Reading “feminism” and glimpses into the “female brain”
In Parts I and II of this series about reading “feminism” I examined the
claims in Just Like A Woman by Dianne Hales. I left off with an introduction
to The First Sex by Helen Fisher whose theme is that through deep evolutionary
history, women and men developed different abilities and brain structures.
She explores how women’s “innate superiorities” are particularly well adapted
for today’s global society.
Fisher starts out by asserting that times have changed since Simone De
Beauvoir wrote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (She leaves
out De Beauvoir’s definition of a woman as being defined and differentiated
with reference to man and therefore the second sex—which is, in fact, accurate.)
According to Fisher, scientific evidence demonstrates that in fundamental
respects the sexes are not alike. (Her “scientific evidence,” by the way,
includes studies, mostly by psychologists, published fiction, statements
overheard at the airport, friends, and the author’s guesses.)
Anyhow, Fisher says that for millions of years, men and women did different
jobs and these tasks required different skills. Natural selection weeded
out the less able workers; time carved subtle differences in the male and
female brain. Thus “a woman is born a woman.” Fisher is not referring to
the fact that women have ovaries and men don’t. She is referring to a whole
set of behaviors that come from two main sources: differences carved in
the female brain mostly millenia ago, and the effects of estrogen.
Fisher does not tell us how doing these “different” tasks came about, except
as part of evolution, nor does she tell us how the doing of different tasks
for millions of years gets carved into our brains—but no matter. Apparently,
this information is not needed when pursuing “scientific” evidence. Fisher
says we are affected by our environment but she doesn’t tell us how or
how much or how this might interact with other elements. Rather she asserts
the impotance of our emergence from the womb with “innate tendencies bred
on the grasslands of Africa millennia ago.”
You see, scholars have established, Fisher writes, that “before humankind
adopted a settled farming life, women were powerful economically and socially.”
The double income family was the rule. On the savannahs of Africa, women
commuted to work, so to speak, to gather food, then returned and cooked
As the agricultural revolution took hold, men assumed the primary economic
tasks of clearing land, plowing and harvesting, then trading, warring,
and so forth. So women became the second sex. Why this happened, Fisher
doesn’t say. With the industrial revolution women became part of the paid
workforce. This lead to the return of the economically powerful woman.
Why this happened Fisher does not say.
From this Fisher asserts, “As women continue to pour into the paid workforce
in cultures around the world. They apply their ‘natural aptitudes’ to influence
society. In some areas they will predominate, becoming the first sex.”
Why? Because current trends in business, communications, education, law,
medicine, government, and the non-profit sector suggest that tomorrow’s
world will need the “female mind.”
What is it that women bring to the business world of tomorrow? Well, “women
have exceptional faculties bred in deep history: a talent with words; a
capacity to read postures, gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal
cues; emotional sensitivity; empathy; excellent senses of touch, taste,
smell, and hearing; patience; an ability to do and think several things
simultaneously, a broad contextual view of any issue; a penchant for long-term
planning; a gift for networking and negotiating; an impulse to nurture;
and a preference for cooperating, reaching consensus, and leading via egalitarian
Fisher says that men have many natural talents too. (Thank goodness, I
was beginning to feel sorry for them.) Men, it seems, have a superb talent
for understanding spatial relations and for solving complex mechanical
problems. They have an ability to focus their attention and a gift for
controlling many of their emotions. That’s it? Comparing women’s innate
tendencies with men’s, one wonders how on earth men ended up running the
show from “deep history” until today.
Putting aside the question of how tasks that one did millennia ago affect
one’s brain, how is it that some tasks seem to affect one’s brain and genes
but not others? How did the tasks our ancestors did eons ago translate
into things like “a penchant for long-term planning” and “solving complex
mechanical problems? Also, if these traits are immutable, handed down from
generation to generation, why did things change? Why are they useful in
a global economy but not in the agricultural revolution?
Well, it seems that we do rise above these traits (then why do they matter?),
nevertheless these gender differences reemerge decade after decade, despite
changing attitudes about women, says Fisher. (They had nothing to do with
being forced into domestic servitude or denied the right to do just about
anything but bear children, and not even that was under women’s control.)
Many of these differences are associated with sex hormones (androgens and
estrogens), says Fisher. Some are traced to specific genes. Some are imbedded
in the brain.
