Wednesday, January 22, 2020

On Sexism In How The Media Used To Covered Social Science Research

 I have been clearing out old archives and stuff, and came across my Book Project: How The Media Popularizes Sexism In Its Coverage Of Social Science Research
I set the project aside in a first-draft stage in 2015. That particular sexism problem in the media seemed to me to be waning by that time (so there was less need for the book), and for all sorts of reasons (some weird Echidne-type ones, some justifiable ones)  completing the manuscript no longer seemed worth the cost and effort. 

But now I think it would be a pity not to let anyone else see the work I have completed, so I here offer you (below the fold) the first chapter of the planned book. 

It's the only chapter which is fairly complete.  I think it can stand alone as a good summary of the basic issues in how the media has tended toward sexism in popularizing research.  If there is interest I can post the other draft chapters, too (there's four or five or six of them), but they don't have the footnotes inserted and have never been rewritten.  So that's the stage in which they would be published here. 

Note that the links in the footnotes may well have died of old age.  Sorry about that.  But I enjoyed the examples I use in that chapter, and I hope you might, too.


This chapter introduces you to what I think of as the  tripod for the "Gender Camera":  The three most common problems in the popular reporting of gender research and research about women.   They are the three legs which hold up the camera we use for our snapshots about gender,  the views that are offered us and the data that seems to prove certain points of view.   If those legs are uneven, the tripod is tilted, and  the messages we get are also tilted.

The first tripod leg is the bias towards looking for differences between women and men, even exaggerating such differences, and the corresponding bias towards ignoring any similarities between the sexes.  I tell you the story of how I came up against this in 2005 while reading popularizations of one Pew study about gender differences in Internet use.  That story serves as a prototype, a recipe to How It Is Done.  We shall travel the process in reverse, starting with the popular stories and their headlines, moving back through the interviews with the main researcher of the study, and finally into the data itself.

The second tripod leg  is the preferential treatment popularizations give to traditional of division of labor between men and women.   Thus, mothers taking care of their children at home is regarded as the gold standard, alternatives  are viewed with suspicion.

Studies about stay-at-home-fathers or the importance of fathers as parents seldom, if ever, reach the television morning programs, but studies about the dangers of paid childcare do.  In fact, a 2007 study  found that daycare conveyed both advantages and disadvantages for the children, but the popular coverage on it focused mostly on disadvantages.  This study offers an initiation to the way the popular media usually covers mothering.

The third tripod leg  is the extra requirements studies satisfying the first two legs of the tripod need to meet to become extensively popularized.  The surprising answer is that these are very few.  Thus, speculative research is acceptable.  Research that violates basic methodological rules is fine.  Research which has pretty severe definitional problems is OK.

I tell one tale  about the female and male brains as an example of this third tripod leg, from the basic theory proposed by the autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, through the tests that he used to define these sexed brains and, finally, to his impact on others who write about gender. 

This example serves to highlight some common problems in the studies about gender differences:  not clearly distinguishing the effects of current gender roles from those of  biological differences,  using speculative and unverifiable  stories about our ancient ancestors to give credence to the it's-all-biology position,  and, last but not least,  creating whole bubble-fields of research where people eagerly cite each other's work but fail to respond  to criticisms coming from outside the bubble.   Those bubbles stunt the way research should grow and develop:  through careful criticism and debate with others.

The First Leg:  Looking For Only Differences and Exaggerating Them

A study on gender differences in Internet use*,  published in 2005 (1),  doesn't give useful information about today.  But this Pew study has the honor of introducing me to the first  tripod leg and teaching me the tricks which turn innocent little differences in original data into humongous sex differences in popular re-tellings.    Though the exact patterns of those re-tellings differ, the final outcome often resembles this popular-media  headline about the Pew study (2):

Men want facts, women seek relations on Web - survey

This is what whetted my appetite:  A study showing that women seek relations on the Internet while men seek facts?  How very interesting.  I wanted to learn more, and found it in this popularization (3):

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew and author of the study, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "There has been a 'feminization' [of the Net] in the sense that women took a different fork in the Internet road from men. Men use and appreciate the Internet more for the experiences it offers -- to do things -- and women use it and appreciate it more for the human connections they build."

Steve Jones, an Internet researcher and communication professor based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the report demonstrates that "Net users are not some kind of monolithic 'them' and the Internet is not just a giant mass medium. The Internet is a multi-medium, which men and women use differently."

Fallows expected that the Net would free the sexes to behave in "unstereotypical ways," such as men acting more "touch-feely" and women being more comfortable exploring new technologies.

