The Differences between Men and Women

By Michael Edmonds 24/04/2011 3

It’s often considered dangerous to discuss perceived differences between men and women. Indeed, commenting on the different abilities of men and women in any area (maths, multi-tasking, science etc) can lead to rather vigorous discussions not only about whether any such differences truly exist but also about whether such differences are innate (due to nature) or due to socialisation (i.e. nurture). 

Entering this emotive and politically fraught domain, comes Donald Pfaff, professor of neurobiology at Rockefeller University with his new book Man and Woman: An Inside Story. Using (neuro)biology Professor Pfaff outlines what science tells us about the differences between men and women, and in doing so challenges some common misconceptions.

Professor Pfaff reminds us that there are obvious biological differences between men and women. On average, men are physically stronger and taller than women. On average, the frontal lobe is proportionally larger in women, while the amygdala is proportionally larger in men. These are biologically irrefutable differences. But do these affect our relative performance in everyday life?

By comparing tests of psychological and behavioural differences between men and women, Professor Pfaff has pointed out that “the further you go from reproductive behaviour, the less impressive the sex differences” become (see Table below). 

Trait Difference between men and women

(standard deviation units)

Gender Identity

e.g. how male do you see yourself?

11.0 — 13.2 (M)

Sexual orientation – e.g. how strong is your sexual attraction to men.

6.0 — 7.0 (F)

Preference for ‘boy’s’ toys

2.1 (M)


2 (M)

Preference for ‘girl’s’ toys

1.8 (F)

Physical aggression

0.4 — 1.3 (M)


0.3 — 1.3 (F)

Fine motor skills

0.5 — 0.6 (F)

Mental rotations

0.3 -0.9 (M)


0.2 — 0.8 (M)

Perceptual speed

0.3 — 0.7 (F)

Verbal speed

0.5 (F)

SAT — test maths

0.4 (M)

Mathematics concepts

No difference

Computational skills

No difference

SAT-test verbal

No difference

(M) = Males score higher           (F) = Females score higher


So while there are notable differences in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation and height, differences in terms of empathy, physical aggression and verbal fluency are much smaller. Indeed, so much smaller that it would seem erroneous to generalise and prejudge a person’s abilities based on their sex.

One area that is oft debated is whether children’s toy choices are based on innate or cultural/societal influences. Recent research showing that male vervet monkeys prefer cars, as do girls with a hormonal disorder which produces excess testosterone, provides some intriguing evidence that there is a biological component to such choices. Work examining the amygdalae of rats, has also indicated biological differences that affect the amount of “male” (i.e. rough and tumble) play that the rats engage in.

The article this blog entry is derived from(see acknowledgement below) is fascinating, and I look forward to reading Professor Pfaff’s book to learn more. It is undeniable that there are differences between men and women, though historically many differences have been exaggerated or manufactured and used to discriminate. Perhaps the science revealed in this book will help to combat various myths and stereotypes still prevalent in society, and encourage people not to pre-judge others based on their sex, but rather allow them to demonstrate their full abilities as an individual.


Information for this blog article was obtained from “Venus and Mars Collide” by Laura Spinney,  New Scientist (2011), 5 March,  pg 43-45

3 Responses to “The Differences between Men and Women”

  • I’d suggest reading Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “Delusions of Gender: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference”. It was so good, and so interesting, I turned it into a talk (wif all stick figures in) for Foo 🙂