A substantial difference ?

14 novembre 2005 par  Aude

Completely absorbed in my rather queer ideas , I almost forgot that in everyday conversations and in magazines, people still have limited ideas on the question of the difference between men and women. The state of the debate was recently summed up by a friend Chiche ! : “there is a difference between men and women, do you want me to show you ?”.

Reactions on the internet site on this topic were numerous, and quite simplistic, in particular those from men. Simplistic ideas on differences between sexes are basically very old ideas. Anthropology teaches us that all societies have over-biologified differences between men and women. To mention but one other society, the Ancient Greeks thought that male bodies were warm and dry, whereas female bodies were cold and wet. In the 19th century biologists revamped this idea by stating that sperm had the power of “heating” the female body and solidify its fibres . The idea that society may have formatted women and men differently according to the gender that it assigned us is actually fairly new and little thought-out. To this date I feel quite unsophisticated faced with essentialist arguments flooding society with their programme claiming e.g. that men come from Mars. But I can now express my ideas in proper scientific outfit and will here try to reject essentialist arguments I find sickening since, in the end, they only serve to deny real equality between men and women.

Men are better at maths
Men on average obtain better marks than women in maths tests. This difference in performance, which manifests itself only for ages above teenagers, is real but must be questioned : as one learns more about the set-up one begins to doubt. The difference in performance is not stable over time and is diminishing over time, as girls gain access to similar education to boys. On the other hand stress levels of girls are higher during the tests, which may be a part of the explanation. Furthermore, in some countries such as Japan, women get better results than men. Finally it must be reminded that some women always get very good results, a fact that is hidden by the focus on the average score.

Men read maps better and have a better sense of orientation
People often make us of historic, if not prehistoric reasoning to make sense of this idea : being the hunters, men had to find their way around ; an ability that evolution has solidified by the process of selective adaptation. The starting point of this explanation is the idea that in all societies the members are specialised in some activities, which is false. In prehistoric societies hunting and exploration were very probably not a privilege of men. And in some African societies it is the women who leave the house to look for food and hence who need a sense of orientation. Prehistory is an easy alibi. One day men will start pulling their partners by the hair since this would fit the traditional images of male-female relations in some fantastic past.

What is true is that brain specialists spend their time looking for generalities on differences. But most of the time they fail because the differences between individuals are too great. Hypotheses of correlations between general features are most of the time plainly absurd. So-called specialists seek to establish correlations between hormone rates and culturally constructed male characteristics. One day we are told that boys like playing football more because their knees lie further apart than those of girls. Biologifying differences demonstrates a narrow-minded attitude that subjects the human being to a false determinism.


Dorothee Benoit-Browaeys and Catherine Vidal, Brain, sex and power, Belin, 2005
“Is brain sexed ?” Science culture, France culture, 8 February 2005