In the book What’s Your Dangerous Idea? (Edited by John Brockman, Harper Perennial, 2007) Steven Pinker’s contribution, “Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments,” references the infamous quote by former Harvard president, Larry Summers, wherein he suggested that men and women differ in the ways in which their brains function, and that this might contribute to the lack of equal representation of women in science and engineering. Pinker qualifies this by openly acknowledging that there are anomalies and exceptions, of course, to any generalization. The overarching point Summers wanted to make was to examine whether such differences exist, and what to do about them, not whether they proved anything else, such as whether women should be encouraged to enter fields like math and science. The comment was not about individual men or women. It was an intellectual inquiry. Whether one finds it appalling or not, the answer to such a question is interesting in its own right. I want to unequivocally state that a generality is not applicable individually. Whether such a generality might be true for any population (a race, ethnicity, or gender), at the individual level, it is entirely insignificant.
Unlike Pinker, I do not think this is a dangerous idea or question, in and of itself. What I want to think about in this forum is whether in searching for equality we really seek sameness, even if that is biologically and/or biochemically impossible (see article about Summers’s comments and the biological differences between genders here). Why is it “dangerous” that the minds of men and women might be different, generally speaking? This does not apply at an individual level, and so dashing women from mathematics or science programs makes no sense.
There are women like Lynn Margulis, who are perfectly suited to science, and who have proposed ground-breaking theory of which the impact would be no less controversial and/or significant than natural selection as Darwin proposed. (Margulis posits, and I’m over-simplifying, that “we,” as we think of ourselves as humans, are actually evolved to serve as hosts to bacteria. Thus, her idea might diminish the significance of evolution if all animals—including humans, of course—are walking (swimming, flying, etc.) habitats for bacteria. There are many women throughout history and today who are performing research who are exceptions to Summers’s generalized suggestion, and I only mention Margulis herein because I’m familiar with her work (and find it infinitely fascinating to consider).
Is it really “dangerous” (even if it is politically incorrect for a university president who is so often in the public sphere at such a renowned institution of higher learning) to consider that, generally speaking, men and women are different? I regularly joke about this with women friends. We commiserate lightheartedly about how much more capable we are at multi-tasking than are our husbands. We joke about their befuddlement when we sit at dinner and have the following type of exchange:
Wife: “Tomorrow Josh has a dentist appointment at two-thirty, so I’m leaving work early to take him to that. Kim has a drama club meeting after school, and will need to be picked up at five. I’ll stop at the store to pick up what we need to make dinner, instead of you doing that, since I’ll be near xyz grocery store and you won’t have time to stop if you’re picking up Kim.”
Husband, with confused countenance, asks, “What?”
Wife: “Ugh, I just need you to pick Kim up at five.”
Husband: “I thought we needed broccoli for dinner? You asked me yesterday to stop at abc grocery store.”
Wife (sighs): “I’m getting the broccoli because if you get Kim you won’t have time.”
Husband (trying to be helpful): “I can get Kim and then get the broccoli.”
Exasperated Wife: “It makes no sense for you to go back across town at rush hour. I’m going to be near xyz grocery store after Josh’s dental appointment, so I will leave there at three-thirty and get the broccoli and then come home.”
Husband: “Why are you always changing things?”
Wife: “Will you just pick up Kim or not?”
(The wife knows that the school is not near the grocery store, that her husband will leave work and just barely make the pick up at five o’clock without the extra stop. She also knows that because their son’s appointment is earlier, that she can easily stop at another grocery store to get what they need, which will allow them to all arrive home about the same time. She’s trying to save steps, save time, and meet the needs of the entire family with all of this jostling.)
Now, I offer the above scenario with the utmost respect for my husband. It’s not like he’s a simpleton. He is a carpenter and thus skilled in many ways. He builds acoustic guitars. His mind is more than capable of anticipating upcoming steps in complex ways, including building steps! (Do you have any idea how complex stairs really are to build? Do you ever even think of them, other than to assume their placement underfoot?) My husband figures out mechanical things, and enjoys doing so, which, I believe, is my point, Pinker’s idea, and Summers’s suggestion. It’s not like I couldn’t, or am not capable of figuring out why the switch on the stove burner is not working and what part is required to fix it. I’m certainly able to do that. The difference is that I don’t care to think about those things. Conversely, my husband could plan a birthday party, make travel arrangements and navigate the rat’s nest that is modern health insurance policy fine print. The difference there is that he’d rather fix the stove, and I’d rather do all of the other tasks versus fix the stove. (For the record, again proving that generalities do not apply to individuals, we have friends for whom this is exactly the opposite: she grouts the tub and he does all the baking!)
Getting back to my conversation with my friend about our exasperation over husbands and their abilities versus our own, I offer up a wholly unscientific hypothesis about why men can’t change gears when it comes to picking up broccoli and kids after school. (Please take this with tongue planted firmly in cheek—I’m not a biologist or anthropologist!) I posit this: evolution has not caught up with modern culture and society. Men’s brains are focused on one thing. This is why they aren’t freaked out when they go back to work after having babies, possibly, as well. They were the hunters, and so had to sit still, quiet and focus. They had to be patient and not flitter about. They had to leave their young children to do this, too. Women, on the other hand, were the gatherers. We carried one child on a hip while we watched out for predators. We might have also watched the toddlers of our fellow women while collecting berries, roots, and mushrooms. While watching kids, being aware of predators and letting the babe on our hip nurse, we differentiated between the poisonous Panther and the delicious Blusher fungi. Bringing our discussion of Lynn Margulis full circle here, we perpetuated generations so that we might be the best habitats for bacteria!
Finally, what if we were all the same? Neither of us (speaking of my husband and myself) would be motivated specifically toward any kind of task, per se. We’d be apathetic about each, and not really take pride in our prowess nor harbor the same respect for one another’s greater abilities. Thus, in our own family, we celebrate rather than bemoan our differing skills, even if when amongst women friends, I share my exasperation over his inability to handle changes as I coordinate the revolving door of our family’s schedule, activities, appointments, and lists. For us in particular, and to refute the ability of a study claiming differences in male and female brains as having any individual applicability, my husband would prefer to be the “homemaker” and not leave the house five days a week for work. I’d prefer to work full-time and leave the laundry and housecleaning to him entirely—an arrangement we’re working toward as I anticipate my master’s program this fall.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.