Women’s Work?

I think the “nature versus nurture” question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture.
—Kim Wallen, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychiatry


Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


Academic Exchange: Describe some of your research into differences between males and females.

Kim Wallen: My theoretical viewpoint is that sex difference is a product of some underlying predisposition that gets shaped by experience. I think the “nature versus nurture” question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture. For example, there’s a predisposition for human males to be taller, but if I take a male who is likely to be six feet tall and I restrict his diet for the first three years of life, he might wind up much shorter.

It’s also interesting that early studies suggested that young female monkeys were more submissive than males. But that difference is very much a product of social environment. When young males and females were allowed to interact for about 30 minutes each day without any adults around, males were more aggressive and females were more submissive. But in the presence of adults, you didn’t see that sex difference at all. That means there may be a bias for males to be more aggressive, but it doesn’t typically show up in real-world settings, only in a constrained, artificial setting.

AE: Do the patterns of behavior in monkeys also show up in humans?

KW: Yes. In one study we let young monkeys interact with different types of toys, like trucks, cars, strollers, and stuffed animals. Males preferred wheeled toys and rarely plush toys. Females interacted with both types of toys. That’s an example where socialization doesn’t have any influence, just as I think the human toy preferences probably have little to do with true socialization. Humans also show a strong sex difference in toy preference. Boys tend to like things that they can manipulate and do things to. Girls like things they can interact with. It has nothing to do with the toys per se, but the preferred activities. Toys become sexually differentiated because they reflect this underlying bias that males and females have for certain kinds of activities.

AE: Can you give an example of how socialization influences performance by men and women?

KW: When women who are very skilled in math take a math test and are told that the test was gender neutral, they perform well. But if you tell them that historically, men tend to outperform women, then the women performed poorly. The argument is that because women grew up in an environment where they’re attributed to have poorer math skills, they carry an internal stereotype of poor math ability. What’s strange is, according to the research, all one apparently has to do is tell a woman who has a lifetime of socialization of being poor in math that a math test is gender neutral, and all effects of that socialization go away.

AE: How do you approach a field that is so controversial?

KW: I think it’s important to know ways in which men and women differ and where differences come from. If there is a biological factor, as opposed to an educational bias, that causes males to do poorly on verbal tasks I’d like to know that. Just as important are the consequences of those differences and what you do with the information.

There was an experiment in which women and men were oriented to a flagpole outside, then walked into a building and led through twists and turns, then asked to draw where they were in relation to the flagpole. Everyone made some mistakes, but the error was much smaller for males. Even when maps were provided, males had significantly fewer errors. So maybe there’s some core internal navigation mechanism that is truly different between the sexes that allows men to keep their spatial orientation better. The question is how we react to those differences. We could create a training program that teaches women how to improve their orientation skills.

AE: Do you notice any differences between the way your male and female graduate students approach their work?

KW: One thing I’ve noticed is that all of my students, male or female, at some level are not very realistic about their abilities and think they’re not as bright as they really are. But one difference is that the women typically are more likely to voice that concern and anxiety, and they’re more likely to think that the men don’t feel the same way. To some extent, females tend to worry more and to be hyper-realistic about their skills and competencies. Guys often don’t seem to be so concerned or aware of where they fit in the competency scheme. That may reflect another underlying bias in the way males and females approach their lives.