Should we have sex on the brain?

NORMAN DOIDGE

Some government programs are now offering dollars to universities, in the form of salaries and grants, if they hire women, and only women, for professorial science positions. But Dr. Doreen Kimura, one of the world leaders in the field of sex differences and cognition, points out there is "no evidence" for systemic discrimination against women in science. Recent neurological, hormonal, and psychological studies argue that men and women differ not only in their physical attributes, but cognitively in how they solve intellectual problems leading them to have different occupational preferences and skills.

At stake is whether Canada will enter the science-dominated 21st century using its best and brightest or its second stringers in the fight against cancer, dementia, and other scourges. Leading the fight is Prof. Doreen Kimura of Simon Fraser University, a world-renowned scientist. The president of Canada's Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, she seeks to stem the tide of the next great war of academia: the gross politicization of the hard sciences.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), is this country's chief support group for basic research in the natural sciences. NSERC, citing the well-known fact that more men take science jobs, and arguing that this means that “systemic discrimination” must exist against women, has taken affirmative action even beyond quotas. In an act of flagrant discrimination in the distribution of research resources, it now offers a program that systematically excludes men from key science grants.

Its new program offers dollars to universities in the form of salaries and grants if they hire women, and only women, for professorial positions. Dr. Kimura points out there is “no evidence” for systemic discrimination against women, as NSERC claims. She provides empirical evidence that women actually self-select out of certain science careers, and that when women do apply for science jobs they already get preferential treatment.

Who is she to say so? Prof. Kimura is one of the world leaders in the field of sex differences and cognition. Her article, “Sex Differences in the Brain” just appeared in Scientific American's anthology of the decade's most important articles on the brain, where she joins Nobel Prize winners and the Who's Who of a new generation of explorers: the brain mappers.

Prof. Kimura points out that brain scans and neurological, psychological and hormonal studies are now converging to show that men and women differ not only in their physical attributes, but cognitively in how they solve intellectual problems.

Overall, male and female IQs are the same, but, on average, women are better than men at identifying and matching items (perceptual speed), have greater verbal fluency and are better at arithmetic calculation and precision manual tasks. Men, on average, are better at spatial tasks (like rotating images in their heads), finding their way around a route, mathematical reasoning and co-ordinating visual and motor activities (eg. targeting).

Brain scans show. that many activities that women excel at involve both hemispheres. The spatial activities that men excel at involve the right brain. Scientists have begun to correlate brain region size with skill, as was recently done by Prof. Sandra Witelson of MacMaster University, who showed that the part of Einstein's brain responsible for mathematical and spatial operations was 15% larger than normal.

In the 1980s it was shown that the right cortext is thicker in male rats but not in females. Jane Stewart of Concordia University has demonstrated that male hormones suppress left cortex growth. Susan Resnick has shown that girls with a rare condition, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which exposes them to excess male hormones as they grow, have spatial abilities comparable to those of males.

Cognitive differences are not just based on practice. Kimura has shown that three year-old boys are better at targeting their three-year-old girls, and this difference isn't based on the extent of experience in the sport. Targeting skill is thus based mostly on endowment, not target practice. This is important because many assert that if men are better at something, it must be because they were given special opportunities or preferential treatment.

Camilla Benbow of Iowa State University has shown that, at the upper end of mathematical reasoning ability, males outnumber females 13 to one. On the other hand, women are better at learning languages. Elizabeth Hampson of the University of Western Ontario has shown that language learning ability alters during the menstrual cycle. High levels of estrogen are associated with enhanced articulation, and depressed spatial ability

Kimura concludes that these findings shed light on why men and women, on average, have different occupational preferences and skills, and why women would not be equally represented in professions such as physics and engineering (that emphasize mathematical reasoning and spatial skills), but might be more in medical diagnostic fields (where perceptual skills are important). Who, other than NSERC, can have failed to notice that each of the contributors to the new diagnostic science of the brain, cited above, are women?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Norman Doidge, “Should we have sex on the brain?,” National Post, (Canada) 12 January, 2000.

Reprinted with permission of Norman Doidge and the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Norman Doidge writes for the National Post. His column appears in the Life Section, every other Wednesday.

Copyright © 2000 NationalPost


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