But she said online behavior reflects traditional offline behavior among the sexes. Women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships, look for health information, get support for health and personal problems, and to pursue religious interests. Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.

Fallows found that women like to use the Net to send e-mail and e-cards and are pulling ahead of men in use of instant messaging and text messaging on cell phones, while men are more likely to use online chats and discussion groups and to make Net-based phone calls.

Wow.  The senior research fellow in charge of the study expected that the Net would free the sexes to behave in "unstereotypical ways" but was sorely disappointed!  Where did she get that expectation, I wonder? 

After reading a few more popularizations of the study I went straight to the data itself.  It was most informative.  Yes, men and women sometimes differed in the way they used the Internet, but in most of the many questions the Pew study asked they did not differ at all.  For instance, and from just the very first section of the study, men and women were the same in all these behaviors (4):

Men and women are equally likely to log on from work, to have internet sessions of varying length, to access the net daily or only every few weeks, to have dial-up at home or at work. Men and women are equally likely to use a search engine, to get information on hobbies, to get travel information, to buy a product on the Internet, to buy or make travel reservations, to watch videos or to listen to audios, to visit a government website, to look up phone numbers or addresses, to take a virtual tour, to instant message, to bank, to play online games, to get information on where to live, to get information on someone, to share files, to read a blog, to download computer games, to donate to charity, to send e-invitations, to create a blog, to take classes for credit, to play lottery or gamble.

Indeed, most of the tables given in the Pew study show statistically significant* gender differences in Internet use in only a few questions.  The majority of the findings are that women and men were pretty similar in how they used the Internet in the early 2000s.  But because this report is about differences, not similarities, it is differences that we are asked to focus on.

So how about those differences the above popularization mentions?  Let's take one half of the above list for closer examination first, this half:

Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.

Here are the actual percentages of women and men who stated that they do those things (4):

Read news:  75% of men,  69% of women
Check the weather:  82% of men, 74% of women
Get do-it-yourself-information:  60% of men, 50% of women
Investigate products:  82% of men, 75% of women
Download music:  30% of men, 20% of women
Investigate sports scores:  59% of men, 27% of women

Remember that from this data we concluded that:

Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.

These differences may be statistically significant, but the only truly giant difference is the one about checking sports scores.

Let's do the same with the things women are supposed to like to use the Net for:

Women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships, look for health information, get support for health and personal problems, and to pursue religious interests.

Here are the actual percentages of women and men who stated that they do those things (4):

Send e-mail:  88% of men, 94% of women
Look for health information:  58% of men, 74% of women
Seek support for health and personal problems:  50% of men, 66% of women
Pursue religious interests:  25% of men, 34% of women

Because the question about sending e-mail doesn't really say anything about nurturing or building personal relationships, I waded through the data to find out the questions which brought the lead researcher to that conclusion.

I didn't find such questions.  The closest to those I came were questions (from 2001) which asked the survey respondents about what they found useful or valuable in e-mail communications with family and friends.  For family communications, for instance (4):

46% of men and 52% of women found them useful
33% of men and 43% of women thought that it improved the relationship
33% of men and 42% of women thought that it brought them closer to the correspondent

But this doesn't actually tell us that "women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships."  That bit got somehow added in the interpretation stage.

This is the time to go back to the beginning of this section and look at that headline again:

Men want facts, women seek relations on Web - survey

How does all this make you feel now (other than a bit bored with the numbers)?  I felt angry.  The actual data showed relatively few gender differences in Internet use, and most of those were of fairly small size.   The final popularizations have ignored all the nuances and the small size of most differences.   Instead, we are told:

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew and author of the study, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "There has been a 'feminization' [of the Net] in the sense that women took a different fork in the Internet road from men. Men use and appreciate the Internet more for the experiences it offers -- to do things -- and women use it and appreciate it more for the human connections they build."


Women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships, look for health information, get support for health and personal problems, and to pursue religious interests. Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.

I discussed this old study both as a story about how I got interested in the questions this book addresses and also as an example of the way gender differences become magnified in the re-telling while gender similarities are often minimized.   Sometimes skipping down that path involves contributions from the study authors, sometimes the popularizers manage quite a competent job on their own.

Either way, the only recourse a critical reader has is to go to the original study or dig up the original data.  Most of us cannot do that, and in many cases the original data is simply not available.  This means that we are left with relying on popularizations which may not only summarize the findings of a study; they may also spice them up in ways which  bring the stories more readers and thus the publishers more advertising income. 

