The Real Differences Between Men and Women

For half a century, the push for gender equality has driven America’s social and political agenda and cast women as victims of male bias and repression. Make no mistake—business, entertainment, science, and academia needed reform, and eventually, the hammer that could break the glass ceiling was handed to qualified women who sought the top job and fought like tigers to get it. But it soon became apparent that despite notable exceptions, many women chose not to enter the CEO sweepstakes. Similarly, women want a more significant role in technology, but most do not want to sit at a computer all day writing code, never talking to another human being. What is lost in the gender equality debate are the biological imperatives that drive gender choices. Some of these differences favor women, and others favor men. But they are indisputable based on reams of global research cited in Charles Murray’s new book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class. – Editor


Charles Murray’s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, could have been subtitled, Psychology, Neurology, and Genetics for Dummies. But this book is as demanding as it is valuable, and readers would need to be diligent and academically capable. The author has done his best to simplify, but the subjects he takes up are complicated and, for most readers, unfamiliar.

This work is Murray’s attempt to counter the academic rejection of biology in human life. The current orthodoxy states that gender and race are social constructs, and that class is a function of privilege. This is based on the premise that “in a properly run society, people of all human groupings will have similar life outcomes,” and that substantially different outcomes are the result of prejudice and discrimination. Academics who claim publicly that individual people and groups of people are different from one another, and that some of those differences are rooted in biology, are deemed to be sexist and racist and are denounced. According to Murray, “On an individual level, social scientists have valid rationales to avoiding exploring the intersection of biology and society. Collectively, their decisions have produced a form of de facto and widespread intellectual corruption.”

Murray’s objective is to present evidence from psychology, neurology, and genetics about human variability and its biological basis. In Part I, he addresses sex and gender differences. While there are undoubtedly important cultural influences on defining and enforcing gender roles, there are also inherent biological differences between males and females, which influence significant outcomes. Murray provides generalizations that sum up the evidence in a clear and defensible fashion: “Proposition #1: Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide and tend to widen in more gender-egalitarian cultures.”

For example, there are sex differences in personality disorders, such as childhood-onset autism, for which males make up 80-90% of cases, schizophrenia 60% of cases male, dyslexia 66-75% of cases male; stuttering 70% cases male, Tourette syndrome 75-80% cases male, whereas adult-onset major depression 66% of cases female, adult-onset bipolar two disorder prevalent cases female, generalized anxiety 66% of cases female, panic disorder 70% cases female, obsessive-compulsive disorder 60% of cases female, post-traumatic stress syndrome 66% of classes female, anorexia nervosa 75% of cases female.

There are many differences in personality between men and women, many of them small, but some fairly large. In one personality inventory of Americans, women were found significantly more appreciative of art and beauty, were more open to inner feelings and emotions, more modest in playing down their achievements, and more reactive, affected by feelings, and easily upset. Women, on average, were more, outgoing, attentive to others, sensitive, aesthetic, sentimental, cooperative, accommodating, and deferential, warm toward others, showing selfless concern for others, sympathetic, enjoying company, and straightforward and undemanding. Men, on average, were more reserved, utilitarian, unsentimental, dispassionate, and solitary. These sex differences are evident in infancy.

One of the many studies of sex differences in psychology discussed is Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism (2003). Baron-Cohen generalized the differences by characterizing males as “systemizers” and females as “empathizers.” Men are driven to understand and build systems that have rules, inputs, and outputs, and do things. “This definition takes in systems beyond machines such as math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, logic, music, military strategy, the climate, sailing horticulture, and computer programing…libraries, economics, companies, taxonomies, board games, sports.” In contrast, women are better at understanding people and emotional states, which makes them empathetic ministers, therapists, arbitrators, interrogators, managers of people, and politicians. We might want to add mothers and teachers to the list.

The most definitive studies of differences between the sexes are international and cross-cultural because only by showing that sex differences are constant as culture and socialization varies from society to society, can the argument that sex differences are innate and biological be supported. What multiple international, cross-cultural studies, including both 25-nation and 50-nation samples have shown is that, despite vastly different cultures with different roles and legal statuses, differences between the sexes remain mostly constant. The robust findings are that women substantially more than men “show warmth toward others…appreciate art and beauty, have altruistic concern for others, sympathize with others, and enjoy the company of others.” The international studies are thus consistent with the American studies of sex differences.

One variation is in countries with the highest level of gender equality. Now, if sex differences were the result of culture and socialization, it might be expected that sex differences would be smaller in countries with gender equality. But this is not the case: “Many sex differences in cognitive repertoires are wider rather than smaller in countries with greater gender equality.” As one study concluded,  “Sex differences are most marked among European and American cultures and most attenuated among African and Asian cultures.” In wealthier countries, sexual dimorphism also increases in height, blood pressure, and athletic performance, and even in visuospatial abilities.

