Each of us were born into a gender, typically one gender, but some of us exhibit physical, genetic, or psychological traits of both genders. How do these gender characteristics affect us? Do they limit our freedom of choice? Or does our gender offer us unique perspectives unavailable to the other primary gender? Facebook users have recently offered some intriguing photos of transgender people, quite appealing in their new gender role, such as Balian Buschbaum who was born a woman (see more here). If the physical body is altered, how does this affect the mind? Or was the mind itself born to the wrong gender and now it has been returned to its proper state?
One more set of questions, then a few perspectives and maybe even some answers. What about gender-specific groups? What strength is gained by restricting the group one gender and communicating in partial isolation of the other gender?
For the purposes of this article we are going to consider that for the most part humans are divided into two main genders. Clearly this is not true for all people, yet even for those who have traits of both genders, almost all chose to self-identify as either male or female.
Let’s begin with some conversations from the Indigo Society, “a forum for Spirituality, New Age, Lightworkers, and General Topics”. The “new age” perspective from these conversations among Indigos (a unique concept that you can explore with a quiz and more here) offers ideas such as, “The individual must decide when to realize that gender is a concept of a disadvantaged perspective on life. Though we are born onto a role that has been predetermined to receive us in shackles, we are challenged to free ourselves.” Certainly some people feel like their gender has them in chains, such as any woman who has sought to be president of the United States. If we look at the forty year period leading up to the Constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote, we certainly see a segment of a gender group seeking to free themselves, and we see this echoed in the 1960’s with burning bras and sexual freedom. Yet even as these groups eschewed the traditional roles and limitations of their gender, they found solace and solidarity by forming women’s groups. Could they have accomplished what they did in gender mixed groups, even with supportive men?
Let’s back up and examine some assumptions, beginning with the differences between male and female. How real are these differences? How much is cultural and how much is physical? How about spiritual? We may need to ask God why She made two genders (and a few in between). The easiest approach might be to allow science to inform us.
The most basic difference is invisible to us, sealed in the nucleus of every cell of our bodies: the 23rd pair of chromosomes that is either XX or XY (or the rare trisomies of XXY or XYY). The differing male Y chromosome is an odd little thing, twisted and truncated like a gnarled old man. It’s considered degenerate (have fun with that one) and it often mutates while in the sperm, making mistakes as it combines with the XX in the female egg that can result in birth defects. The chromosomes themselves don’t make us female or male though; it is what our bodies do with the genes that matter. Specifically one gene on the Y chromosome makes a person male. That gene is called SRY (I could not make up stuff this good if I tried) and without it being flipped on no one could be male. Other genes are also involved, of course. These genes lead to the production of hormones that are essential in defining our gender, causing us to develop physically as male or female.
We have long wondered if we think alike, these genders from Mars and Venus. Are there actually physical brain differences? The short answer – and its becoming longer with exciting new research – is “yes”. The scope of this is too extensive for this article, but here is a list of differences
- The corpus callosum — the bridge of nerve tissue that connects the right and left sides of the brain — had a thicker measurement in female fetuses than in male fetuses as early as 26 weeks in a fetus. Connecting the two sides of the brain is seen as a strength in inter-brain communication.
- Females seem to have language functioning in both sides of the brain which may result in the strong language skills typically displayed by females.
- Boys fall prey to learning disabilities more frequently than girls (well of course, with degenerate SRY genes attached to a chromosome that looks like a broken comma)
- Boys generally demonstrate superiority over female peers in areas of the brain involved in math and geometry.
- Females and males maintain unique brain characteristics throughout life. Male brains, for instance, are about 10% larger than female brains. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean smarter.
- Male brains contain about 6.5 times more gray matter — sometimes called ‘thinking matter” — than women. Female brains have more than 9.5 times as much white matter, the stuff that connects various parts of the brain, than male brains. Don’t jump to conclusions; these are complex structures.
- The frontal area of the cortex and the temporal area of the cortex are more precisely organized in women, and are bigger in volume. Again, no leaping here, either.
