Testosterone Damages Verbal Skill. Yet We Have Shakespeare



Penn State psychologists assert that career choice begins in utero, hinging on exposure to sex hormones in the womb.

Since testosterone damages both verbal and social skills, it simply makes sense that women would seek people-oriented jobs, while testosterone-soaked males would veer toward non-people pursuits like the hard sciences, right? 

Indeed, the psychologists found that girls exposed to elevated levels of testosterone in utero (CAH individuals) were more likely to express masculine interests.

But as Bryan Lowder over at Slate’s XX Factor, points out, you can’t exclude nurture’s effects since girls who exhibit more biologically masculine characteristics might be treated in more masculine ways.

Thinking more on biological determinism, many think men are wired to excel in math – and more American males do score at the very top on standardized tests. But the difference disappears among Japanese women and men. In Iceland the pattern reverses, with women achieving the highest scores. Culture is clearly in play.

Moving to spatial skills, men are again thought superior. But what if men and women who had never before seen puzzles were asked to put them together? Turns out that in one patrilinealcommunity tribal men were 36% faster than the women. But among those living in a matrilineal tribe, women and men finished in a dead heat.

Or, Larry Summers famously proposed that females trailed males in making tenure as Harvard science professors, in part because men are better wired for science. Yet in 2011 girls swept the Google Science Fair.

Factors like roles, internalization and discrimination can affect success outcomes. But brains may even structure differently because girls and boys are treated in different ways. Stanford biologist, Joan Roughgarden, says the discovery that the brain’s structure and function changes in response to our experiences revolutionized neuroscience:

It’s not hard to believe that differences between the brains of male and female adults have nothing to do with genes or the Y chromosome but may be the biological expression of different social settings.

Biology is often used to justify the status quo or to discriminate. I suspect we make too much of it.

Testosterone in utero is said to have damaging effects on social skills. Yet we have Bill Clinton.

Testosterone in utero is said to have damaging effects on verbal skills. Yet we have Shakespeare. And his career choice.

If scientists had found that estrogen, and not testosterone, damaged verbal ability, we’d all hear that this is why we have no “women Shakespeares.”

Men have historically had the opportunity to demonstrate that they “can” even if biology suggests they “can’t” (or not as well). Women have not been so lucky.

Ms. Magazine reposted this piece on their blog October 3, 2011
This is a rerun. I’m on vacation.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 11, 2015, in women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. hmmm, this is something to consider in a future novel…

  2. One of the best blog post titles ever! I can’t speak from the scientific perspective of course, but in literature, there have often been studies, formally and informally, about women’s literary output, and how their lifestyles informed their writing. One thing I find interesting is how the simple act of changing a female writer’s name to male in publication (like the Brontes, George Eliot, and most recently, even J.K. Rowling) makes such a huge difference to how their work gets received. Because publishers and critics have always been, and still very much are, male, there is still a separate lens with which they view a woman’s work, as opposed to a neutral, objective one for a man’s. Even in what would be described as a soft skill (and as tests have often proved, women have greater linguistic abilities and emotional comprehension than men), there is still a certain level of “testosterone” driven literary style to be expected. It is more astonishing with J.K. Rowling than any of the other female authors in history, because Rowling is a contemporary author in a society that is expected to ignore such perceptions. She had to call herself J.K. because she was writing books about a “boy” wizard. She writes a novel for adults after being a well-established female author, but is heavily criticized. Then, she writes a crime novel with the pen name Robert Galbraith, and suddenly people are celebrating this exciting new male author. Even today, critics and publishers still try to determine what is acceptable male and female writing, which is a shame.

    • It’s so ironic that testosterone damages verbal skills and yet our stereotypes go against female writers! Good thing they didn’t find out that estrogen damages verbal skills or that would be the excuse to exclude women.

  3. Intriguing post. Makes me wonder at cultural lens through which whoever conducted that brain study analyzed and assessed the findings. Culture for sure has a part- I suck at sports but I suspect part of it was cuz I was told as a young girl that feminine girls don’t do sports. I bet if I’d been told something different I’d have had a different experience.

    • We often oversimplify by assigning biology as “Cause.” And women have been told that they are not good enough because of their biology for years. And yet when we find that testosterone harms verbal skills, we somehow manage to refrain from saying that men just aren’t as good as women when it comes to reading and writing, and could never be. But that’s because we know better than to oversimplify — due to a history that has allowed man plenty of opportunities to show off their writing skills.

  4. Learnt a few things from this post…. a nice read as always… 🙂

  5. How about “men on average are taller than women”, can anyone argue with that?
    Is it biological or social constructed?
    Testosterone does affect the human body. Just take a look at bodybuilders.

    • I’m going to copy and paste something I wrote to someone else on a different topic:

      On the one side you have those who are looking to whether you can predict whether someone is male or female based on a variety of traits. And you rarely can. About the only exception is a physical characteristic like strength. That suggest that you can’t simply say man or one way and women or another, except in rare instances.

      On the other side you have people who are asking a different question. Are there large average differences between women and men? And there often are. But that doesn’t mean it’s biologically-based. Stereotypes create social patterns because people try to conform to expectations. So men will try be more likely to try to have sex with as many women as possible whereas women will try to keep their numbers down. And that creates a difference in how much sex you want. Or, it’s part of the female role to be empathetic and so women are more likely to take that on and conform to the role. But again, that doesn’t mean that the difference is biologically-based. It doesn’t mean that it’s a female trait (sex wise). Socialization will create different sorts of human beings. And yet most of the time you can’t predict whether someone is male or female based on any particular trait.

    • Of course testosterone affects the body. There are certain effects testosterone has that make it easy to predict whether someone is male or female: physical strength, whether a person has a penis, whether they have a uterus or fallopian tubes or ovaries, etc. whether they have large amounts of facial hair, creating the ability to grow a beard.

      But there are very few things that you can predict about someone just because you know they have high levels of testosterone.

      Is it important to you to believe that men are handicapped in verbal skills because of testosterone?

      And do you actually believe that this is true? Even with Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Longfellow and Philip Roth …

      If roles were reversed – if we had found that estrogen damaged verbal skills we would probably use that as the reason why we have no female Shakespeare’s. And yet what we have is the exact reverse: testosterone damages verbal skills, and yet we have Shakespeare, et al.

      So we know that there is no reason to limit men from doing work that involves verbal skills. And yet if it were the reverse, as I said, we would use the difference in hormones as an excuse to exclude women from certain work and to explain their so-called “inferiority.”

      What we can learn from this is that while testosterone does create certain physical differences, it doesn’t make that much difference with many traits. Even though testosterone does damage verbal skills, you can still be a man and be a pretty amazing writer.

      • You take an extreme case like Shakespeare to prove that can have verbal.skills. Sure they can but on average women have better verbal skills.
        There are some women who are over 6’8″, does that mean that women are taller than men? Some are, but on average men are taller.

      • You are missing my point.

        My point is that biological differences have been historically used to keep women out of certain fields. Or would be used to say that women don’t have the possibility of being a Shakespeare – if the data has been reversed. Just trying to show how ridiculous it is to think that biological differences mean so much. We think it means more than it does.

    • Most body builders use synthetic steroids and HGH (human growth hormone). It is not the testosterone at all. What these synthetic anabolic steroids do is increase free testosterone.
      But having high testosterone levels will NOT give you a rock solid body. A high libido? Yes…I am 54 and my total testosterone level is near 800…Max is 1200 ng/dL.
      Lastly, the new synthetic testosterone (AndroGel) is know to have lots of negative side effects (shrinkage of scrotum, high blood pressure, lower HDL/good cholesterol level, etc).

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