Feminism and the Male Brain

NEW YORK – North Americans of my generation grew up with the 1970’s children’s record “Free to Be...You and Me,” on which Rosey Grier, an immense former football star, sang “It’s Alright to Cry.” The message: girls could be tough, and boys were allowed not to be.

For almost 40 years, that era’s Western feminist critique of rigid sex-role stereotyping has prevailed. In many ways, it has eroded or even eliminated the kind of arbitrary constraints that turned peaceable boys into aggressive men and stuck ambitious girls in low-paying jobs.

ttp protests

Free Trade in Chains

Chatham House’s Paola Subacchi examines the causes and consequences of today’s anti-globalization backlash, guided by insights from Stephen Roach, Dani Rodrik, Joseph Stiglitz, and other Project Syndicate commentators.

Feminists understandably have often shied away from scientific evidence that challenges this critique of sex roles. After all, because biology-based arguments about gender difference have historically been used to justify women’s subjugation, women have been reluctant to concede any innate difference, lest it be used against them. But, in view of recent scientific discoveries, has feminist resistance to accepting any signs of innate gender difference only created new biases?

The feminist critique, for example, has totally remade elementary-level education, where female decision-makers prevail: the construction of male hierarchies in the schoolyard is often redirected nowadays for fear of “bullying,” with boys and girls alike expected to “share” and “process” their emotions. But many educators have begun to argue that such intervention in what may be a hardwired aspect of “boy-ness” can lead to boys’ academic underperformance relative to girls, and to more frequent diagnoses of behavioral problems, attention deficit disorder, and so on.

And education is just the beginning. An entire academic discipline emerged out of the wholesale critique of the male tendency to create hierarchy, engage in territoriality, and be drawn to conflict. When I was in college, the feminist solution to “patriarchy” was an imagined world without hierarchy, where people verbalized all day long and created emotional bonds.

This critique of “masculinity” also dramatically affected intimate relationships: women were encouraged to express their dissatisfaction with men’s refusal to “share” their inner lives. Women complained of not being heard, of men disappearing after work to tinker in the garage or zone out in front of the TV. But, however heartfelt, such complaints assumed that men choose all of their behavior.

Now a spate of scientific analyses, based on brain imaging technology and new anthropological and evolutionary discoveries, suggests that we may have had our heads in the sand, and that we must be willing to grapple with what seem to be at least some genuine, measurable differences between the sexes.

The most famous of these studies, anthropologist Helen Fisher’s The Anatomy of Love , explains the evolutionary impetus for human tendencies in courtship, marriage, adultery, divorce, and childrearing. Some of her findings are provocative: it seems, for example, that we are hard-wired for serial monogamy and must work very hard to maintain pair-bonds; that highly orgasmic women enjoy an evolutionary advantage; and that flirtation among primates closely resembles the way young men and women in a bar show their sexual interest today.

Moreover, in her description of our evolution, Fisher notes that males who could tolerate long periods of silence (waiting for animals while in hunt mode) survived to pass on their genes, thus genetically selecting to prefer “space.” By contrast, females survived best by bonding with others and building community, since such groups were needed to gather roots, nuts, and berries, while caring for small children.

Reading Fisher, one is more inclined to leave boys alone to challenge one another and test their environment, and to accept that, as she puts it, nature designed men and women to collaborate for survival. “Collaboration” implies free will and choice; even primate males do not succeed by dominating or controlling females. In her analysis, it serves everyone for men and women to share their sometimes different but often complementary strengths – a conclusion that seems reassuring, not oppressive.

What Could He Be Thinking? , by Michael Gurian, a consultant in the field of neurobiology, takes this set of insights further. Gurian argues that men’s brains can actually feel invaded and overwhelmed by too much verbal processing of emotion, so that men’s need to zone out or do something mechanical rather than emote is often not a rejection of their spouses, but a neural need.

Gurian even posits that the male brain actually can’t “see” dust or laundry piling up as the female brain often can, which explains why men and women tend to perform household tasks in different ways. Men often can’t hear women’s lower tones, and their brains, unlike women’s, have a “rest” state (he actually is sometimes thinking about “nothing”!).

Moreover, Gurian argues that men tend to rear children differently from women for similarly neurological reasons, encouraging more risk-taking and independence and with less awareness of the details of their nurture. One can see the advantages to children of having both parenting styles. He urges women to try side-by-side activities, not only face-to-face verbalization, to experience closeness with their mates.

Somehow, all this is liberating rather than infuriating. So much that enrages women, or leads them to feel rejected or unheard, may not reflect men’s conscious neglect or even sexism, but simply their brains’ wiring! According to Gurian, if women accept these biological differences and work around them in relationships, men respond with great appreciation and devotion (often expressed nonverbally). Women who have embraced these findings report that relations with the men in their lives become much smoother and, paradoxically, more intimate.

11,293 commentaries shared. Help us keep sharing.

Learn more

None of this means that men and women should not try to adjust to each other's wishes, ask for shared responsibility with housework, or expect to be “heard.” But it may mean we can understand each other a bit better and be more patient as we seek communication.

Nor does recent scientific research imply that men (or women) are superior, much less justify invidious discrimination. But it does suggest that a more pluralistic society, open to all kinds of difference, can learn, work, and love better.