Fix the TV and take out the garbage [male & female brains]

Posted on December 5, 2013 in Equality Debates – Full Comment
05/12/13.   Tasha Kheiriddin

Cue the feminist outcry. According to scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, “Men’s and women’s brains are fundamentally different … Men ‘see and then do’ while women are more intuitive and collaborative.”

The researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences after studying 949 individuals between the ages of eight and 22, detected statistically significant differences between male and female brains. Their work formed part of a larger study of 9,500 individuals, which revealed “pronounced sex differences, with the females outperforming males on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests; and males performing on spatial processing and motor and sensorimotor speed.”

Those still waging the gender wars will claim that the assertion of a biological basis for sex differences could convince more girls to take up homemaking instead of engineering. Many still cling to the belief that sex-related preferences are entirely due to sexist social constructs, imposed by patriarchal oppressors.

But in my household, the study provoked only shrugs. Women better at multitasking? Men more adept at reading maps? OK, tell me something I don’t know. As proof, I offer up this typical Thursday morning experience.

7:00 a.m. Me: Get woken up by bright-eyed four-year-old demanding to watch television. Watch with Zara while making breakfast and school snack. Swallow coffee and mentally plan workday while she eats and engages in animated conversation about lizard habitats. Check email, catch up on Twitter feed, read news headlines online. Resolve the issue of pigtails vs. braids, ensure Zara is ready for school, throw on own clothes. Drive to school and back while simultaneously listening to news station, choosing topic for column, and rehearsing conference call with client. Realize that Zara left Dancing Barbie on front seat. To avoid meltdown, drop Barbie at mother’s house, since mom is picking her up from school.

6:00 a.m. Bill: Get up. Shower. Get dressed. Swallow coffee. Take out garbage. Drive to commuter train station. Take train to the city. Work.

Lest everyone think that I am living with Archie Bunker, let me assure you I am not. My spouse regularly cleans up the kitchen after dinner, and tidies up after himself. He is actually a neater person that I am, and often “rearranges” my side of our shared home office. He is a kind and devoted father to his two teenagers. He plays with and cares for my daughter when I have to take an emergency call for work, need a mommy break, or just because it’s fun.

But we have divisions of labour. I do the laundry. Bill mows the lawn. And everyone is fine with that, because I hate yard work and Bill would rather not spend time separating colours and whites. Bill deals with all our Electronics Issues, such as calming me down when I hit the wrong button on the remote and accidentally disable the TV. When I recently lost my mobile phone, he took charge and with laser-like focus, reprogrammed my old one so I could get through the day. Meanwhile, I cook most meals that don’t involve Kraft Dinner.

In the “New Economy,” such differences might actually serve women well. It is precisely because of their different abilities — multitasking, collaboration, and ability to read social cues — that females are outperforming boys in school, outnumbering men in universities, and, in many cases, out-earning them once they graduate. “Soft” skills, teamwork, and the dreaded multitasking are now resume requirements. Manufacturing jobs demanding singular focus are being replaced by service jobs that require people skills. And long-term, stable employment is giving way to temp jobs, part-time and flex work.

Yes, gender roles are not just biological: There is a socially constructed element, too. And they are not static. The study confirms this too, because it shows that the older people get, the greater the differences.

This makes sense: Brain pathways that get used more develop more, crowding out functions that are used less. This means that as men are also required to deploy “soft” skills to thrive in the changing workplace, it is possible that their brains will become more like those of women. But they will never be the same. Vive la difference, I say — and please take out the garbage.

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