A recent study shows that male newborns vary in weight more than female newborns and that adult men vary more in physical and mental capabilities than women do.
Some of the data was based on blood samples and information about heights and weights of over 2,700 Nordic adults. This data was analysed statistically.
Researchers at the University of Oslo (UiO), led by Anne-Catherine Lehre, speculate whether this disparity in scope could represent a fundamental difference between the sexes.
A mix of biological and social conditions?
But Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, professor at the Centre for Gender Research Groups and a leader of a research group at the Centre for at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, is sceptical.
“The fact that men display wider variations in most biological and psychological valuations has been known for a long time. The pertinent question is how much this can explain differences in for instance study habits and learning results, and the degrees to which this is a matter of biological potential, with psychological and social factors, or whether it is an intricate mix.”
“As regards the individual this is of course always a matter of a mix. But it’s a new ball game when you talk about average gender differences. Statistical gender differences do not necessarily have a basis in biology.
More than biology
According to the UiO study the wider array of variations among men also applies to their grades at the university level.
But Bjerrum says that the road to good marks at school, or for that matter to becoming a professor, relate to much more than a person’s biological potential.
“For instance this is an issue of whether there are educational opportunities, job opportunities, whether the person is motivated or if gender-related stereotyping is a factor among those who are evaluating or employing the individual.
“In other words, if you look at men as a total group those with the greatest potential for math are not necessarily the ones who become professors in mathematics. It’s highly probable that math professors have an above average aptitude for mathematical thinking, but other issues also play a role.”
Disparity in demands and characteristics
The researchers behind the UiO study conclude that women may have benefited more than men from a reform in Norwegian education systems implemented in 2003, because the change had the most impact on students around the middle of the grading scale.
But Bjerrum thinks it is important to view school reforms and teaching methods in a wider, social context.
“When we now see that girls do better than boys at school, this is probably because planning, responsibility for one’s own progress, communication and teamwork and work in groups has been given more priority.
“However, these changes in pedagogic demands are not incidental, or as the media often suggests, that schools have become feminized – these changes were initiated because such competence is currently in demand in the job market.”
She points out that the matter of who succeeds is dependent upon the nature of the demands.
“Since this is something that varies historically, the biological potential of an individual – if indeed we could isolate it – will have different values according to changing social contexts,” she concludes.