I recently spent a weekend in Grenoble with one of my best French friends.
We were chuckling over breakfast about the time we went hiking in the Belledonne. We started an English lesson half-way through the walk, and my friend (who was map-reading) was concentrating so hard on the ship/sheep pronunciation conundrum that we got lost (yep, in translation).
When her man heard us reminiscing he gave a gaullic shrug over his bowl of cold chocolate milk (cold. I will never understand how some French people mix cocoa into room-temperature UHT milk and still claim culinary superiority over the British).
‘C’est normal,’ he said. ‘Les femmes n’ont pas le sens de l’orientation.’
He paused, bowl at his lips, as we glared at him over the table. My friend (being French) has the icy-stare thing down much better than I do, so he was suitably scared (of her, at least).
But I have to say, it’s not the first time I’ve been told that my genetic makeup (not the Boots N°7 kind) explains why I am bound to end up getting lost.
Or to be a rubbish driver.
Or, on the upside, to multitask like there’s nothing to it.
There are of course many other weird and wonderful gendered clichés out there: cleverly depicted recently by designer Yang Liu.
But since your attention will start to wonder if I get carried away (ô fickle reader!) let’s focus on those three old chestnuts: direction, driving, and multitasking.
What’s fact, and what’s fiction?
Do men have an inbuilt GPS?
Absolutely, as well as being good with numbers, Imax films, and moving their limbs, or so say the Columbia University anthropologists:
Men are better in spatial coordination and have a better sense of direction (usually!). They excel in math and are great at interpreting three-dimensional objects. They have a better hand-eye coordination and more precise control of large muscle movement.
Spot the reassuring “(usually!)” in the middle of an academic paragraph?
Well, soyez tranquilles: the claim above is backed by some astounding (said the Gruffalo) research from MIT:
(…) Women whose ring finger is shorter than their index finger are much more likely to rely on satellite navigation technology to find their way round, whereas women whose ring fingers are of similar height to their index finger are better at navigation.
Researchers explain that finger length reflects exposure to different level of hormones in the womb, explaining why men tend to have long ring fingers because they were exposed greater levels of testosterone in the developmental stage and women tend to have ring and index fingers that are similar in length.
Aha, I caught you surreptitiously checking!
Well? Where does your index/ring-finger ratio come out?
Size-does-matter aside, I did manage to find something sensible sounding, in the form of this article. It explains that getting from A>B actually depends on your C: your entorhinal cortex, the part of the brain that handles navigation.
(Teapoint conversation challenge for Monday morning – see if you can work it in: How was your weekend? Good, thanks, although my entorhinal cortex played up, and I got lost coming home from the pub Friday night. You?)
Anyway. It appears a) both women and men are endowed with this particular C-spot; and b) there is no evidence to show it works better in men than women, or vice versa.
The article does suggest however that women are less confident about trusting their inner entorhinal cortex, and would rather refer to a map.
(My guess is that that goes back to Gretel’s bad experience. Hansel’s breadcrumb trail: not so reliable).
2. Driving Miss Daisy
Studies generally concur that women are safer drivers. They are less aggressive on the road, take fewer risks, and therefore cause fewer accidents. Indeed many EU insurance companies used to offer lower premiums for female drivers (until struck down as sexist, ho!, by the ECJ in 2012).
But safer grates on me. Safer does equate to being skillful. It simply suggests women are mindful of other roadusers, whereas men (evidently due to all that testosterone) cannot help but rev their Vauxhall Astras at the traffic lights as if they were extras in Fast and Furious.
(Testosterone, que dalle. Give ME a Maserati and an Autobahn, and I would be GOD).
Anyway. We won’t reach agreement about what constitutes a good or bad driver here. What IS interesting however is that female drivers consistently underestimate their own driving skills.
Why is that?
- Is it because it’s only comparatively recently that women have been able to get behind the wheel (whenever you’re ready, Saudi Arabia!)?
- Is it because even though there are now as many, or even more, female drivers on the road, driving is still consistently portrayed as a masculine occupation?
- Or is it because if you’re told that you cannot drive as well as a man, you’ll be inclined to let guys drive, and therefore get less practice, and feel less confident, and, and, oh: spot the vicious circle?
3. Too much to (multit)ask?
I think men quite like this one. Because it’s actually quite convenient for guys to encourage the assumption that they are incapable of, say, answering a question and watching TV at the same time.
(My suspicion also stems from the way menfolk often disappear to the loo clutching a newspaper: that suggests a definite ability to do two things at once.)
As for the science: well, bof.
One oft-quoted study from 2013 claims that male and female brains are “hardwired” differently: this, apparently, would explain the multitasking point (and every other gender cliché). This “scientific evidence” was picked up frenziedly by the likes of the Daily Mail, but soon after the study was knocked for making such simplistic assumptions about anatomical differences and behaviour trends (i.e. all nature, no nurture).
Because clearly the impact of “nuture” (our upbringing, our learning-by-doing, our assumptions of our own and others’ abilities) is undeniable (if admittedly unmeasurable), as the Guardian’s Science Editor, Robin McKie, summarises:
“The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be. Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue.”
I would agree with that.
But then, great minds think alike …