, have an impact on risk aversion later in life:
A similar relationship between risk aversion and testosterone was also found using markers of prenatal testosterone exposure.
At this point in time, it is irresponsible to maintain the claim that sex differences are completely, or for the most part, socially constructed. There are a number of cutting edge research fields that provide us with ample proof that innate sex differences not only exist, but are substantial:
- Mapping brain structure and function using new imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
- Studying the behavior of newborns or infants
- Studies from the field of evolutionary psychology
- Cross-cultural studies
- Research that connects innate biological differences to specific behaviors (such as testosterone levels and risk taking)
Common sense has always informed us that men and women are different from the day they are born, and during the past couple of decades, science has finally caught with that insight.
Pelle Billing is an M.D. who writes and lectures about men’s issues and gender liberation beyond feminism.