The longstanding idea that women enjoy discussing their emotions while men are mostly excited by cars may be true after all. Scientists conducting the world’s largest study of sex differences in the brain found men were more likely to prefer “things” and “systems”, while women were more interested in people and emotions.
Scientists at Cambridge University surveyed more than 650,000 people and said that their results confirmed two theories: first, the empathising- systemising theory of sex differences, which predicts that men will be more excited by coding, while women will be more attuned to feelings; second, the extreme male brain theory predicts that the brains of autistic people are more “masculine” than is typical for their sex, in that they are more systems-focused.
The twin theories, from the Cambridge scientist Simon Baron-Cohen, are controversial and have previously been described as “neurosexism”.
James Damore, a former Google engineer, cited the empathising-systemising theory in a leaked memo to colleagues for which he was sacked last year, arguing that women were underrepresented in tech not because of sexism and discrimination but because of biological differences.
The study looked at non-autistic and autistic people. 44.4% of men who were not autistic were categorised as having a “Type S” brain, scoring higher “systemising” than empathy, compared with 27.3% of women. Professor Baron-Cohen has previously dubbed the Type S, or systemising brain the “male brain”. For non autistic women, 42.9% had “Type E” brains, scoring higher on empathy than systemising, compared with 24.6% of men. Professor Baron-Cohen has called the Type E brain the “female brain”.
Among autistic participants, 62.4% of men were categorised as Type S or extreme Type S, and 46.8% of women. That compared with 13.7% of autistic men and 23.1% of autistic women categorised as Type E or extreme Type E — meaning autistic people were much more likely than non-autistic people of their gender to have “masculine” brain traits.
Professor Baron-Cohen said the research highlighted the qualities autistic people bring to neurodiversity, saying: “They are on average strong systemisers, meaning they have excellent pattern-recognition skills, excellent attention to detail and an aptitude in understanding how things work. We must support their talents so they achieve their potential, and society benefits too.”
However, critics have said the results depended on self-reporting, which may be unreliable as the findings were based on participants’ “agree/disagree” answers to statements, such as “I am good at predicting how someone will feel”.
Professor Gina Rippon, of Aston University, author of The Gendered Brain, said: “Such self-report measures are prone to the kind of distortions caused by stereotypes – people who know you are measuring empathy are more likely to present themselves in more of an ‘empathic’ light than unprimed behaviour might indicate.”
The authors stress that differences observed in this study apply “only to group averages, not to individuals”. They say that to make inferences based on gender, autism diagnosis or occupation would constitute stereotyping and discrimination with which they “strongly disagree”.
Dr Varun Warrier, a member of the Cambridge team, said: “These sex differences in the typical population are very clear. We know from related studies that individual differences in empathy and systemising are partly genetic, partly influenced by our prenatal hormonal exposure, and partly due to environmental experience. We need to investigate the extent to which these observed sex differences are due to each of these factors, and how these interact.”
Professor Rippon added: “The participants in this study were aged between 16 and 89 years old – plenty of time to have absorbed the gendered messages to which they will have been exposed. In an era where bombardment by stereotypical gendered messages is ever present and where we are still subject to widely publicised outbursts concerning women’s unsuitability for scientific careers, I am concerned about the take-home message that may be extracted from this paper.”
So for now, although the study supports differences in the way that men and women think and behave, the jury is still out. Is it down to how our brains are wired or how we’re treated and socialised? Tell us what you think, join or start the conversation down below.