The Female Mind
Fisher says that women think contextually, holistically, flexibly, intuitively,
tolerating ambiguitieshes and that—you’ll never guess—these traits are
needed in the current business office, as attested to by comments from
management folks who say that women tend to think in webs of interrelated
factors, not straight lines, i.e., women engage in web thinking.
Men, on the other hand, focus on one thing at a time. What evidence does
Fisher give for this? She had a boyfriend who switched channels in his
head. Oh, and some research on the business practices of male and female
executives found that men engaged in step thinking.
For Fisher, these are our basic gender differences. And they begin in childhood.
(Not in the womb?) At school, boys are task-oriented; girls have a harder
time detaching from their surroundings (maybe because they have to deal
with these task-oriented boys who have inherited being powerful from their
ancestors in deep history). When using the computer, boys head for their
desired goals; girls browse through lots of stuff. When asked to talk about
themselves, girls place themselves in context, boys stress the particulars.
What “scientific” evidence does Fisher offer?—Carol Gilligan’s “classic
study” of two kids in the 1980s. Yes, Jake and Amy were both bright, ambitious
11-year-olds. Jake discussed his talents, beliefs, and height. Amy put
herself in context of school and the world and said she wanted to be a
scientist and help others. (Hmm…Amy seems to have the traits of a well-rounded
human being, Jake those of a mechanical widget, so why does his gender
get to oppress half the population of the world for 5,000 years or so?)
These gender differences (Amy/Jake) continue into adulthood. In another
study, Gilligan queried college students and found that women made exceptions
to the rules, weighed more variables than men did. (Possibly because as
girls they were taught to be nice and never express a strong/definite opinion?)
Turns out these genderized thought processes take place in the prefrontal
cortex—the crossroads of the mind. Fisher says this area controls our ability
to keep track of many bits of information at once; to order and weigh data
and find patterns, also to predict outcomes, manipulate contingencies,
and to plan the future.
Fisher says that new data now supports the possibility that women and men
have different prefrontal cortexes. In 1997 neuroscientist David Skuse
of the Institute of Child Health in London examined girls and women with
Turner’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder in which they possess only one X
chromosome instead of two. He concluded that a cluster of genes on the
X chromosome influence the prefrontal cortex. Patterns of inheritance and
bodily interactions cause this gene or cluster to be silenced in all men
but active in 50 percent of women.
Fisher says this suggests that 50 percent of women are genetically better
equipped than all men to coordinate multitudinal bits of information. Of
course, she doesn’t conclude that at all, rather she uses it to suggest
that the coordination of multitudinal tasks is inherent to the female brain—even
after stating, “Whether this size difference in part of the prefrontal
cortex has any influence on women’s holistic approaches and on men’s more
linear view, we do not know. But this sex linked difference could conceivably
relate to variations in how men and women ‘think’.” Fisher, in fact, bases
her entire book on this flimsy evidence: that 50 percent of women may/could
have brains that make them so uniquely qualified for the information age
that they will become the first sex.
How did this gender difference (step vs. web thinking) come about? Fisher
says, “A million years ago ancestral man was building fires, chipping stone
hand axes, and hunting big animals in East Africa. As men pursued these
wild breasts, they had to concentrate—peering from behind a bush, crouching
near a water hole, slipping past a sleeping leopard in a tree, trailing
cantankerous wounded creatures, then attacking when the time was right.”
So our male ancestors gradually evolved the brain architecture to screen
out peripheral thoughts, focus their attention, and make step-by-step decisions.
“Ancestral women had the hardest job of any creature that trod the earth:
raising long-dependent babies under highly dangerous conditions. In order
to rear helpless infants, ancestral mothers needed to do a lot of things
at the same time. Watch for snakes. Listen for thunder. Taste for poison.
Rock the sleepy. Distract the cranky. Instruct the curious. Soothe the
fearful. Inspire the tardy. Feed the hungry. Mothers had to do countless
daily chores while they stoked the fire, cooked the food, and talked with
Well, I can certainly see why doing all that would lead to millennia of
domestic servitude. Oops, there is no servitude in Fisher’s historic survey,
there is only an evolving female mind that was not of primary use in any
economic system UNTIL NOW.