Imagine if that Pew study had actually been described the way it truly was:  That men and women used the Internet in mostly similar ways and that the differences which existed were often fairly small, with a few more sizable exceptions in the use of the Internet for searching financial information and sports scores, both of which men do more than women. 

But where's the fun in that?

Hence the tendency to focus on the differences that can be found and the tendency to blow them into something bigger:  All women do this!  All men do that!  Men are from Mars!  Women are from Venus!  How do they manage to interbreed?

You are going to meet this pattern again in the book.  I hope that this initial encounter will immunize you against those repeat occurrences as well as similar popularizations you may be currently fed by the popular media.

The Second Leg:  Paid Childcare, Mommy Wars and the Focus on Traditional Gender Roles

Mmm.  Mommy wars.  I'm sure you are familiar with those.  A long time ago I wrote this satire about them, to point out the way the rest of the society, including the fathers, are left outside the wars, as the audience munching on popcorn and rooting for its favored mommy gladiators:

"It's that time of the year again. Take your seats, gentlemen, for here are the Mommy Gladiators! The first round will pit childless uppity women against mothers who are producing future citizens! May I have a round of applause? The second round will match the single-mothers on welfare with the upright Christian married women! Look at those godly shields and those spears! We are going to have fun watching the bloodshed. And then, gentlemen....are you ready for this? The finale! The uppity selfish working mothers against the stay-at-home mothers, also known as the ladies who lunch or the women with a meal-ticket for life. Place your bets, gentlemen! Beer will be available from the vendors all through this exciting evening."

Mommy wars sell, and that is why they are so often presented for us women to read.  Wherever you might stand in those classifications, the spears from these gladiators will get you to the quick!   You will be insulted!   You will feel guilty!  You must read the story and respond to it, right now!

Emotions are good for audience and readership figures and those figures are good for advertising income.  Hence the popularity of staging various questions about childcare as mommy wars.

All this is part of the second leg of that camera tripod:  a way of confusing those health and social issues which have to do with gender.  The confusion here has several roots but the most important one is that the problem is presented as one of only applying to women.  Not to the society as a whole, not to families with children, but only women, and even a childless woman will not be able to avoid the mommy wars arrows.  The initial setting:  gladiators in the arena, means that one of them MUST win, that one solely-woman-based solution is the correct one when it comes to how to take care of children or whether women should have them.  Everyone else will lose, while the rest of the society simply watches the show.

Sometimes mommy wars are pushed on us openly, but most of the time they are functioning in the background, hiding behind apparently neutral reasons for presenting one study for our delectation while not presenting certain other studies in the same way.

For an example of this, I turn to a 2007 study about the possible effects of daycare on children's development (5).   That study, an installment in a long-term research project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,  defined daycare as care given by anyone else but the child's mother which was regularly scheduled for at least ten hours per week.  Thus, the child's father or grandparents were treated as daycare-givers.  What this means is that the study doesn't  seem to  evaluate paid daycare against alternatives but all alternatives against the care given by the mother, even though one of its crucial findings applied  only to one type of paid childcare:  that given at centers rather than at someone's home.

That initial choice to label care given by, say, stay-at-home-fathers as "daycare" introduces the mommy wars element into the picture.  It also guarantees that some group of adults caring for children will find themselves insulted.

And what did the 2007 installment of the study find?   The popularizations tell us nothing about similarities in the outcomes, even though those, too, could provoke mommy wars.  What they focus on are differences, and two differences were observed in the children, followed from birth in the long-term research project and by 2007 in sixth grade.  Both of these differences had to do with teacher evaluations.  The first, and most talked about difference (6):

The latest installment of a long-term study of child care in the United States has found that children who spent more time in center-based settings from birth through school entry have somewhat more problems with aggressive and disobedient behavior through sixth grade than children who spent less time in centers, regardless of the quality of care. However, problem behavior and teacher-child conflicts experienced by children who spent extensive time in other types of child care did not continue beyond first grade.

Note that these findings apply to center-based care, not all care given by "others."  Note, also,  that the aggressive and disobedient behavior was within the  normal range. 

The second finding had to do with the vocabularies of the children (7):

An evaluation of the children in fifth grade showed that the children who had higher quality child care continued to show better vocabulary scores, a correlation that was seen previously from kindergarten to third grade.
The researchers found that the correlation between high-quality care and better vocabulary scores continued regardless of the amount of time the child had spent in child care or the type of care.
The researchers reported that this finding is consistent with other evidence indicating that children with greater early exposure to adult language were themselves more likely to score higher on measures of language development. However, child care quality was not associated with improved reading skills after 54 months of age.

