Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences
By Leonard Sax, MD, PhD
320 pp | Doubleday | 2005 | ISBN 038551073X | $24.95 rrp

Anyone who has watched normal children at play will have noticed this: when a boy comes across a long smooth stick he very likely will raise it like a rifle, sight along it, and pretend to shoot at something. When a girl comes across the same stick she is far more likely to use it as a walking stick, draw with it in the dirt, or point, schoolteacher-fashion, at an imaginary blackboard. Less obvious to the casual observer of this boy and girl is the fact that she typically has more sensitive hearing than he, his vision can detect speed and direction of motion better than hers, and she is better at seeing color and texture. When lunchtime nears, he will use the part of his brain called the hippocampus, while she will use the part of her brain called the cerebral cortex, as they find their respective ways home.

Recent research in many different areas of scientific inquiry indicates that beyond the anatomy relevant to human reproduction, there are significant differences, biologically inborn, between boys and girls which affect dramatically how and when boys and girls learn, communicate their knowledge and feelings, respond to discipline, and take risks. Furthermore, these sex differences are larger and more important in childhood than they are in adulthood, not simply because boys and girls mature at different rates, but because the different areas of the brain actually develop in a different sequence in boys and girls. This significant disparity between the sexes in childhood has important implications for the concerned parent or the dedicated teacher.

In Why Gender Matters, Leonard Sax makes this argument convincingly, combining his own observations of these gender differences as a family practice physician with carefully documented evidence coming from what he calls “the emerging science of sex differences” – scientific studies from a wide variety of disciplines. It is a science driven to some extent by what has come to be seen as “the boy problem” in education – the subject of a recent Newsweek dossier. A prominent exponent is family therapist Michael Gurian, whose Gurian Institute has put 15,000 teachers through its seminars since 1997 with the aim of helping boys.

For his part Dr Sax claims that gender difference is one of the two great organizing principles in child development, and that, although each child is unique, “trying to understand a child without understanding the role of gender in child development is like trying to understand a child’s behavior without knowing the child’s age. He writes this book for both parents and teachers with the goal of helping them understand, protect, form, and educate their children more successfully to stand up to, and flourish in, a challenging and often dangerous culture.

Sax argues that these gender differences should not be translated into stereotypical gender roles for men and women. Rather, a knowledge of these differences can make it more likely for each gender to have success in all areas of human accomplishment. For example, studies show that the perceived danger of an activity makes this activity more, rather than less, enjoyable to boys, while girls find danger unappealing. Does this mean that we must accept the fact that boys will have more success in careers which involve risk? No, Sax would say, we should take pains to teach our girls to take many positive risks, and encourage them to see the good results that can follow. At the same time we should make sure that our boys, who do not need to be encouraged to take risks, have plenty of opportunities to experience danger in a responsible manner (as in contact sports or wilderness camping), so they are less inclined to seek it out in foolhardy or illegal activity.

Because of his findings Leonard Sax is a strong advocate of single sex education whenever possible; he is in fact the founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education in the United States. When coed education is the reality, he insists that boys and girls should not be treated uniformly. He claims, for example, that the classroom behavior which sends many boys to his medical practice for an ADHD diagnosis can be reduced or eliminated by simply moving the boys to the front of the classroom where they can hear the teacher. He gives practical ideas to parents and teachers for how to adapt their teaching and disciplinary methods to each gender in order better to serve both boys and girls.

Because Sax is making a general argument and drawing his evidence from such a wide variety of disciplines and academic publications, it is hard to have confidence in the soundness of every individual study or finding he cites. When writing this review I had a vigorous conversation via e-mail with my audiologist sister about his claims – inaccurate or overstated in her opinion – for gender difference in hearing. To his credit, however, his sources are well documented, giving the reader every opportunity to dig deeper and decide for himself.

Dia Boyle, a graduate of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, writes from the American midwest. With husband John she is raising two sons and one daughter.