Fisher then says that many psychologists argue that women learned to do
several things simultaneously out of necessity not some genetic predisposition,
but Fisher doesn’t go with that view. She suspects that women’s talents
for web thinking and multitasking evolved in deep history after thousands
This web thinking gives women the advantage in getting the children off
to school and in helping to tackle complex business puzzles. But it can
also be a problem in the office, says Fisher. She then gives an example
to confirm this “fact.” An office manager is trying to decide between a
young man and a young woman for a job. He gives them a business puzzle
with three solutions. The man, after consideration, selects B. The woman’s
answer is as follows: A would be best if certain issues can be solved,
B is appropriate if certain other issues are solved, C is best if…. So
the boss told her she should try another line of work.
Hmmm. Web thinking is certainly a disadvantage in the business world; and
that certainly explains why women have not been economically powerful.
It has nothing to do with the fact that powerful men (lateral thinkers
all) have been in charge of what work women do and where—since the dawn
Fisher concludes that women can’t be like men and vice versa because they
are playing with different evolutionary decks. Both ways of thinking emerged
a long time ago when the sexes had different jobs. Wait a second, does
that mean that if we switched jobs for the next millennia, women would
acquire lateral thinking and vice versa? Or if we each did all the jobs,
we’d get the same brains? This is so confusing.
Even more confusing is Fisher’s next comment—“Both [web and lateral thinking]
are used by each of the sexes at one time or another.” But didn’t she just
say this was impossible? If it is possible, then what’s the point of her
book. How can anything useful be said about any of this, much less basing
an entire pop psych/science on gender differences that predetermine women
and men down to their roles in life?
This is all unbelievably suspect, not to mention ludicrous, especially
when we discover that, as Fisher says, in the information age and the new
period of globalization it is more of an advantage to acquire the holistic
view. But, wait, women have it, men don’t, according to Fisher. If we can’t
get their brains, how can they get ours? Or is she suggesting that there
will be no men in the corporate world of the 21st century?
Next we move to another way of thinking that women are better at: gut or
intuitive thinking—I never would have guessed. This can be explained by
brain somatic markers that help us make decisions. Women may pick up on
these body clues more. (Yeah, getting beaten and raped can really make
you sensitive to those body clues. Oh, sorry, Fisher does not mention battering
and rape, so they aren’t part of the brain scan.)
Are you familiar with chunking data (organizing patterns into blocks of
knowledge)? Well, the sexes chunk different kinds of facts. Men chunk football
facts; women chunk reading faces.
How did women acquire this ability to intuit? Fisher suspects that we got
it because of our ancestors’ needs. She then cites a contemporary example:
Fisher was sitting in a coffee shop at the airport waiting for a flight.
Two women were talking in the booth behind her and the child with them
began to wail. Their discussion of what to do about it could have taken
place a million years ago, says Fisher. One of them said, I just changed
him; the other said, I know he isn’t hungry. Together they reviewed dozens
of reasons, trying to intuit the human puzzle—a baby.
Yikes, is all I have to say.
Next we learn that women are long-range planners. We know this from a study
examining the stock trading records of 35,000 clients. Researchers found
that men traded 45 percent more often than women did. Women just didn’t
churn out accounts the way men did. Women put their money into retirement
plans. Women-only investment clubs, by the way, return 21.3 percent on
their stock purchases while men only clubs earn 15 percent. From this Fisher
deduces that women are better long-range planners. She admits in passing
that social circumstances may explain it, but she says it may also be explained
by our female brain architecture. Fisher writes, “Long-term planning is
unquestionably a mental process lodged in the prefrontal cortex of the
What evidence does she offer? She cites an accident in 1848. Phineas Gage,
while working, had a rod shoot through his cheek and exit through his head.
He was blinded in the left eye as a result but was otherwise completely
physically restored. But his personality changed from a tranquil, competent,
shrewd, energetic work leader to a shiftless bum—incapable of carrying
out long-range decisions. What this has to do with women’s facility for
long-range planning, I can’t quite grasp, since Phineas was a guy and guys
can’t lose the ability to do what Fisher says they don’t have in the first
place. On the other hand, if this ability is lodged in all prefrontal cortexes,
how is it that men don’t have it?
