Empathic vs. Systematic?

Inspired by this report on women in philosophy, I'm going to be speaking to our undergraduates in a few weeks about female flight--so to speak.  Why do women start out being about half of all students in lower level philosophy classes, but then gradually thin out, until they're only 20-25% of all philosophy faculty?

In that report, the favored explanations have to do with "barriers"-- features of the philosophy world that drive women away.  The authors don't take it seriously that women might just be different, so less suited to philosophy in some unavoidable way.  I figure I want my presentation to touch on all the possibilities--both explanations in terms of barriers, and explanations in terms of differences.  But what--pray tell--would be the key difference?  In search of hypotheses, I decided to read Simon Baron Cohen's book The Essential Difference The difference, he says, is that the male brain is systematic and the female brain is empathic.

When Baron Cohen is trying to sound politically correct, he talks about small differences, and statistical differences, and distributions. Women more often have brains that are a little better in this way, men more often have brains that are a little better in that way.  But the take home message is much more dramatic.  Using the phrases "the male brain" and "the female brain" suggests differences like those that separate "the male reproductive system" and "the female reproductive system."  Big, pervasive differences.

He doesn't substantiate the claim that there are these big, pervasive differences, but nevertheless reaches conclusions as if he had --
 Society needs both of the main brain types. People with the female brain make the most wonderful counselors, primary-school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators, or personnel staff. Each of these professions requires excellent empathizing skills.  People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catologists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers, or even lawyers.  Each of these professions requires excellent systematizing skills.
Tell your daughter to run like hell if she ever sees this book on the shelf of her highschool career counselor! Please ...

Now I'm sure Baron Cohen would back off, if pressed. No, no, no, the male brain is just a brain--you can have one in your head, even if you've got the female reproductive system.  So never fear, ladies, you can be scientists and musicians too. But don't buy it. The message here is about men vs. women.

Now, if he'd really proven that men and women are systematic vs. empathic, we'd just have to put up with it and try to cope, but here's the next problem.  I think he forces the data into this simple pattern, and the reason he does so has nothing to do with telling the truth about men and women.  Rather, what he's after is a theory he has about autism.  He wants it to come out that women are empathic and men are systematic because he thinks autistic people have hyper-male brains. Since autism involves having an impaired ability to read minds, the hyper-male brain hypothesis requires him to see empathy as non-male; and since autistic people are highly oriented toward mechanical systems, he's got to stress the systematic thinking of men.  In short, the explanation of autism is the cart that's pulling this horse.

Some very important things about male-female differences get hidden and suppressed, so that the systematic vs. empathic contrast can predominate. For example, Baron Cohen acknowledges that women do better than men in language skills, but instead of stressing that, and using it when he draws conclusions about careers, he demotes it to the status of being merely a factor that accounts for why women are so empathic. Suppose you took it seriously that women excel at language, and made that an independent part of your thinking about their career prospects. Then you would have to add some very different options to career list for people with "the female brain" (ugh, the phrase is awful)--novelist, linguist, lawyer, professor, diplomat, journalist, programmer.

Let's suppose, just for fun, that women have particular strengths in both language and empathy.  And let's give the guys systematic thinking, in the sense Baron Cohen has in mind, but also spatial skills, since there seems to be a lot of evidence for male strength in that area. Systematic thinking means trying to figure out how stuff works and putting everything into a category.  It's oriented to mechanical systems and meaningless facts--What kind of tree is that?  How does the TV work?  If we go with language and empathy as female strengths, and systematic thinking and spatial skills as male strengths, does that help explain why women flee philosophy?

I don't see anything there to suggest women would be worse at philosophy--and in fact I don't see any evidence that women are worse at philosophy.  Could there nevertheless be a basis for explaining female flight in here? Yes, maybe: in philosophy, there's not a lot of opportunity to be empathic, and vigorous debate is not a very tender affair.  Someone who excels at empathy and wants to receive empathy may feel out of place.  But then, there's something here that would account for male flight too. A  brain that wants to figure out how stuff works ought to be pretty uncomfortable wading around in murky philosophical ideas all day.

So--I'm pressing on. I'm not completely closed to the idea that there are male-female differences, and that in some way or other they play into the under-representation of women in philosophy. But I don't think this book sheds much light.


J. J. Ramsey said...

There's a book on the dubious research about male-female brain differences called Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. IIRC, it even has commentary about Simon Baron-Cohen's work.

Jean Kazez said...

That's next on my list. I'm looking forward to seeing what she has to say about SBC.

Scott said...

There is a massive difference but calling it a "brain" difference seems silly. The difference is that during a violent surprise attack a very strong cocktail of hormones hits men within a second, making them have tunnel vision, power, speed, and loss of fine motor control. Women have about 20 minutes before they get a similar hormone surge, allowing them time to plan, see normally and do precise things with their hands.
That's the place to start the debate. After we acknowledge that we can talk about the milder hormone differences and how they might shape a person...or a mind.

Jean Kazez said...

Okaaaaay, what's your evidence for that?