Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unintentionally Hilarious Quote of the Day

This one comes courtesy of the Kansas City Star's Business section, in this mini-review of a new book, Leadership and the Sexes.

Subtitled Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business, this book goes beyond the stereotypes in sharing what the latest scientific studies reveal about male/female brain differences. My "a-ha" moment: Men's brains are wired to more often enter a rest or zone-out state.

I had to laugh aloud at that. "Don't bother those busy men with all your lady-prattle, dearie, you don't want to bore them!" I wonder if they looked at whether men were able to attend longer to the words of superiors as opposed to peers or underlings, or to other men as opposed to women?

Don't get me wrong, I love neuroscience, and think more research into the ways that human brains do differ could give us valuable insights into human relations, individual psychology and ways to maximize human happiness. I tend to be very skeptical, though, when the differences neuroscience "discovers" correspond to existing notions of race or gender. Are women really so much more empathic than men, or is it that we are more likely to be in support roles (secretaries, nurses, assistants, receptionists) than working independently or calling the shots? I think it's lazy research just to look at men's and women's brains and assume any difference you find there must be innate. Given what we know about the effect of habit on the architecture of the brain, we should be particularly vigilant about controlling for life experience in these kinds of studies.

There's a particularly instructive cautionary example of this sort of shoddy writing in recent memory: when Louann Brizendine first published her opus The Female Brain in 2006, she claimed in its pages that women spoke an average of 20,000 words per day to men's 7,000. Imagine that! Almost three times as many words. That would certainly go a long way toward explaining the inter-gender communication problems that are the basis for so many movies and sitcoms, if only it were true. It turns out Brizendine just made that number up. When called on it, she backed down some, saying she meant that women used more "communication events" (words, but also gestures, facial expressions and other such ephemera) than men per day. Sadly, that turns out to be wrong, too.

I think the persistence of the "women talk more than men" meme and the conventional wisdom that men just don't listen very well are related, and both have to do with the marginalization of women's speech. Men won't listen to women if they think they don't have to (and you don't really have to listen to someone lower than you in a hierarchy; you can always ask them to repeat it, send you a memo or, ultimately, blame them for your ignorance of whatever they were trying to tell you), and, as long as women are seen as illegitimate newcomers to the public sphere, any speech uttered by a woman will be seen as excessive, because men will be used to her silence, or her absence.

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