Friday, November 04, 2005

The Male Condition

Really interesting article by Simon Baron-Cohen about the difference between male and female brains and how it relates to autism. Read the whole thing if you get the chance.

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own.

Our research team in Cambridge administered questionnaires on which men and women could report their level of interest in these two aspects of the world - one involving systems, the other involving other people's feelings. Three types of people were revealed through our study: one for whom empathy is stronger than systemizing (Type E brains); another for whom systemizing is stronger than empathy (Type S brains); and a third for whom empathy and systemizing are equally strong (Type B brains). As one might predict, more women (44 percent) have Type E brains than men (17 percent), while more men have Type S brains (54 percent) than women (17 percent).
With data like that it is not surprising that more men become scientists and engineers while women become teachers and nurses. It is not talent or aptitude per se as much as it interest, doing what you are best at and what is most natural for you.

This raises the question of whether we need programs to try and get more women as engineers? I would still probably say yes. If you assume all people with S brains would be good engineers, that would mean on average 23% of them would be women (17%/(17%+54%)). You would want to make sure that those with the skills and aptitude are not put off by the fact that they will be in the minority (and have to put up with a lot of S brain men). But we should not expect that women become 50% of engineers.

Likewise we should have programs that promote men as teachers and nurses as the men with the E type brains will be a minority to the women. We need to make sure they don't end up in a profession that wouldn't enjoy as much or be as good at simply because they want to do the same thing as their male friends.
According to what I have called the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize. When adults with Asperger's syndrome (a subgroup on the autistic spectrum) took the same questionnaires we gave to non-autistic adults, they exhibited extreme Type S brains. Psychological tests reveal a similar pattern.
Interesting to think of autism as extreme maleness. More goodness in the article, so follow the link below.

Via NY Times

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