Here is a sampling of the headlines with which this study was popularized:

Study Links Child Care to Poor Behavior (8)

Study links extensive child care with more aggressive behavior in school (9)

Child Care Linked to Bad Behavior (10)

Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care (11)

How nurseries 'still breed aggression'  (12)

A few headlines were more informative about the real conclusions of the study:

Early Child Care Linked to Increases in Vocabulary, Some Problem Behaviors in Fifth and Sixth Grades (7)
Center-Based Care Yields More Behavior Problems; In Other Types Of Care, Problems Short-Lived (6)

Still, the increases in vocabulary were downplayed in the popularizations, the possibility of increased aggression was used to attract readers.

By this time you might argue that there's nothing wrong with discussing possible problems with center-based daycare.  Surely we need to know if children are harmed by it?  But of course! 

Let's keep that in mind.  Roughly at the same time as the above study was published another study came out in Britain (13).  It received very limited attention, despite the fact that it was all about children possibly being harmed by certain childcare practices (14):

Children are more likely to suffer development problems if their fathers do not take paternity leave or spend enough time with them when they are very young, according to an analysis of thousands of babies born around the turn of the millennium.
A report published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission and based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 found emotional and behavioural problems were more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.

And the debates about this study in the popular media?   They were nonexistent.  Yet the size of this study and the fact that children were followed up from birth seems to make it somewhat similar to the study which DID get lots of attention.   What it lacks, of course, is the mommy wars bait or the traditional gender roles bait. 

Perhaps there were good reasons for the popular media to ignore that particular fathering study.  But can there be good reasons for ignoring all the fathering studies?   That's the usual lot of such studies, as is also the case with all studies finding no real differences between the outcomes of different childcare modalities.

This is what made me convinced that the selection of studies for popularization has a gender-political or business motivation.  It's not the case that editors or journalists would carefully select studies with only certain findings, those which support traditional gender roles.  It's more likely that the whole selection process is subconscious, certain study findings triggering the desire to popularize them while other studies glide past invisibly.   That anything with mommy wars is good for readership or audience figures must have an impact, too.

To provide additional perspective on  the attention the 2007 installment in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development received, let's look at how the next installment, in 2010 (15), was   covered by the popular media.  With the exception of a few summaries (16), it was largely ignored.

Yet its results, too, should matter, perhaps even more so.  They apply to the same group of children at the age fifteen.  That study round found that  the positive academic effects of high-quality childcare continued.  From the abstract (15):

Relations between nonrelative child care (birth to 4 ½ years) and functioning at age 15 were examined (N = 1364). Both quality and quantity of child care were linked to adolescent functioning. Effects were similar in size as those observed at younger ages. Higher quality care predicted higher cognitive-academic achievement at age 15, with escalating positive effects at higher levels of quality. The association between quality and achievement was mediated, in part, by earlier child care effects on achievement. Higher quality early child care also predicted youth reports of less externalizing behavior. More hours of nonrelative care predicted greater risk taking and impulsivity at age 15, relations that were partially mediated by earlier child care effects on externalizing behaviors.

What made the researchers decide to drop the teacher evaluations as a measure of behavioral problems at this stage of the children's development?  Whatever the reason, those reports were replaced, for the first time, with questions addressed to the children themselves.   It is those questions which led the researchers to conclude that adolescents who had spent more hours in care by non-relatives were more likely to define themselves as exhibiting greater risk taking and impulsive behavior at age fifteen.

Both the positive academic effect and the possibly negative impulsivity effect were small.  Rather astonishingly, the study was not able to find any kind of relationship between childcare provided in centers and greater risk-taking and impulsivity.  To the extent that we are expected to accept the teen self-assessments as a continuation of the past teacher reports on behavioral problems, the 2010 study did not reproduce the 2007 study results which specifically focused on center-based care as the culprit in greater behavioral problems.  Thus, the headlines used in popularizations of the 2007 study would no longer have applied in 2010, assuming that the same level of popular attention had been paid to the next installment in the long-term research project.

The Third Leg:  Wobbly Research

Not all social science or psychology studies are equally decisive or equally well sourced.  Most of our gender concepts arise from the heads of people, not from laboratory experiments nor genome study.  Some such concepts, based on less-than-perfect research, develop a life of their own and end up regarded as proven facts.

The example I wish to cover in this section has to do with the concepts of female and male brains, as invented by Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher and, yes, a cousin of the comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen.

Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the female brain is hard-wired by evolution to be empathizing and that the male brain is equally hard-wired by evolution to be systematizing.  If this sounds to you a little bit like the usual stereotype of women as emotional, men as logical, well, you are forgiven, though Baron-Cohen's concepts are narrower and slightly different. 

In his theory, women are skilled at reading other people's emotions (called empathizing), whereas men are skilled at creating and understanding systems of all types (called systematizing).   Baron-Cohen appears to assume that one is either empathizing or systematizing, and that one cannot be good at both or bad at both.  That these characteristics are somehow hard-wired by sex is one of those unprovable assertions, by the way.

Baron-Cohen's  overall theories are explained in his book:  The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain.

The word "essential" refers to Baron-Cohen's belief that the differences he has stipulated are almost completely based on biological differences, not on upbringing or cultural effects though those can exaggerate the initial biological differences.  The word "truth"  sits oddly in the title of a book.  It places great demands for what that book contains and also demonstrates a certain kind of omniscience which most human researchers fail to reach. 

Given that book title, it is justified to put Baron-Cohen's arguments through a very severe critical lens.  After all, he tells us that he is offering eternal truths about men, women and brains, that women's brains are hard-wired for empathy, men's brains for understanding systems.

Yet the book is fairly short on actual evidence for the hard-wiring arguments.   Two chapters speculate on how our prehistoric ancestors might have obtained gender-based evolutionary adaptations of the kind Baron-Cohen believes lie behind the empathizing and systematizing brains of men and women.   Everything in those chapters is hypothetical. along the lines of man-the-hunter, woman-the-housewife, and quite different stories could be told of the ancient prehistory.  Sociological and psychological evidence about the prehistoric human beings is, after all, nonexistent.

Baron-Cohen's starting point seems to be in autism, his actual field.  It is his assertion that the autistic brain is an extreme male brain, bent on classification and typologies and the analysis of systems.   Autism is more common in men, hence the assumption that whatever autistic individuals exhibit is just a sharpened form of the general male brain.  Women are offered the empathizing alternative, perhaps because they have to be offered characteristics which autistic individuals have been argued to lack.   Baron-Cohen even muses in his book that there SHOULD be individuals with an extreme female brain,  very high on empathizing and very low on systematizing,  to match his views of autism as the extreme male brain.  He then asserts that such individuals would be treated better by the society than autistic individuals are:

When we find someone with the extreme female brain, my guess is that we also find that society has made it easy for them to find a niche and a value, without that person having to feel they must in some way hide their systemblindness.

I hope that at least one benefit of this book is that society might become more accepting of essential sex differences in the mind, and make it easier for someone with the extreme male brain to find their niche and for us to acknowledge their value. They should not feel the need to hide their mindblindness (as many currently do).

Baron-Cohen continues:

A central tenet of this book is that the male and female brains differ from each other, but that overall one is no better or worse than the other. Hopefully, in reading this book, men will also experience a resurgence of pride at the things they can do well, things like being able to work out confidently how to program a new appliance in the home, being able quickly to discover how to use a new piece of software, or how to fix something with whatever available tools and materials are around. All these need good systematizing skills.

It sounds like Baron-Cohen thinks men can't currently feel pride in their technical skills?   Everything in the above quote smells of gender politics.

Sometimes a general theory can arise serendipitously from theories pertaining to some special problem.  But not in this case.  To see what the problems might be, let's turn to the questionnaires Baron-Cohen initially used to create his definitions of male and female brain as systematizing and empathizing, respectively.  They are available in the Appendix of  his book but have also been widely disseminated by various websites. 

There are two sets of questions, one part testing the respondent's empathizing skills, one part testing her or his systematizing skills.   Here are two sets of the assertions in the questionnaire from the original BBC version of the test (18), which is no longer available in the same form.   The first set of questions is from the empathizing part, the second from the systematizing part.  For each assertion, the respondent is supposed to state agreement or disagreement, and those answers will then be added up to get someone's overall empathizing and systematizing scores.

Empathizing assertions:

I really enjoy caring for other people.

It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.

I find it easy to put myself in somebody else's shoes.

If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn't like it.

Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

I am able to make decisions without being influenced by people's feelings.

People sometimes tell me that I have gone too far with teasing.

I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film.

I can tell if someone is masking their true emotion.

Systematizing assertions:

I find it difficult to read and understand maps.

I find it easy to grasp exactly how odds work in betting.

I find it difficult to learn how to programme video recorders.

I do not enjoy games that involve a high degree of strategy (e.g. chess, Risk, Games Workshop).

I can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests me e.g. flags of the world, airline logos.

I know very little about the different stages of the legislation process in my country.