Women, it seems, have adapted it from deep history. Yep. Back then men
had to think of monthly events but women had to think decades ahead to
consider their children’s future. Fisher then quotes George Bush, of all
people, to confirm that this must be true: “Women are good at the vision
thing.” Also, amazingly, “With their natural talent for web thinking, mental
flexibility, intuition, and long-range view,” women, says Fisher, will
transform the business world.
Men, Fisher asserts, associate power with rank and status, women see it
as a network of vital human connections. Men’s striving for rank is associated
with—you’ll never guess—testosterone. Women’s taste for human networks
is associated with the female hormone estrogen. Women, Fisher says, favor
cooperation over competition, interaction and sharing over status and independence.
These traits emerge in childhood. In the classroom girls are courteous,
boys are noisy; girls sit and wait to be called on; boys manipulate, shout
out the answers, and want credit. Boys play war; girls seek applause and
How do we know? Well a study of 8th graders in two schools in California
in the early 1990s gives us the answer. Regardless of class or race or
family background they found that “boys were boys and girls were girls.”
These gender differences are apparent in the business world as well, says
Fisher. In the office, women share and are inclusive, give praise, suggest
rather than order, have a win win attitude, spend less on business trips,
and are more loyal. Men play to win, want titles and status, and hoard
information. (Wait, isn’t it secretaries who hoard information. Does any
of this, to the extent it is even true, have to do with the roles people
fill? No, it must be deep history.)
I am, of course, wondering once again why men are running the show. If
one adopts Fisher’s thesis, it’s because they have the most obnoxious traits
ever. But how she gets from deep history and men’s particular tasks on
the grasslands of Africa millennia ago to “boys shout the answers, men
hoard information” I don’t quite get. Does anyone?
Anyway, it seems that among chimpanzees, male primates rarely form egalitarian
congregations, are preoccupied with rank. Female primates also rank themselves,
but it is more subtle and stable and low key. (How is this egalitarian?)
From this Fisher can say that modern man’s drive for rank stems from prehistoric
times. “It is easy to see why men regard rank, status, money, titles, and
office space as power”—because these traits attract females. Yes, I confess,
if a guy has a big…office, I want him.
Women’s drive to connect in social webs comes from our primordial past,
too. Because ancestral women who made friends bore more young and had access
to more food and protection. (Survival by cooperation? What is this?) Fisher
also guesses that the female proclivity for harmonious connections and
egalitarian teams is associated with estrogens since the urge intensifies
at puberty (it does?) and lessens at menopause (what?) Hold on, does that
mean that pre-puberty and post-menopause women have no place in the new
Similarly, testosterone wires the male brain to drive for rank. In studies
at the City College of New York, we are told they injected testosterone
into a castrated Mexican swordtail fish, as well as into low ranking female
nonhumans and these creatures all advanced in the hierarchy as a result.
Also, in studies of women who are exposed to high levels of testosterone
in the womb, they are less likely to marry, they have fewer children, their
careers are more important than family, and they pursue occupations with
Having said this, Fisher then says that nature isn’t tidy and there is
no simple correlation between hormones and behavior. How else explain that
professional men have “lower levels of male hormones than blue collar workers
and unemployed men?” By the same token, Fisher says, women in the business
world hold grudges and are prone to backstabbing. (So none of what she’s
been saying means anything?)
Fisher asks, Why haven’t women achieved parity in the corporate world?
She apparently doesn’t care about parity in the non-corporate world, nor
does she consider that women’s (or men’s) “innate traits” might be antithetical
to the corporate world, and thus the corporate world should bite the dust.
What Fisher sees is that the corporate world is beginning to restructure
itself such that it now needs women’s special traits—not as peons presumably,
but as…well I’m not quite sure.
Fisher gives the following statistics: In 1900, men held 75 percent of
clerical jobs; in 1990 women performed 68 percent of computer and data
processing jobs and 79 percent of all secretarial and administrative services.
About 98 percent of secretaries and over 90 percent of clerks, data entry
keyers, bookkeepers, stenographers, and receptionists are women; 80 percent
of all billing clerks, file clerks, payroll clerks, and information clerks
are women; 40 percent of middle managers are women.
But 95 percent of senior level managers of Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500
companies are men; and of the 5 top earners in each of the Fortune 500
companies 2 percent are women.
