After a lengthy and unwarranted disclaimer that his work isn't "sexist" [whatever that is], Baron-Cohen surveys the foundations of male and female minds. With a long clinical and teaching career, supported by an immense list of studies, he concludes that, in general, there are indeed "essential differences" in cognitive makeup between human genders. While there is a spectrum of characteristics, certain general frameworks exist attributable to men and women. For ease of analysis, he suggests that women are more empathic ["E" personalities] while men are more systematic ["S" personalities]. Each, he insists, has their role, with most people placed well within a median between extremes. The trends, however, are clear.
In a chatty style he likely uses speaking with patients, Baron-Cohen shows that women's empathic tendencies give them the power to quickly assess others' emotional states. Women more readily identify feelings in others, respond appropriately when sympathy is required and "reach out" in dealing with people. He stresses that this "intuitive sense" among women is almost universal and is rightfully well-regarded by all cultures. Men, on the other hand, operate under the need to understand "systems", organized conditions, mechanics, technology and are thus driven to know "how things work". This urge leads them away from the intimacy women have with others and, in the more extreme cases, are likely to become "loners". The most outstanding examples are those suffering from autism which is overwhelmingly a male condition.
Baron-Cohen has spent years studying autism, offering a range of examples. It may appear amusing that a five-year-old boy may be capable of memorizing dozens of car registrations and explain which car belongs to which house, but there are other factors to consider. Such boys grow into men who cannot readily converse, directly or over the telephone. They become the butt of teasing or hostility at their "withdrawn" state. If lacking compensation in other areas, such as a vocation that allows them to apply a narrow focus to tasks, they risk ostracism from society. Baron-Cohen offers an exceptional case of a mathematician whose genius brought him high awards, but who may fail to keep a lunch date due to some distraction. These are real problems affecting real people. Some of them may be your neighbours. One of them might even, unknowingly, be you.
This book challenges much misled thinking that has permeated gender studies over the past generation. Gender differences in outlook appear within a day of birth. Newborns shown a photograph of a face, or an object composed of facial elements resulted in girls preferring the face while the boys tended to select the object. This early division Baron-Cohen thinks may result from the testosterone surge baby boys undergo in the womb. "Maleness" and brain development are interlocked and continue to manifest with development. Baby girls, on the other hand, follow a different, parallel path. They appear to respond to distress in other people more readily than do boys. They will make eye contact with others more readily. The pattern continues through life, although at differing levels with individuals. Baron-Cohen stresses these differences don't represent "better" or "worse" values. Human males and females are overall equally intelligent. That intelligence is expressed in different ways. More to the point, men and women have both E and S traits, individually manifest over a wide spectrum. Extremes are few, but he notes extreme Es are more socially comfortable and acceptable than the autistic extreme S personalities.
Baron-Cohen doesn't limit himself to the results of clinical studies and calling for more research. He is keen to have readers begin to rethink how society should deal with those suffering from autism [Asperger's Syndrome]. He calls for a greater tolerance for "coldness" or "lack of sympathy". Self assessment is a good place to start building that tolerance. As a help to readers, a series of comprehensive tests is provided as Appendices. Take the tests and judge for yourself. But first, read the book to understand the issues involved. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]