I can easily visualise how the motorways in my region link up.

Notice anything odd about those sets of questions?  The systematizing questions contain many more specific examples and applications than the empathizing questions.  Notice anything even odder?  The examples given are about maps, programming video recorders, highways/motorways, flags of the world, airline logos and so on.

Those examples have the power to steer individuals towards certain answers, and the power appears tilted towards male hobbies and preoccupations.  Now, it could be that those hobbies and preoccupations are predominantly male because of that, you know, systematizing brain thing.  But it could also be that a woman with a very systematizing brain is steered away from responding as a systematizer because the examples are about male systems. 

There are traditionally  female systems, in terms of gender roles.  Cooking a complicated meal, following and deciphering complicated knitting or crocheting instructions,   cutting patterns for dress-making and the order in which the parts are put together and so on.  Likewise, women can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests them.  Among those traditionally female topics would be all the various types of make-up items, all the small details which define this year's fashion rules and so on.  Do a thought experiment and replace a few of those systematizing assertions which are tilted towards male hobbies with some of my suggestions.  Isn't it possible that more women and fewer men would now score higher in systematizing?

This criticism matters, because the questions confuse something that is supposed to be innate with cultural gender role patterns.  The questions also omit almost all possible traditionally female systems.

For more examples of the problems with the questionnaire, have a look at these additional systematizing questions:

Do you know how to fix electrical problems in your house?

When you see a piece of furniture, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting rare coins or stamps?

The last two questions are yet more examples of the effect of using predominantly male hobbies in the examples which steer answers.  Imagine them being replaced by these alternatives:

When you see a beautiful dress, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting vintage costume jewelry or old Barbie dolls?

But it's that  question about electrical problems which is the truly problematic one.  It manages to both discuss a culturally gendered task, fixing electrical problems in the house, AND adds something which simply cannot reflect an essential, unchanging attribute in a person. 

The latter means that this question should certainly have been deleted from the questionnaire.  Here's why:  Before I became the proud owner of a fixer-upper house I knew nothing about fixing electrical problems.  But now, many years later, I'm not bad at that chore!

Did I somehow become more systematizing?  If systematizing is an innate characteristic, such learning shouldn't happen.

Here are a few more questions for your analysis.  By now you should be able to see how very tilted these systematizing questions are:

If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.

I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.

I am fascinated by how machines work.

I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.

If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.

When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.

When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.

Mmm.  And this is how we created the female empathizing and the male systematizing brain concepts!

Given these problems,  Baron-Cohen's  questionnaires cannot be regarded as a proper research tool for defining innately empathizing and systematizing brains.   Besides, there's nothing to stop a respondent from  scoring high on both dimensions or scoring low on both dimensions.  What are those individuals who score high on both the male and female brains?  Or low on both?  And why would Baron-Cohen assume that the two characteristics are mostly mutually exclusive?

But wait, there's more!  Even with the tilted questions,  Baron-Cohen's original research subjects failed to answer the questionnaire in a way which would justify the equation of an empathizing brain with a female brain or a systematizing brain with a male brain.  In that study, depending on the way classifications were done, between 46% and 51.5% of women did not have "a female brain" and between 48% and 40.4% of men did not have "a male brain" (19).  Instead, they had either stolen the brain of the other sex or had "balanced" brains.

Baron-Cohen does argue in his book that all what matters is whether more men than women score higher on systematizing and whether more women than men score higher on empathizing.  But calling these hypothetical brains female and male is somewhat a stretch.  Add to this the tilted initial questionnaire, and what do we get, as the message for science popularizers?

To be very, very careful about using these terms without detailed explanations.

Baron-Cohen's theories have not been treated with such care.  Indeed, his work has been very influential on those breezy, readable and somewhat flawed Louann Brizandine books, called The Female Brain and The Male Brain.  Brizandine accepts Baron-Cohen's theories and runs with them.  That she also runs with a few flawed interpretations of scientific articles, the reliance on very preliminary and tiny studies as well as some false assertions (women talk, talk and talk so much more than men) hasn't affected her sales very much.  Caryl Rivers notes (20):

The media swooned over her first book, "The Female Brain," published in 2006, which, like this sequel, is all about how the brains of men and women are so vastly different.
"The Female Brain" got massive coverage, including interviews on most of the TV morning network shows, 20-20 and CNN. It was also featured in The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and Oprah magazine, among others.
Scientific critics were not so kind. The British journal Nature called it "riddled with scientific errors."