One study concludes that “Psychological sex differences–self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression, and values—are demonstrably the largest in cultures with the lowest levels of bifurcated gender role socialization or sociopolitical patriarchy.” These findings definitively refute the feminist theory that gender differences are a “social construct,” the result of socialization and oppression by males. Instead, the evidence supports the argument that sex differences are biological and inherent. As Murray puts it, “Personality differences widen in the most gender-egalitarian societies for the simplest of reasons: Both sexes become freer to do what comes naturally.”

In addressing sex differences in neurocognitive functioning, Murray offers the following generalization: “Proposition #2: On average, females have advantages in verbal ability and social cognition while males have advantages in visuospatial abilities and the extremes of mathematical ability.” As regards the five senses—taste, touch, smell, sound, vision—females, on average, have somewhat better sensory perception. Males detect movement better but have greater color blindness. Females are more sensitive to pain, and more easily feel disgust, which is why most dangerous and dirty jobs are done by men. As well, “females have better perceptual and fine motor skills than males.” In motor skills, men are faster, but women are more accurate. Men are better in large motor skills, some of which require cognition, such as throwing accurately to hit a target, which is not shocking given the million years of evolution and natural selection of male hunters. Women have better memory, especially regarding people, emotions, and social events, and are also better in verbal working memory. However, women are stronger on details and men on the general gist of events.

Males have better visuospatial memory, such as navigating landscapes, again, not surprising for hunters. Females have somewhat superior verbal ability, slightly in reading, more in writing, to males in the normal range, but at the highest range of verbal ability, the sexes are more or less equivalent. Sex differences in math in the normal range are inconsequential, but at the extreme high end (2%), males have a strong advantage.

In modern, prosperous, egalitarian societies, there is a more significant difference between the sexes than in poorer and less egalitarian societies for high achieving students in mathematics, the advantage to the males. None of this is explained adequately by socialization or role theories. In all countries around the world, including those with gender hierarchies favoring males, females do better in tested verbal skills than males, and in some cases better in math. Murray concludes, “The parsimonious explanation for the international advantage in verbal tests, across cultures that cover the full range from openly oppressive to aggressively gender-equal, is that women have a genetic advantage.”

“On average, males have substantially better visuospatial skills than females.” Males can see much better than females what happens when objects change positions or are modified. The findings of one study were that “Sex differences in mental rotation and line angle judgment performance were universally present across nations, with men’s mean scores always exceeding women’s mean scores.” But all countries were not the same; “the more advanced the country, the wider the sex differences in both visuospatial tasks.”

Women, on the other hand, “have better social cognition than men,” which means that women are better at cognitive empathy, mentalizing, and mindreading. In Baron-Cohen’s terms, social cognition is to empathizing as visuospatial skills are to systemizing. This is true cross-culturally. In men, “systemizing skills and empathizing skills are inversely related”; the better men are at one, the worse they are at the other. In women, these skills are independent, so a woman may be good at neither, or one, or both. A neurocognitive study concluded that “Males and females have complementary neurocognitive abilities, with females being more generalists and outperforming males in memory and social cognition tasks and males being more specialists and performing better than females on spatial and motor tasks.”

People are attracted to activities they are good at. Men and women are good at different things, and so they prefer different activities. “Proposition #3: On average, women worldwide are more attracted to vocations centered on people and men to vocations centered on things.” Women choose to study certain subjects, to take certain jobs, and to manage their careers in ways that are often distinct from what men choose. Vanderbilt University psychologists, studying middle-aged men and women who were high achievers in math, having an IQ of 140+, received quite different responses from males and females to statements about preferences: Men emphasized freedom of expression and ideas, merit pay, a full-time career, invention, taking risks, working with things, lots of money, stating facts in the face of resistance. Women emphasized part-time careers, for a limited time, working no more than 40 hours a week, flexibility in work schedule, friendships, community service, socializing, and community.

The gifted women in this survey were twice as likely to study STEM fields as women in general, but their male counterparts were also twice as likely as men in general. Most of the women got degrees in the social sciences, business, and the humanities. As a result, more of these gifted men went into STEM than did the women, a 1.6 to 1 ratio. The disparate preferences of men and women also showed in STEM students: the females tending to go into the life sciences (people-oriented), rather than math and the physical sciences (things-oriented). “Even among the exceptionally gifted, women have different life priorities and work priorities than men that affect their career trajectories and achievements.”

Whatever their differences in preferences and choices, in middle age, these talented men and women felt that they had equally satisfying lives. The conclusion is obvious: “Men and women are attracted to different vocations, and those differences correspond to differences in the people-things dimension.” Cross-cultural scores for 62 countries show that these results apply universally, and the sex disparity is more significant in gender-equal countries.

The documented sex differences cannot be explained by “social construction,” socialization, or conventional roles, because they are constant cross-culturally even though social and legal rules, socialization, and roles vary from one culture and one country to another. Instead, they are biologically based. Sex differences are found in the brain: “Proposition #4: Many sex differences in the brain are coordinate with sex differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior.”

