On a flight to China, James Damore furiously typed an incendiary 10-page paper, which would eventually be dubbed the “Google memo”. Within a short period, Damore was fired, denounced, and chided for what many considered to be promoting sexism and discrimination. This could not be further from the truth.
Male and female brains are structurally and chemically different, which often leads to unbalanced financial and political power in the hands of males.
We will refute the claim that “we are all created equal” in a biological sense. That doesn’t mean we do not deserve to be treated with equal respect and offered the same opportunities, but in a system where competence and skill are prized we must be realistic in our expectations for society.
We do not deny that sexism occurs and that cultural conditioning can exacerbate or greatly exaggerate biological differences between the sexes; there are many bad apples. But…
Science seeks truth and the truth isn’t always convenient.
By understanding the baseline biology of our brains, whether male or female, we can more readily succeed at creating the life we want to build.
Of course, male brains are predisposed to perform better in certain situations, but there are plenty of others where a female brain is more helpful. To answer the question posed in the title, male brains are not inherently able to perform better.
Let’s start with how each gender is wired from birth.
Gender Differences: Systems and Empathy
One common argument states that females are conditioned from a young age to believe males are more capable in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields than they are.
There are situations (especially outside of the west) where this is true, but it only accounts for a small part of the disparity.
What is more important are the biological differences at birth. Male brains are generally wired to be more systematizing while female brains are generally wired for empathy independent of how / what they were taught.
A 2000 study at the University of Cambridge showed that one-day old babies already showed these gender differences. Babies of both gender were showed a picture of a woman’s face (empathy and human interaction) and a mechanical mobile (systems and tool orientation). The males overwhelmingly preferred mechanical mobiles while the females paid attention to the faces.
Another study with vervet monkeys showed male monkeys played more frequently with masculine toys (cars) and females played with feminine toys (dolls). Neither one-day old babies nor vervet monkeys can be conditioned or socialized (i.e: taught by society) that they must do one or the other. The brain is simply wired in that way.
Brain scans and imaging show this to be true. Female brains often have a larger hippocampus with a higher density of neural connections, which makes it easier for them to absorb sensorial and emotive information.
Females also have verbal centers on both sides of the brain while males typically only have verbal centers on the left hemisphere. This generally leads to females having better capabilities to describe incidence, stories, and feelings than males do.
In general, female brains are structured to empathize and process feelings and both brain imaging and behavioral studies prove it.
All this data confirms Damore’s first point in the infamous “Google memo” and probably explains a large part of the inequality in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
Given homo sapiens have thrived as a species because of our tool-making ability, it is no wonder higher STEM participation by males has led to unbalanced financial status.
How to Get More Females in STEM
Simple. Be a woman in STEM.
Neither biology nor evolutionary psychology should be used to dissuade women from entering STEM fields. After all, these are generalizations on the population level. My mother has a PhD in food science and agriculture and my younger sister is preparing for a medical career.
Just because brain structures and behaviors differ between the sexes does not mean females should be discouraged or excluded from these fields. To believe what is natural is what is morally correct is called the naturalistic fallacy.
But in the countries with the highest degree of gender equality, fewer women are in STEM. Countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden are showing reduced numbers in STEM fields despite having some of the most liberal political landscapes.
Maybe it isn’t best to force an unnatural legal requirement for these fields.
Leadership Roles Between Genders
An empathizing female brain is not without serious advantages in the modern workplace. Not only will empathetic roles become more important as technology and artificial intelligence advances, but there is evidence females are more predisposed to leadership roles.
A BI Norwegian Business School leadership study of 3,000 managers found traits that made female brains predisposed to leadership. Among them were emotional stability, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Working with a team often requires extreme emotional maturity and empathy skills, which the female brain does well. In numerous studies females are found to be more nurturing, extraverted, and agreeable.
Studies in theoretical business schools aren’t the only data in the female’s favor. A comparison of CEOs in the Fortune 1000 between 2002 – 2014 showed that female-led companies had returns of 226% better than the S&P 500.
The greatest challenge to females taking on these leadership roles in greater quantity is their relatively lower incentive to compete. There are fewer females than males who would be willing to sacrifice not having a family and oftentimes the highest positions of power require so much work, it’s only the highest competition males that are willing to perform such rigorous feats.
Male Aggression: Wired for Extremes
The male brain is wired for extremes. In biological terms, anisogamy between males and females creates a disparity in the ability to reproduce. In crude terms, “sperm is cheap”. Because sperm is relatively cheap in a biological sense, males have evolved competitive mechanisms in order to mate successfully.
This shows up in sexual encounters, negotiating salary, and the wide disparity between the most and least successful males.
Male Drive for Status
Because the male brain is wired for extremes, it is no wonder the most extreme wealth and power falls primarily with men in society.
Again Damore accurately depicts the male drive for status as one of the primary motivators for this gender gap. There are reproductive benefits of intense competitiveness for males.