Emily Bazelon, in the New York Times, writes about The Male Brain (21):

Brizendine nods to the fact that the brains of men and women are mostly alike. But her emphasis is entirely on the “profound differences” between them. This is clearly the best-seller strategy, neatly bisected into two books. “The Female Brain,” published in 2006, drove reviewers in publications like Nature mad but lit up the talk show circuit and the Amazon rankings. “The Male Brain” is positioned for a similar second round. Would Brizendine have gotten this kind of pop for a single book called “The Male and Female Brain: Mostly One and the Same”? Not a chance.
Each chapter of “The Male Brain” covers patients at various stages of the life cycle. At every step — the Dennis the Menace child, the oversexed teenager, the middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman — Brizendine gives a theory for how her patient’s behavior is caused by his male brain patterns, egged on by hormones like testosterone (nicknamed “Zeus”) and vasopressin (“the White Knight”). The publicity materials claim that Brizendine “overturns the stereotypes about men and boys.” In fact, Brizendine chooses patients who typify a familiar stereotype and then explains their actions as the inevitable-seeming work of Zeus and his henchmen.
Take David, who at age 3 turns a blow dryer on his friend’s stream of pee as it hits the toilet. Brizendine traces the causes of this mischief-making back to the first day of his life: “David was only 24 hours old, and without encouragement or instruction from anyone, he stared at the rotating triangles and squares on the mobile and seemed to find them fascinating.” The image comes from one much-discussed lab experiment. Other scientists have tried and failed to replicate the finding that day-old boy babies look at objects while newborn girls look at faces. But neither Brizendine’s text nor her cursory endnotes give any hint of this uncertainty. The idea, however sketchy, seems to be that boys are hard-wired to break the rules because from birth they are less interested in human emotions than in objects, and so don’t respond to parental disapproval the way girls do.

That reference to the lab experiment with one-day-old babies is to Baron-Cohen's work.  As Bazelon notes,  the findings have not been replicated by anyone else.  More from Caryl Rivers (20):

Baron-Cohen bases his claims on one study, conducted in his lab in 2000, of day-old infants purporting to show that baby boys looked longer at mobiles, while day-old baby girls looked longer at human faces.

Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, utterly demolished this study. It has never been replicated, nor has it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, she reported.

Spelke found the study lacked critical controls against experimenter bias and was not well-designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent's lap and shown, side-by-side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can't hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.

Moreover, a long line of literature flat out contradicts Baron-Cohen's study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond similarly to people and objects. (Brizendine cites the Baron-Cohen study with nary a nod to the critics.)

The original study did appear in an academic journal (22), though I failed to find out if it was peer-reviewed.  Its problems have been extensively discussed by both Spelke (23) and Nash and Grossi (24). 

The latter list several methodological problems with the study.  Among the most disconcerting is the fact that the human face to be looked at in the study belonged to one of the researchers and that she, at least in some cases, was aware of the sex of the infant she was presenting her face to.
That is a type of participatory research which requires stringent controls, to guarantee that the researcher is not influencing the findings.  Nash and Grossi also mention one calculation error in the published report and note that the study didn't seem to use the standard paradigm for studies that have to do with newborn infants.

None of that would matter greatly, if the study was viewed as tentative or exploratory.  But it has been placed upon a very high pedestal.  The researchers themselves argue that their findings prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the sex differences they found are at least in part biological (22).  Such assertions deserve very careful scrutiny.

Baron-Cohen's concepts have found homes in other places, too.  A Spanish study on why women report feeling guilt more often than men was dressed in a fairly extreme its-all-evolution-and-biological-differences outfit by a popularization at the  MSNBC website (25), and Baron-Cohen's theories were used as one set of  the whalebone underpinnings:

In his book "The Essential Difference," the Cambridge University neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha of “Borat” fame) wrote: “The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
That’s a generalization, of course. These traits exist on a bell curve with some women being naturally more systems-oriented and some men being naturally more empathetic, but the generally greater female capacity for empathy matters because guilt depends on empathy.

There you have it!  The chain of arguments has become rock-solid and water-proof.  Women feel more guilt because evolution has made women more empathetic (weeding out all those callous hunter-mothers early on), albeit at the cost of making the female brain incapable of understanding and building systems.  This is true because Baron-Cohen's book says it is true.  Something has been shown to be hard-wired into the human brain without any need to analyze the human genome, for example.

The most recent stage for Baron-Cohen's views is a Norwegian documentary (26) about gender differences, called Hjernevasket or Brainwash (27).  It contrasts Baron-Cohen's theories (without any criticism of them) with the alternative assumption, offered by two Norwegian gender researchers, that there are no biological differences in cognitive skills and no sex-linked innate preferences.  Juxtaposing two most likely flawed theories doesn't make one of them the correct one.  But some argue that this documentary caused changes in the funding of gender-role research in Norway.