- Women are faster and more accurate at identifying emotions and may be better than men at controlling them.
- Men and women do have lots of brain areas that are the same., Members of both sexes excel at skills that are commonly labeled gender specific. “All of these things have overlapping distributions. There are many women with better-than-average spatial skills, and men with good writing skills,” Geary says.
While some might bristle at the suggestion that brains have different abilities based on gender, science and our own perceptions have supported this in a general way, though it doesn’t apply to specific individuals. Yet we have seen equally well that whatever limits we are born with due to our genes and development can be changed. Science offers this nugget, “Some researchers believe that nurturing one’s brain can enhance what nature has provided.” This would appear to be an important element of brain research. We can change our brains because they are flexible adaptive structures. We can choose to enhance our gender-based strengths or to rob from the other gender what we naturally lack. “There’s a lot of evidence that we build up our brain’s representation of space by moving through it,” says Martha Denckla of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Learn more on WebMD here.
Dr. Denckla’s statement about space sounds more like something from the Indigo Society than from a doctor. We can find more of this way of thinking in another PhD, Dr. Felice Dunas who wrote the article, “Male and Female Differences and Strengths-The Yin Yang Perspective.” She suggests that the ancient Chinese philosophies that pre-date Western religions by thousands of years contain gender truths that cross from science into spirituality. She says, “Yin Yang theory works with the premise that all of life stems from a point of perfect balance,” which informs our understanding of male and female, X and Y chromosomes, and testosterone and estrogen. She states, “When a woman is spending most of her life force, her vitality and time, giving to others, she is going to end up sick, weak, unhappy and, eventually, unproductive. Yin energy moves from the outside in towards the self. Mothering, which takes up decades of our adult lives, is, in large part, about contribution. It’s about giving in creative, structured ways. These are more Yang oriented activities. They are not about receiving. From my medical perspective, it is imperative that a woman put herself in situations that allow her to receive support from others during her mothering years. She needs loving kindness, she needs others to do favors and tasks for her, and she needs to receive praise for what she does. She needs to be taken care of if she is going to be good at taking care of others.” Regarding men, Dr. Dunas claims, “When a man is “self oriented” rather than “other oriented”, when he puts emphasis what is given to him rather than on what he contributes to others, when he is silent and avoiding of his woman’s aggressiveness, “wimping out”, so to speak, he is not utilizing his primary strength. Yang energy moves from the self outward in direct, goal oriented ways. When a man behaves in a childlike way, (women often call their husbands the “other” child) when he doesn’t take a stand for his creativity, his vision, his beliefs or his drives, he sacrifices his yang nature, his greatest truth. Unfortunately, men are given very mixed messages by women who want both a strong hero and a girlfriend-like partner to chat and vent with.”
I would like to wrap this up with a confession that may not be a surprise to the regular readers of this column. I am not Michelle Fairchild. I am her husband, asked to bring my male perspective to her article this week. For the record I cook most of our meals, care equally for our twins (I will pit my diaper count against Michelle’s any day), and prefer chic flicks to action films. I’m more of the girlfriend-like partner than the male hero. Michelle mows our lawn each week and is an ass-kicking volleyball player. We both cry a fair bit and I would never dare state my mind had more gray matter than hers because she is, as her readers know, witty, logical, and wise. I have worked to achieve a yin-yang balance and have seen my Myers-Briggs scores contract toward the middle as I actively sought to balance many traits of both genders as well as non-gender specific traits. We can all choose how to engage our minds and bodies in activities that promote our goals and add richness to our life experience while enjoying the natural gifts of our gender. I leave you with this, ostensibly a love song that is perhaps a love song between genders, seeking the strengths of the other…
Tell me your secrets and ask me your questions
Oh let’s go back to the start
Running in circles, coming in tails
Heads on a science apart
The Scientist, by Coldplay
Nathan Fairchild taught science, math, and technology for over 20 years in the classroom.
He has also worked in other science environments such as national parks, residential science camps, and nature centers. He has a Masters of Science in Science Education and has been one of the California nominees for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science twice.