One of the differences in male and female brains is the effect of male and female sex hormones: the male hormone testosterone administered to women “diminished their accuracy in inferring mental states,” while estrogen given to men “increased their emotional reactivity.”  Another study concluded that “in females, the dopaminergic reward system is more sensitive to shared rewards than to selfish rewards, while the opposite is true for males.” Higher levels of testosterone contributed to male impulsive behavior, while in women contributed to higher levels of risk tolerance.

The impact of sex hormones begins prenatally. Male fetuses experience testosterone surges during weeks 12-18 and again during weeks 34-41. A further testosterone surge takes place during the first three months after birth. For male toddlers, the lower the levels of fetal testosterone, the higher the levels of eye contact and a larger vocabulary; the higher levels led to less eye contact and a smaller vocabulary. Biological females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a condition that produces a high level of testosterone, leads to greater interest in male-typical activities and less interest in female-typical activities throughout the life cycle, more interest in things than in people. Genetic XY males with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) have non-functioning androgen receptors, are born with female genitalia, are raised as girls, and are behaviorally indistinguishable from girls. Socialization in femininity influenced only those girls who had low levels of prenatal androgen exposure; those who had prenatally received higher levels of the male hormone were not affected by the socialization in femininity. In adults aged 27-30, women with low levels of male hormone rated family life as very important; those with higher levels rated family life as not important.

Male and female brains are different. In male brains, the hemispheres are specialized; the left for verbal tasks and the right for spatial tasks. In contrast, female brains are not functionally specialized, but both hemispheres are used for various tasks. The default for brain development is female; it is testosterone that appears to block the use of the right hemisphere for language processing. “Male brains are structurally optimized for communicating within hemispheres. Female brains are structurally optimized for communicating between hemispheres.

This difference is accentuated by brain size; the smaller the brain, irrespective of sex, the greater use of both hemispheres; the larger the brain, irrespective of sex, the more functionally differentiated. Male brains are on average much larger than female brains, and thus commonly have functionally differentiated hemispheres. Studies of connectivity in subcortical regions concluded that males have better perception-action coordination, while females have better anticipation and processing socially and emotionally relevant cues. Furthermore, “women have a pronounced neurological tendency to respond to negative stimuli; men have a pronounced neurological tendency to respond to positive stimuli.” Women thus have a higher rate of affective disorder.

Murray ends his discussion of sex differences by saying, “Males and females are different. A lot different.” The specific findings of differences between men and women help to explain what has happened to our colleges and universities over the past fifty years. There have been two significant transformations. The first is demographic; the second is ideological. Up to fifty years ago, colleges and universities were primarily male institutions, with males dominating numerically among students, professors, and administrators. Today, colleges and universities are dominated by females, who are the overwhelming number of students, an increasing majority of professors and administrators. The feminist project of replacing males by females has succeeded.

During those fifty years, there has been a gradual transformation, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, in which science and rigorous analysis has been replaced by “social justice” political advocacy, by ideological victimology and its identity politics. When universities were predominantly male, “systemizing,” the distinctly male approach, provided the intellectual framework for academic disciplines. Under female domination, systemizing was replaced by “empathizing,” a distinctly female approach; the object of research and teaching has now become to find “victims” and to advocate on their behalf.

Understanding has been replaced by moralizing. Female sentiments and tendencies have thus triumphed also in the ideological sphere, setting aside impartial science in favor of identity politics.

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

6 thoughts on “The Real Differences Between Men and Women

  1. This is not about spreading falsehoods. Its about forcing people to state in public what is an obvious lies and thus humiliate themselves. Think the Soviet trials of the 1930s when clearly innocent people confessed to the most horrible crimes and everybody knew they were guiltless. Once degraded, people are easily manipulated and will go on to agree to anything–2+2=5, we are all equally intellectually, all civilizations are equally accomplished and on and on. A few times uttering “Diversity is our strength” for all to hear usually suffices.

    1. What’s going to be interesting Post-Wuhan is how many mothers won’t be putting their children into daycare. They now have a socially-acceptable excuse not to.

  2. Wow. This is so interesting, thought provoking, yet so many would refuse to discuss let alone acknowledge much of these ‘facts’. The way higher education has changed is disheartening and the ramnifications are observable down to preschoolers. These differences in the sexes needs to be made clear and the outcomes from the overstated feminist movement, I feel, are not beneficial.

  3. If you had written this at Google you’d be fired. No room for science in a political debate. Just look up James Damore.

  4. Thanks for this timely defence of Charles Murray’s work. “Human Diversity” goes a lot further than “The Bell Curve”, using the advances in genomics since 1994 to show findings such as the differences between female brains, and even more controversially, the split of the human species into ‘populations’, with the genetic difference between the African population and all the rest being the greatest.

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