My aim in this section has not been to bash Baron-Cohen's research as such.  I swear.  Social sciences are chock full of speculative research, after all.  But the field of gender science, probably because of its political nature,  is particularly vulnerable to  uncritical acceptance of the conclusions of such research as  scientifically established "truths"  and the labeling of those who point out problems with the basic theories as fighting "science."
Yet it is worth noting when speculative theories are treated as the foundation for further conclusions.  If the foundation wobbles, so do all the structures above it.
Note also our general eagerness at focusing on gender differences rather than on gender similarities.  As Emily Bazelon notes, Louann Brizandine's books would never have sold if they were called Men And Women Mostly Similar, even though that is what Brizandine herself admits.  Gender differences sell, because they attract  both those who believe that men are from Mars and women from Venus but somehow manage to interbreed and those who adamantly disagree with these concepts.

Some of this may seem like harmless fun, such as teasing a husband/wife or a boyfriend/girlfriend about something they do as gender-linked.  But the excessive and unproven focus on gender differences as possibly "hard-wired" has severe consequences.  It makes us over-emphasize the importance and immutability of any gendered differences.    That has real and harmful consequences in the lives of individuals, especially when the underlying research is questionable but also more generally, because of individual variations within each sex.
If all men are assumed to be unemphatic robots, why would we ever let men be ministers of the church or health care givers?  If all women are assumed to be close to tears at the tip of the hat, why would we ever let women work in anything requiring calm and logical thinking?  Why on earth would we let such individuals be in charge of small and vulnerable children?  Yet even the most precursory glance over the facts suggests that most people do not fall into such extreme categories and that people need both systematizing and emphasizing skills.
Research which implies the reverse  must be questioned, because if its findings are flawed it can still elicit the stereotype threat (28).

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.[1] Since its introduction into the academic literature in 1995, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology.[2] First described by social psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues, stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, they are likely to become anxious about their performance which may hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level.
Stereotype threat is a potential contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance...

Consider how stereotype threat might work on an individual choosing an occupation, if that individual was equipped with nothing but Baron-Cohen's assertions:  A man might believe that he cannot be empathetic and therefore shouldn't be a psychologist or a member of the clergy.  A woman might believe that she cannot manage systems and therefore shouldn't consider a career in engineering or urban planning.  Problematic research can have real-world consequences.

To conclude this section,  none of my criticisms should be interpreted as meaning that I assume men and women to be exactly identical in all biological characteristics.  I believe that it is currently premature, even impossible,  to nail down the exact mix of effects from biology, cultural effects and environmental factors that ends up creating certain gender-linked patterns of behavior.   Also, almost all cognitive and emotional characteristics which exhibit gender differences have strongly overlapping distributions for men and women.  In other words, we really are more similar than different along most of the important dimensions, however hard researchers such as Baron-Cohen want to pull us in some other direction.

(1)  How Women and Men Use the Internet by Deborah Fallows
Dec 28, 2005,
(2), retrieved 12/25/2005.
The link no longer works.  The same story retrieved 6/15/2013 here:
(3), retrieved 12/25/2005.  The link no longer works.
(5)  Belsky, J., Vandell, D. L., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K. A., McCartney, K., Owen, M. T. and The NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2007), Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care?. Child Development, 78: 681–701. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01021.x

Retrieved 3/25/2007.  Link no longer works.
Link no longer works.
Link no longer works.
(13) Dex, S. and Ward, K. (2007) Parental care and employment in early childhood.
Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) Sweeps1 and 2. Manchester.
Retrieved  on 6/16/2013:
(15) Deborah Lowe Vandell, Jay Belsky, [...], and Laurence Steinberg, Do Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years? Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.  Child Development,  2010 May-Jun;81(3):737-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01431.x.
(17)  Simon Baron-Cohen, 2004, The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism
This link now leads to a different set of questions about how we could sex our brains.
(22)  Connellan, J., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Batki, A., & Ahluwalia, J. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception.Infant Behavior & Development, 23,113–118.
(23)  Spelke, Elizabeth, 2005, Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?  A Critical Review, American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 9, 950–958 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.950
Available at
(24)  Nash, Allison and Grossi, Giordana, 2007, Picking Barbie's Brain: Inherent Differences in Scientific Ability?,  Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Vol.2, Iss. 1, Article 5
Available at: