Battle of anatomy: Male vs female brains

Why do women make better leaders, men better soldiers? Growing evidence in gender research explains the differential indicators in male and female minds.

Published: 10th July 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th July 2022 08:52 AM   |  A+A-


Image used for representational purposes only.

Angad watches the drop of milk fall with a plop on the dining table. The 12-year-old couldn’t care less. He finishes slurping his evening fix in seconds before racing off with his tennis racquet.  “Who’s going to mop off the spill?” yells Anoushka, his elder sister. “Nobody. It will dry out on its own,” he retorts, slamming the door shut. 

Such scenes routinely play out in homes across India, even the world, with some variations. Parents are often asked how different it is, bringing up a girl and a boy. The answer: it is radically different, like in Angad’s case whose indifference towards cleanliness and love for cars contrast with Anoushka’s books with pretty covers and fondness for sourdough crackers.

Anyone in two minds over neural circuits differing in boys and girls, men and women, isn’t alone. There is a difference in the wiring of the brain in both sexes. Which is the obvious reason why they react differently to stimuli. So, is the brain gendered?

Studying gender brain intelligence across familial, social, cultural and professional areas is a growing neuroscientific field worldwide. More is caught than is taught, and the results are mapped the world over. Note last week’s social media comments suggesting that Ranbir Kapoor should go to pick up wife Alia Bhatt from London and escort her back carefully to India since she is pregnant. Bhatt retorted indignantly, “Meanwhile in some people’s heads, we still live in some patriarchal world... FYI. Nothing has gotten delayed. No one needs to pick anyone up. I am a woman, not a parcel.” 

Thought and action in both sexes are computed and initiated by their brains differently. In the performance sphere, most studies conclude that women are better than men. A Pew Research study notes that they are more compassionate and adjustable. Women adapt their work schedules to suit the needs of their children and family members who require care. More women than men put in the double duty as the primary parent and a home guard in a typical Indian family scenario and hence experience ‘time poverty’.  

Their social competence and high emotional reactivity make them more empathetic than men who are more assertive, although this doesn’t mean there are no assertive women and empathetic men there are more single mothers than fathers. Empathy is why women take care of children leaving their men to be the primary breadwinner, usually. Women are better at multitasking and compassionate a working mother will get up early, and make breakfast and lunch for the family while simultaneously working on the PPT due at the morning conference. This could be because women are more organised and responsible in relationships. “I make tiffin for my grown-up sons, husband, and myself before I board the local train to work every morning,” says Rekha Shinde, a Mumbai medical professional. “I reach home by 9:30 pm, prepare dinner and all of us eat together.” It has been her silent routine for the past 25 years.

Women are also better at handling finances—they have an aversion to debt. A global survey by the Boston Consulting Group, between 2010 and 2015, noted that female private wealth grew from $34 trillion to $51 trillion. However, a survey by the Indian online wealth management platform, Kuvera, concludes that of every five investors in India, only one is a woman. Women save more and invest better. A consumer expenditure study notes that women are more price-conscious and are better at finding sales and deals. They are also more risk-averse and security-conscious than men; a NoBroker survey finds that around 70 percent of Indian women invest in real estate, mostly residential homes. A Kuvera survey reveals that women’s top financial priorities are retirement, owning a home, and children’s education. Another survey finds that 68 percent of millennial and GenX women manage their  own personal finances and participate in all family  financial decision-making. 

At the workplace, women attend the same board meetings, and report to the same offices as men, but are more open to sharing work-related problems with family. A University of Western Ontario study concludes that in spite of the glass ceiling, women outdo men in job interviews. Yet a major new study of working women conducted by and McKinsey & Co shows men get more—promotions, challenging assignments and access to the top bosses. Remember when Indra Nooyi rushed home at night to share the news of her appointment as the new PepsiCo president, and was told by her mother to fetch milk, since her husband was “tired”? “I want to achieve a work-life balance since I had kids late,” says Bhavna Singh, a Lucknow marketing professional.

“Even though my husband works from home, is extremely hands-on, and I have a supportive mother-in-law, I couldn’t bear passing up time with my young ones while blazing the work promotion circuit,” she confesses. She chose a less taxing job for less pay. “Maybe it is a mum-thing.” As workers, male candidates are more anxious than women who are more practical, seek social support from friends and colleagues and practice mock interviews with them. Men cope with anxiety by pretending it isn’t real and ignoring it. Surveys conclude that male recruiters are ‘lookists’ who base hiring decisions on a candidate’s appearance and personal style. Most of them will check out candidates’ photos before meeting them. Selfies posted on social media by applicants ­­­draw a negative response from men. Female employers pay more attention to the interviewee’s college degrees and references.

Male board members or CEOs are known to apply the “glass cliff” concept in desperate corporate situations—“glass cliff” is a situation where a senior female manager is put in charge to fix a company in trouble. Ironically, male bosses adopt it when the chances of success are dismal. Women are also better leaders and handle crises more efficiently, according to Harvard Business Review. A Gallup poll survey results show that women make better bosses being better listeners and communicators, perform better under pressure, and are more resilient and ethical. Companies with more women bosses deliver better financial results compared to companies led by more men. A case in point is Leena Nair, the Brit-Indian CEO of luxury major Chanel who landed profits in the first half of 2022 in a post-pandemic economy and amidst the Ukraine war, which has put the squeeze on Russian luxury shopping sprees. Shopping for votes is part of politics, but men and women exhibit different reasons for seeking public office. 

“Women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,” Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University told The New York Times; women want to effect tangible change while men choose politics as a career. Though politics and power have an equal eroding influence on personal values due to compromises, nearly all surveys judged women more harshly than men in a sex scandal or a corruption case. Opinion is divided on whether Nupur Sharma overstepped the line; two judges read her the riot act. Sharma has put up a brave face; biologically, women are provenly stronger. During the pandemic, more men died, because the female immune response is stronger, according to immunologists. Female bodies have two X chromosomes, while males have only one.

Hence, the X chromosome identifies and encodes virus proteins, thereby getting doubled in women. The pandemic also showed that women were more responsible during lockdowns—more females avoided malls while more men went to public recreational areas like bars and parks. Male behaviour relapsed to normal faster than women, the younger the quicker. Women focused by communicating more, both offering and seeking emotional support; they made fewer but longer phone calls. Countries led by women—Sanna Marin (PM Finland) and Jacinda Ardern (PM New Zealand) included—handled the Covid crisis better than their male counterparts worldwide. This could be because men tend to be risk-takers under stress while decision-making improved in women under pressure, as a study by Dutch neurobiologist Ruud van den Bos revealed. 

If women are better at calculating risks, men make better Math teachers as a study of schools in Punjab shows. At the elementary level, female teachers perform better in Science. “Boys overall react better with male teachers,” shares Roma Jaggia, a secondary school teacher in Mumbai for over two decades. “Even though male teachers may reprimand, penalise and be strict towards students, the boys like them more, and will participate more through inputs in class, and in overall performance. The girls share a better rapport with female teachers.” There is a big difference in the approach of the teachers. “Women are more concerned, aware, and sensitive towards the emotional eco-system in a student’s home if he or she is unable to perform well in studies,” says Jaggia.

Female students in the US prefer male professors over females because they connect credibility with the authority trope. The sense of domestic responsibility leads to women being the majority of teachers in Indian kindergarten and elementary schools; the timings make work-home balance convenient. Education is gender-stereotyped. A random poem in a Hindi book on shapes relates ‘round’ to rotis a mother makes, while a circular frame indicates papa’s spectacles. Says Dr Syeda Ruksheda, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Trellis Family Centre, Mumbai, “Stereotypes sustained over centuries are responsible for the bias, not a gendered brain.

We must base the education of young minds on their talents.” Sex role socialisation—the process of teaching both sexes to adhere to their characteristic social expectations—is perpetuated by society according to gender; which means grown-ups teach boys and girls to behave in the socially acceptable, gender-appropriate manner using different rewards and punishments. Adults decide on appropriate skill-learning and personal interests of sons and daughters differently. For example, girls and boys get different toys from their folks who determine their levels of independence. Inversely, 67 percent of boys get allowances for doing domestic chores, as opposed to 59 percent of girls.

 Socialisation studies prove that boys are rewarded more for displaying assertiveness and independence while girls are appreciated more for their ability to be passive and nurturing. Boys are also punished more for aggressive behaviour while girls are lauded for showing initiative. This said, a US medical study shows that fathers are happier people than mothers. They experience better life satisfaction, are more connected to others, and report more positive emotions and fewer daily problems. Men without children experience more depressive symptoms while mothers are worse off than women without offspring. Prachi Gangwai, the author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India, notes that Indian males are more accepting of their partner’s previous sexual history while simultaneously placing a premium on virginity.

Sex is a confusing topic in India where sexual slavery, familial, religious and feudal are an extant but undiscussed part of society. Hormones matter. “Men carry testosterone, making them more aggressive and dominant. It makes them more focused on being providers. Their sense of self-worth is based on their sense of achievement in work, activities and sports,” points out Dr Jalpa Bhuta, psychiatrist, Global Hospital, Mumbai. Edward O Laumann, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, found that the majority of adult American men under 60 think about sex at least once a day as opposed to about 25 percent of women. As men and women age, this reduces although men still fantasise about twice as often. Religious women are more sexually conservative than men and more influenced by their peer group on sex. Better educated women like to experiment in bed, unlike men. But values women express about activities like premarital sex tend to contradict their actual behaviour.

Coping strategies in bereavement, too, differ for men and women. Boys aren’t supposed to cry since it is culturally considered weak. Women process and ‘feel through’ the grief by talking about it to regain perspective. Widows deal with the loss of a spouse better than widowers, according to a study by Dr Caterina Trevisan, of the University of Padova; “these aspects may help to explain the lower risk of exhaustion seen in single women, who are likewise more socially integrated than single men, and consequently less exposed to frailty.” Women’s verbal centres are present in both hemispheres of their brain, while men have them in the left hemisphere alone. Moreover, women tend to link their verbal centres with emotions, memories, and feelings more than men. “The male way of coping with stress is to withdraw and be alone for some time. Women base their self-worth on intimacy and staying connected with loved ones. They need to talk about their emotions to feel better, and are unable to understand the male tendency to offer solutions to their problems, instead of just listening and understanding,” according to Dr Bhuta.

Most doctors believe that men and women are wired differently. Says Dr Bhuta, “Don’t you hear comments like ‘Men never ask for directions’, ‘Women keep on nagging,’ ‘He never listens,’ ‘The safest place to walk is in the middle of the road when a lady driver is at the wheel’? He is only explaining the frequent jeers and grouses heard at marital therapy sessions, where women complain that their partners are uncommunicative and withdraw when upset and switch on the TV to watch action films or cartoons, refusing to talk. “Men are reluctant to go for therapy; when they do, they comment on their partners’ incessant cavilling, a fetish for romcoms and so on,” she explains. She incidentally says women have genuine difficulty in differentiating right from left while driving. The right lobe of the brain responsible for empathy, communication, feelings, aesthetics, nurturing—is more dominant in females. The left lobe, which is responsible for logic, reasoning, spatial orientation and problem-solving, is better developed in men.

“Women have interhemispheric connectivity between the two parts of their cerebrum. The analytical and sequential reasoning modes of the left hemisphere liaise with the spatial, intuitive processing of information of the right hemisphere. This integration facilitates an analytic and intuitive nature in women. Men have intrahemispheric connectivity, which boosts execution skills and building and understanding systems, facilitating connectivity between perception and coordinated action,” adds Dr Bhuta, quoting a pivotal study by the University of Pennsylvania. Women possess more grey matter—cell bodies that allow human bodies to process information—than men. It is one of the gender paradoxes of the mind-body cortical connection—women employ more white matter, which connects processing centres, while men use more grey matter. The neural brain connection in women is stronger from side to side which promotes better intuitive thinking, analysing and reaching conclusions. Male brain connections run front to back thereby boosting perception and motor skills. Brain chemistry, too, is not the same for both sexes. The brains of men and women process neurochemicals differently. The North Western Medicine Journal points out that serotonin, the brain chemical linked to happiness and depression, is processed differently in women which could be a medical explanation for why they are more prone to anxiety and depression.

Explains Dr Ruksheda: “The brain differs like hair texture, from person to person. Understanding the difference between the brain and the mind is important. The former refers to neurology and the latter to behaviour. Secondly, the gendered roles in the environment where kids grow up and adults live in, wield great influence on their conduct. The amount of care, food, playtime, vaccination preference, and leeway to pick up skills like driving and so on vary in families and communities. Known names of successful women scientists are very few, not because they lacked aptitude, but the establishment decades ago wouldn’t allow many of them to publish papers and research in their own name.” The neurosexism bias is deep-rooted in India and other countries.

Says Anoushka Madan, a fashion communications student in Jodhpur, “It is disconcerting to observe that fathers are incapable of warming milk for themselves when they are unwell. I dislike social constructs and mindsets that nourish the sentiment, ‘boys will be boys’, and simultaneously force older girl siblings to take on parental roles for their younger siblings. Why? The brain was never intended to be different. We have made it so through years of defunct conditioning.”The myth that men are smarter than women because their brains are bigger is an old chestnut. Men have approximately  6.5 times the amount of grey matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men.

However Dr Hemant Joshi, neurophysician, Shalby Multispecialty Hospitals, Surat, thinks that “size discrepancies do not equate to any extent of sex-based difference in how the brain steers and coordinates bodily functions and behaviours in real life.” Based on the morphological difference between specific brain regions, what is the difference between the way the male and female brains function? “Emotional intelligence differs in both sexes—self-awareness in  interpersonal relationships, self-regard, and empathy are seen more in females,” says Dr Pavan Pai, Interventional Neurologist, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road, Mumbai. Neurological studies reveal that nearly all women perform far better than men in verbal abilities; except in using verbal analogies, strangely. Their reading comprehension and writing ability are consistently superior.

Their fine motor coordination and perceptual speed are faster. They are more successful at accessing long-term memories to suit currently relevant information. Men and women encode memories, feel emotion, recognise faces and objects, solve specific problems, and make decisions differently. Since the brain is in charge of cognition and behaviour, gender-related differences may arise from the brain’s gender-specific structure. The average male is adept at juggling stuff in the mind. Their visuospatial skills are better: lab experiments showed men being smarter at visualising and tracking moving objects and aiming projectiles—which probably makes them better suited to soldiers.

“But male gynaecologists have a higher empathy quotient as opposed to their female counterparts,” points out Dr Ashima Malik, Mumbai-based gynaecologist. Her elder brother Dr Rajiv Chabra, a senior gynaecologist and obstetrician as well, is a classic case in this respect. “He has the uncanny ability to draw out the problem from those who approach him, and even those who don’t, without much probing. Patients are able to connect with him instantly. He is extremely well-read, possesses charisma and displays remarkable people’s skills,” she confesses. Attributes specific to him considering both of them share the same gene pool.

Are there any significant differences based on sex alone? “The answer is no,” affirms cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon in her book, The Gendered Brain. To suggest otherwise is “neurofoolishness”. Her core message—is “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.” The sum of the sexes is that the women are left to shoulder more responsibility at home, work and on the personal front, and are cut less slack when they trip up. It has made their brains better and stronger across the gender vectors. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus. But it is men and women on Earth that are the problem.

Sex-role socialisation is perpetuated by society according to gender, which means grown-ups teach boys and girls to behave in a socially acceptable gender-appropriate manner using different rewards and punishments.

Women attend the same board meetings, and report to the same offices, but are more open to sharing 
work-related problems with family than men who are conditioned to be strong silent providers

During the pandemic, more men died than women, because women’s immune response to the virus is 
stronger, according to immunologists

Communication styles dictate containing tears for boys, as it was culturally considered to be a sign of weakness. Women have better availability of social relationships and general health, and they process and ‘feel through’ the grief by talking about it to regain perspective.

Parental alert

New research emerges every day, and over-digesting information could make you perpetuate stereotypes. Skip the tired cliches as you raise the young.  

Encourage your children to be expressive and own their emotions.

Expose them to different environments to enable them to discover their own areas of interest.

Evict your ego and be accepting of different sexual orientations.

Battle of the Brains
Male and female brains are more alike than you might expect. Here are some subtle differences and what they could mean for your health.

FEMALE BRAIN                                         
Stronger side-to-side connections
Optimised for intuitive thinking
More grey matter

Possible health impacts
✥ Twice as likely to have depression
✥ Twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s disease (in the US)
✥ Four times to develop multiple sclerosis
✥ More likely to have a stroke

While men classify and compartmentalise problems for solving individually, females display superb multi-pronged focus and are not able to categorise problems 

MALE BRAIN                                         
10% larger than the female brain
Stronger front-to-back connections
Optimised for motor skills

Possible health impacts
✥ More likely to develop alcohol dependence
✥ Three times more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder
✥ Four times more likely to have autism
✥ Twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease

Men turn to grey matter (info processing) to resolve issues for which women turn to white matter (mutual communication between brain components)

How the male and female brains react differently to the same situation

That Funny Scale

The brain’s mesolimbic reward centre is responsible for ‘rewarding feelings’ (like when you receive money! It’s also activated by humour.)

Women react more on seeing an extremely funny cartoon. They don’t expect cartoons to be as rewarding, unlike men. When a woman’s brain encounters the punch line, her reward centre lights up more compared to men. More gratification in response to new experiences. 

Money, Money, Money

There is pleasure in both giving and receiving. Does gender influence this?

In women, part of the brain shows a greater response when sharing money, while in men, the same structure displays more activity when they keep the cash for themselves, a study published in Nature Human Behaviour finds.

It’s All About Sex

While watching erotica…
✥ The conditions for women to become aroused are more complex. 
✥ Men prefer physical audio-visual stimulation.
✥ Women prefer the mood type. 

Get the Drift

The brain works via genes as much as it does through its neurons.

Our brain-based differences in behavioural characteristics and cognitive skills change across time, place 
and culture.

Each brain is unique.


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