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updated 3/24/2008 10:58:16 AM ET 2008-03-24T14:58:16

New evidence from neuroscience and economics has revealed some fundamental differences between men and women. Susan Pinker, author of “The Sexual Paradox,” encourages people to approach these findings with an open mind — not fear. Here's a probing Q&A that looks deep into the minds of men and women.

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Q: In your book, you say, “We think of male as the standard, and of female as a version of this base model.” That’s a bold statement. Can you explain it?

A: In order to create equality of opportunity — a feature of any truly democratic and free society — we have unfortunately come to assume that there are no real differences between the sexes, or that any differences we observe are artificial products of the surrounding culture.

Male is often viewed as the starting point for women, or the “default” setting. Thus, there is the assumption that women will behave the same way men do if cultural barriers are stripped away. They will choose the same jobs in equal proportions to men (e.g., physics or engineering careers will be divided 50-50), and that they will want to work the same hours as men have (e.g., 12-hour workdays, 24/7 availability). That men’s choices are seen as the baseline, or the desirable standard, is one reason why there is so much emphasis on attracting women to male typical careers and work schedules.

But the science that has emerged over the last ten years contradicts the notion that women are mirror images of men.

Q: You also say that “men are the more fragile sex.” How have you come to this conclusion?

A: Males are more vulnerable to maternal stresses and pollution in utero — female preemies are almost twice as likely to survive as male preemies. Boys are twice as likely to have attention problems, four times as likely to have language or reading disabilities, and ten times as likely to have Asperger syndrome. Males are more susceptible to almost all chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, liver disease and AIDS. They have much shorter life spans.

They are more aggressive and take more risks, which is one reason why there are more male prisoners (the ratio of male to female prisoners is 10 to 1) and male suicides. Victims of work and school violence are 93 percent male. Men catch postsurgical infections more than women do, and 70 percent of them die from this peculiar vulnerability (compared to 30 percent of women). If this is not a picture of fragility, I don’t know what is.

Q: Why are women less likely than men to be criminals, killers and geniuses?

A: Women are also less likely to be Scrabble and poker champions. I think this has to do with testosterone and the competitive drive during early adulthood, which makes the average male trajectory look different from the average female trajectory. Also, males are statistically more variable than females, which means that there are more extreme men than extreme women. This affects both ends of the distribution, not only the number of male geniuses (there are precious few of either sex), but also the fact that most people with severe intellectual handicaps (IQs less than 70) are male.

Q: Why is it that girls outperform boys in the classroom, but are ultimately outnumbered in fields like corporate law, politics and engineering? Who or what is at “fault”?

A: Fault and blame are words I avoid. There are multiple causes for these ratios, none of which aims to exclude women, and there does not seem to be any malicious intent. The first two professions function under “winner-takes-all” models, meaning that the person who gets the most votes, the most high-flying clients or who clocks the most hours, wins. Everyone else is left in the dust.

Fewer women than men — I would say perhaps 20 percent of women — are interested in giving up all their time, their privacy and their family life, to win big in politics, especially given that after all the stumping and hard work, one can be publicly humiliated and left with nothing (Hillary Clinton is part of that exceptional 20 percent — and it’s doubtful she would have run earlier in her career).

Another reason is that the majority of women prefer people- or living organism-oriented (and not thing-oriented) careers. Thus, they are more likely to veer toward medicine and biology than they are to physics and engineering, if they had their druthers.

Finally, many work environments, and law is one of them, are designed to fit the male career trajectory. I call this the Vanilla Male model — which refers to the fact that we often assume that women are just versions of men and will want exactly what men want.

Q: Why do women often end up in lower-paying careers than men, even if their intellectual potential is equivalent? You found that 1 in 3 women with MBAs, for example, choose not to work full-time. (This is compared with 1 in 20 men.) Why is this?

A: There is more than one reason for this preference, including the fact that many studies show that the majority of women value flexibility, autonomy and a job with a social purpose above earning the highest salary or scoring the highest status position.

Surveys indicate that women, and especially highly educated women, are more likely to be motivated by a job’s intrinsic purpose than by extrinsic rewards. This is one reason why most of the nonprofit and even the volunteer health work force is female (the figures are 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively). In addition, women often opt in and out of the work force, or work part-time when their children are young. Due to this scattershot, less single-minded approach, their overall earnings take a hit.

Having different career goals, on average, is a negative if the only lens is the total amount of money earned at the end of the day. But when one looks at other factors, such as women’s physical and mental health and their social networks, all of which affect their longevity and happiness, according to the latest research, the picture is a lot rosier. The majority of women have multiple goals in life, and don’t just set out to snag the biggest monetary prize when they plan their careers.

Q: Are women disadvantaged in the workplace? If so, why or why not? What can be done to make male-female roles more equivalent?

A: The people-oriented service jobs that interest many women are often not as well-paid as “male typical” jobs that require the same level of education.

For example, teachers, social workers and nurses are likely to earn less than computer and sound technicians. Even plumbers, electricians or telephone line repairmen, who often don’t have university degrees, are paid more than elementary school teachers and librarians.

And within disciplines, what women choose often earns them lower salaries than what men choose. For example, many female medical students veer toward specialties such as family medicine and pediatrics. These choices — which involve more “interaction” and are more people-oriented, than say, pathology or radiology — command lower salaries. If we want women to earn more, then we have to examine salary scales for the people and community based jobs that many women prefer. Instead of pushing women to choose careers that often don’t interest them (e.g., computer science), we might have better success paying women more for the work that many women really enjoy, and at which they often excel.

Other disadvantages for women in the workplace persist due to a reluctance to acknowledge that fundamental sex differences exist. For example, it’s well-known that women negotiate differently, and are likely to ask for less money than men do in salary discussions. By turning a blind eye to such sex differences and treating women as if they were men, unfair pay inequities persist.

Image: Author Susan Pinker
Courtesy of Scribner
Author Susan Pinker

Q: Many people would argue that motherhood puts women at a disadvantage professionally. Do you agree or disagree?

A: Where women are considered to be clones of men, and there are no specific allowances for motherhood, then yes, motherhood puts them at a disadvantage in the workplace.

Most women are not interested in working 12- to 14-hour days after their babies are born. Yet this is the model that is most highly rewarded in many workplaces, especially at the upper echelons. There is also the expectation that employees — male or female — will relocate at will or travel frequently, regardless of their responsibilities to their families, or their desire to spend time with them.

In addition, dedicated maternity leave is not often guaranteed in the American workplace. Where it is, women have just a few weeks off before they must return to work. Countries that don’t offer women time off to have babies, to nurse them and get to know them during that first vulnerable six to nine months after a baby is born, are likely to find a significant number of women quitting their jobs during the postpartum period.

Q: What's the takeaway of all this?

A: In the “The Sexual Paradox,” I hope to persuade the reader that the new evidence emerging from neuroscience and economics about fundamental sex differences is amazing, not scary. We are now starting to get a glimpse behind the curtain of the usually hidden psychological world.

Whether we use a telescope to see a lunar eclipse, or an MRI to see how human beings process feelings like empathy or revenge, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore what science tells us about the human mind. That said, scientific evidence and statistics never tell us what choices individuals should make, nor justify unfair practices or policies.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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