I recently completed a series of lectures in Honolulu. One, entitled “Gender-specific Neurobiological, Behavioral and Social Influence on Human Development: Implications for Heterosexual Relationships and Couples' Therapy” was given to a packed room of psychiatrists (many of them were residents in training). In fact, after the talk began, several people who came late had left because there were no seats available. Bummer!
I told the audience before I spoke to them that I was a bit trepidatious about giving a talk on such a controversial subject in such a high-profile forum as the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Yet, surprisingly, I got very little resistance from those who attended the meeting on the idea that there may be some fundamental difference between how men’s and women’s brains function.
Heretofore, I had been a strong believer in gender differences, propelled by the research of Simon Baron-Cohen, who describes “The Essential Difference” between men’s brains (tending toward systemization) and women’s brains (tending toward empathy). In contrast, “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, pulls no punches in pointing to the bias in research by people like Baron-Cohen. For instance, the highly touted research that baby boys prefer geometric objects, and baby girls prefer faces is based on an unblended study of children held at different angles by their mothers, not in some laboratory with special eye-movement detection data (as I had always assumed). Also, by simply identifing your sex before taking a preference exam, you’ll tend to give more gender-stereotyped profile of yourself. Interesting!
Yet my audience didn’t seem swayed by the controversy; it seemed obvious to them that there are qualitative differences between men and women. Maybe it is based on socialization or gender messages from others, one participant noted, but those environmental exposures (just like the environmental exposure in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) cause permanent brain changes, and we cannot ignore the reality that, by the time the average man or average woman is in the psychiatrist’s office, he or she will view the world differently because of their sex.
In the eyes of the psychiatrists who attended that meeting, that means that it’s OK to advise your male clients, “Don’t jump in and believe you have to fix things when your wife describes a problem,” and to tell your women clients, “Make sure you get to the point early when wanting help solving a problem, otherwise you’ll lose his attention and get frustrated that he isn’t listening!”