Competitiveness often shows up as assertiveness. In four meta-analyses of literature spanning over 50 years, scientists found males to be more assertive and with higher self-esteem than females. This assertiveness accounts for a large portion of the gender pay gap (i.e: the reason males typically have higher salaries than females). Men are aggressive in negotiations for salary.
There are many upsides in the drive for status, but there are also downsides. Fortune 500 companies have only 20% females in senior management roles and less than 7% in CEO roles. That same drive for status in lower-educated and poor socio-economic regions means 93% of work-related deaths are males.
The drive for status creates even more problems in regions where violence is socially acceptable. Of the prison population, 93.2% are males who are indirectly or directly imprisoned to maintain status in their community (even when it ends up hurting their reproductive capabilities).
Objectification and Sexuality
Both the male and female brain are wired to reproduce and pass on genetic DNA; this is the premise of evolutionary psychology. What differs are the methods that males and females generally reproduce.
As more females have entered the workplace, sexual harassment has become an increasingly common problem. Unfortunately, the different methods of sexual reproduction in male and female brains has led to an incendiary combination:
- Males benefit from short-term sex, females do not (reference)
- Males have incentives to be wrong about female interest (which makes a females’ signs hard to interpret) (this is called Pascal’s wager)
- Females exhibit “token resistance” whereby they indicate no sexual interest and then eventually succumb (reference)
- Females adorn themselves with makeup and clothing that accentuates their ability to reproduce (reference) (ref)
This is a perfect storm for miscommunication and fraught gender relations.
In no way are we suggesting that female dress contributes to harassment or abuse or excusing male behavior due to their evolutionary predispositions. But in identifying these scientific understandings, it is much easier to develop solutions in and outside the workplace.
Cognitive Abilities Between Males and Females
Just as male and female brains were wired from birth to handle ancestral environments, there are certain individual cognitive skills that differ. One of the main reasons mentally high performers consume nootropics like piracetam, stimulants like modafinil, or even simple caffeine is to improve their cognitive abilities. But there may be wiring in our brains based on our gender, which also influence our capabilities… and that can be a good thing.
Focus and Concentration
Male brains utilize 7 times more gray matter than female brains
Female brains utilize 10 times more white matter than male brains
The gray matter more indicative of male brains is localized in information and action processing centers of the brain. Because of this, males often have greater abilities with focus and concentration than the female brain. This physiological difference makes it easier for males to have tunnel vision and perform deep work more effectively.
This makes sense because our male ancestors would have needed intense focus and concentration for solitary, challenging tasks, such as deer hunting, where small movements meant the difference between food for days and starvation.
In contrast, white matter is part of a networking grid that connects processing centers throughout the brain. The higher quantity of white matter allows females to transition from one task to another more rapidly. Females sometimes find multi-tasking more easy than males do for this reason.
Memory and Learning
The female brain is often wired for a greater verbal capacity than that of males. In one Archives of Neurology study, scientists found language-associated regions of the brain were proportionally larger in females (up to 20% larger in some areas).
The verbal ability of the female brain probably developed as an adaptation to deal with stronger social bonds within tribes in addition to education of offspring. For whatever the basis, now female brains are more adept at reading comprehension and retrieving long-term memories.
In contrast, the male brain does better with working-memory, which is a major aspect of creativity.
Anxiety and Stress
One of the final arguments in Damore’s “Google Memo” was that the female brain is more prone to neuroticism, which suggests higher rates of anxiety and lower tolerance for stress. If true, this might account for the low quantity of females in high-stress environments especially as they age and desire a family.
There is clear evidence females experience more anxiety than males and the underlying structure of the brain may explain why. The amygdala, a region often responsible for the fear response, is split into two parts (left and right). In females, the left amygdala is more active and vice versa for males. Brain imaging fMRI scans show the left amygdala may be more important for representing negative effects.
Much of the anxiety that females experience later in life stems from highly active memory consolidation in the emotional realm. The female brain retains stronger, more vivid memories of emotional events and can recall them quicker and more intensely.
Male and Female: Similarities and Overlap
Despite everything we’ve said about our genetics and differences between males and females, the expression of these genes is by no means fixed. For one, all this data focuses on the population level. If you are a female reading this, you may be wired completely different than generalizations across society.
Even more important is our adaptability. As a species, the human brain is one of the least developed at birth. One of our great advantages is our plasticity in childhood; we can learn, change, and develop based on our environment.
Between birth and age two, we develop twice as many neurological connections as we have as an adult. We prune connections and evolve based on our environment to some degree.
Also, despite all the differences in how male and female brains are structured and wired, there are more similarities and tons of overlap. A study of 5,216 male and female brains confirmed as much. The graph of various regions puts things into context:
It’s up to us to decide how we want to utilize this information. Do we fight science because it provides us with an inconvenient truth about male and female brains? This is what Google and many other left leaning organizations consistently try to do and it helps neither the company nor our society.
In our judgment, the greater approach is to understand how we are hardwired, the deeper motivations based on millions of years of survival, and how we can incorporate them into our perspective to assess ourselves accurately and achieve the life we desire.