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Empathy and Gender

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Biology is not destiny. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex, woman is not a mere womb. Likewise, I note: man is not mere testosterone. [Note: This post is an excerpt from the final section of Chapter Seven on my book: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy, available here: click here to examine complete book.]

Cover Art: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy
Cover Art: A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy

Biology is important, but biology is not destiny. That was one of the key points of the feminist revolution. Raising children is a job – a big job; and so is being the CEO of IBM as was Virginia Rometty until earlier this year. 

The matter is delicate. These human beings – we human beings – are an aggressive species. It is usually the men that are doing the aggressing. That is indeed a function of testosterone – as well as upbringing [child rearing practices], enculturation, and the evaluation of the species. 

Common sense suggests that woman is the more nurturing gender, given her role in giving birth and keeping the home fires burning in agricultural, hunting, and traditional indigenous cultures. Women are keeping the home fires burning, so what are the men doing? Men are out systematically doing battle with saber-toothed tigers and hostile neighbors.  If this seems like an over-simplification, it is. Yet it is a compelling one, given the evolution and history of the species.

This issue of empathy and gender becomes controversial. Claims have been made that a man’s brain  is different than a woman’s. In particular, men are “wired” for systematizing; and women are “wired” for empathy – for relating, especially relating to children and other human beings in general. This research – usually credited to neuropsychologist Simon Baron Cohen but also to Frans de Waal – has for sometime now been debunked – shown to be limited, distorted, and flat out wrong.

When one looks at the methods and the data in detail, no consistent gender difference in empathy have been observed – read on!  

I provide the reference point upfront. As noted, the research by Simon Baron Cohen that men’s brains are “wired” for systematizing and women’s for relating and relationships are questioned and indeed debunked in Robyn Blum’s article in Heidi L. Maibom, ed. (2017). (For Bluhm’s original article see The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy. London/New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 396 pp. )

Robyn Bluhm’s article probes the research on the evidential basis of this nurturing role and inquires: does it extend to empathy and how far?

Early gender-empathy studies were vulnerable to self-report biases and gender stereotyping that pervasively depicted females in a biased way as the more empathic gender. According to Bluhm, these early studies simply do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Case closed on them. Dismissed. Enter Simon Baron-Cohen and his innovative research, renewing the debate and shifting it in the direction of neural science as opposed to social roles and their self-fulfilling stereotypes.

Bluhm points out in detail that as Baron-Cohen’s work gained exposure and traction in the academic market place of ideas subtle shifts occurred in his presentation of the results. At first Baron-Cohen highlighted measures that were supposed to assess both cognitive and affective empathy, but later the affective dimension fell out of the equation (and the research) and only cognitive empathy was the target of inquiry and was engaged (p. 381).

Though Baron-Cohen’s initial research described the “male brain” as having “spatial skills,” his later publications, once he became a celebrity academic (once again, my term, not Bluhm’s), redescribe the male brain as “hardwired for systematizing”; likewise, the “female-type” brain, initially credited with being better at “linguistic skills,” was redescribed as “hardwired for empathy.” The language shifts from being about “social skills.” Baron-Cohen speaks of “empathy” rather than “social skills,” so that the two distinctions are virtually synonymous (p. 384).

As the honest broker, Bluhm notes that, as with the earlier research in gender differences, Baron-Cohen’s research has been influential but controversial. Men and women have different routes to accessing and activating their empathy; they respond to different pressures to conform to (or rebel against) what the community defines as gender-appropriate behavior; and men and women even have different incentives for empathic performance.

For example, “…[M]en’s scores on an empathy task equaled women’s when a monetary reward for good performance was offered” (p. 384). Monetary rewards up; empathy up? Though Bluhm does not say so, I came away with the distinct impression of a much needed debunking of the neurohype—what we would now call “fake news”—a job well done.

Bluhm’s work is especially pertinent in constraining celebrity, executive consultants (once again, my term), running with the neuro-spin, and publishing in the Harvard Business Review, who assert that brain science shows we need more women executives on corporate boards to expand empathy.

I hasten to add that we do indeed need more women executives, but that is not something demonstrated by brain science, at least as of this date (Q2 2020). We need more women executives because it is demonstrated by statistics (just one of many sources of reasons other than brain science) that to devalue the contributions to innovation, service, and productivity of slightly more than half the population is bad business practice—foolish, inefficient, and wasteful. The challenge is that the practices that make one good at business—beating the competition, engaging technology problems, solving legal disputes—do not necessarily expand one’s empathy, regardless of gender.

[In a separate, informal email conversation (dated July 2, 2018), Bluhm calls out Cordelia Fine’s fine takedown of “The Myth of the Lehman Sisters” in the last chapter of Fine’s book (not otherwise a part of Bluhm’s review): Cordelia Fine, (2017), Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society. New York: W. W. Norton. It is a bold statement of the obvious – that the part of basic anatomy that differs between men and women is definitely NOT the brain. But that is missed due to lack of empathy which is committed to responding to the whole person – not just the brain or the sex organs.]

In an expression of insightful and thunderous understatement, Bluhm concludes: “With the exception of studies that rely on participants’ self-reports or on other’s reports of their behavior [which are invalid for other reasons], no consistent gender differences in empathy have been observed. This raises the possibility that gender differences in empathy are in the eye of the beholder, and that the beholder is influenced by gender stereotypes…” (p. 386). Just so.

Okay, having debunked the myth that men’s brains are different – and in particular less empathic – what to do about the situation that many men (and women?) struggle to expand their empathy? The recommendation is not to treat empathy and an on-off switch. Empathy is rather a dial – to be tuned up or down based on the situation. That takes practice.

Some men – many men – may start out with an empathic disadvantage in experiencing their feelings after having been taught such stuff as “big boys don’t cry.” But if people, including men, practice getting in touch with their experience, then they get better at it – experiencing their experience. Likewise, with empathy. If you practice, you get better at it. For those interested in practicing, but not working too hard, may I recommend: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide: click here to examine (and buy!) the book.

Further Reading

Ickes, William & Gesn, Paul & GRAHAM, TIFFANY. (2000). Gender differences in empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation?. Personal Relationships. 7. 95 – 109. 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2000.tb00006.x.

ELPG Front Cover as jpg

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project


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