Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences

by Leonard Sax

Published by Doubleday

261 pages, 2005




Checking the Difference

Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke 


Are men smarter than women?

In Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Dr. Leonard Sax says it's not a question of aptitude but of learning styles predicated by innate, hard-wired differences in male and female brains. Harvard President Lawrence Summers, take note.

By adhering to the dogma of "social constructionism," the belief that the differences between boys and girls are derived from social expectations, not biology, parents have been encouraged to foster nurturing in boys by letting them play with dolls, and to allow girls to play with erector sets to improve their spatial relations skills. Education abides by similar gender-blind guidelines: boys and girls should be taught the same lessons at the same time in the same manner. It is a question of nature versus nurture, or so we've been told.

A family practitioner and psychologist, Sax is convinced that this gender-blind philosophy of child-rearing and education has been less than successful, citing such evidence as the dramatic drop in male academic performance and the increase in female alcohol abuse over the past 20 years. Instead of pretending sex differences don't exist, he says we should take advantage of them. Single-sex education is a major step in the right direction.

In private practice, Sax saw a number of second and third grade boys who had been referred for testing for Attention Deficit Disorder. He recalled a series of Penn State studies done during the 1950s and 1960s indicating that females hear better than males. Since most elementary school teachers are women, and the referred students were boys, Sax wondered whether anyone had considered placing the boys in front of the classroom. He learned that school administrators and teachers were unaware of gender differences in hearing.

Determined to write a book regarding gender differences, Sax began researching available literature on the topic of child development. He discovered that most books were based less on fact and more on their authors' personal beliefs or political agenda "... either to deny innate sex differences or use sex differences in child development as a justification for maintaining traditional sex roles." He decided to write a book based on actual research:

I made myself a promise .... Every statement I make about sex differences will be supported by good science in peer-reviewed journals.

True to his promise, Why Gender Matters is substantiated by a 45-page bibliography of documented scientific research. In addition to hearing ability, studies indicate dissimilarities in eye anatomy, suggesting that "girls are born prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects." Other research shows that different areas of the brain develop in a different sequence in boys and girls. For example, a two-year old boy is three times more likely than a girl to be able to build a bridge out of blocks, while a three-and-a-half year old girl can interpret facial expressions better than a five-year-old boy. All differences are larger and more important in childhood than in adulthood, Sax concludes.

Because of the hard-wired differences, Sax believes gender-blind education does more harm than good:

... gender-blind education has not ameliorated gender differences in important educational outcomes ... it has exacerbated them. A smaller proportion of boys now study ... advanced foreign languages, art and music, and a smaller proportion of girls study advanced math, computer science, and physics.

Research indicates single-sex education is more likely to break down gender stereotypes:

There is now very strong evidence that girls are more likely to take courses such as computer science and physics in girls-only schools ... boys in single sex schools are more than twice as likely to study art, music, foreign languages, and literature...

Why Gender Matters isn't restricted to a discussion of learning styles. Sax also addresses discipline, risk-taking, aggression, sex and drug use and shows how boys and girls react differently to similar situations

Sax presents a reader-friendly, persuasive argument, challenging many basic assumptions by interspersing hard data with numerous case studies. In the end, Why Gender Matters is confirmation of what many already knew:

There really is a difference. | April 2005


Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on