Fisher says that discrimination is only one of the reasons why women are
not CEOs. She suspects a biological component. Testosterone contributes
to men’s drive to the top (even though professional men, as stated above,
have lower levels of the stuff) and estrogen contributes to female’s drive
to take time out to rear their children, thereby undermining their ability
to achieve high status (at least in an economy that punishes sociality).
Fisher cites a 1989 NYT poll of 1,497 working patents that found that 83
percent of working moms and 72 percent of working dads were torn by the
conflict between work and family life—but far more women than men thought
their career was so big a sacrifice, that it wasn’t worth it. (Let’s see:
raising the kids or data entry keyer? It’s a tough call.)
But guess what? There have been organizational upheavals in American business
such that corporations now need less hierarchy and more decentralized team
structures. Says business analyst, Sally Helgeson, “The emerging corporation
will be centered around a hub with spokes radiating out of satellite units.
Each manager will be at the center of a circle of employees, with spokes
of direct communication radiating out to still more circles of employees—a
spider web or giant wheel of fortune….”
Now I wonder how the men at the top of the corporate world, with their
laterial thinking and testosterone, could come up with a “more egalitarian
team” approach? (Maybe because it isn’t?) Does that mean that men will
be clerks and women will be CEOs in the new corporate world? But if women
are so egalitarian, why would they want to be the primary sex in a corporate
world that we have restructured to be more egalitarian? I’m also wondering
what would happen if there was another “organizational upheaval” resulting
in the same authoritarian, hierarchical corporate structure we have now?
Are women out once again?
Well, like everything else in this book, nothing really has to make sense
or be based on fact or an accurate description of the world. Assertions
about gender behavior can be deemed true even when they are contradicted
or attributed to a subset of the gender in question or held by the other
gender as well or are clearly inane.
Even if any of it had any basis in fact, what does it really mean about
how people spend their lives? Does having certain traits based on a hormone
and the makeup of our prefrontal cortex mean we shouldn’t aspire to accomplish
certain things? Of course not.
The truly upsetting thing is, that regardless of the inconsistencies, just
plain lies, crummy research, and inanities, books like Fisher’s and Hales’
are taken seriously by the NYT, their claims go unchallenged. Also, I “suspect”
that most of the U.S. population holds some form of this “difference,”
“men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” “it’s-not-gender-oppression,
it’s just cultural differences” politics—even many people who consider
themselves feminists buy it and even contribute to the literature on it..
To me, it’s the most oppressive thing to come around since women were property.
It reduces us, once again, to our biology, and says this is a good thing
because after thousands of years of modern history, we get to have a small
place in a corporate world that many of us want nothing to do with in the
first place. It’s used to limit us, to shut us up, to send us scrambling
to spend our days trying to become the feminine creatures that some “experts”
have defined us to be. What does defining and differentiating women from
men have to do with liberation? Why do it at all? Materialist answers could
include: it sells, it makes lots of profits for media corporations and
fashion industries, it gets women workers into the workforce who can be
paid less, etc.
Another answer is that it coopts any feminist revolution that comes along.
When feminists have organized and fought for their rights and for liberation
(and won some changes), they didn’t do it by demanding that girls be girls
and boys be boys. But after every feminist wave, the reaction has been
the same: you’d better back off and start behaving yourselves (i.e., being
nice women with all those attractive traits that you “inherited” and that
contribute to your being such wonderful mothers, concerned with everybody’s
well being but your own, peripheral to power and decision making).
It also helps obscure any notion of institutionalized oppression and class
and race privilege. It translates the struggle for liberation, a struggle
that involves principles and goals and analysis of patriarchy, into some
vague notion of choices that have no underlying progressive politics at
all: as in, liberation means you can choose between being a worker (wage
slave) or a wife and mother (domestic partner/servant). If you’re good
little girls, that is, sharing team members, who shut up about patriarchy
and harassment and oppression, then we’ll let you be full-time clerks,
earning just enough to buy a revolutionary lipstick with lots of choices
of colors. We need the lipstick lest anyone forget that we are females
with female brains and that female hormone estrogen rushing through our
Finally, it requires us to spend lots of time doing what should take us
less than 37.7 seconds to do. That is, we must continually search our deep
history, our hormones, our eggs, our menstrual blood, and even our brains
in order to find reasons why women should be treated as human beings, deserving
of a decent life on this planet, and no other.