Regina Saphier: Curb Your Testosterone!
Do Aspie Men Feel Less comfortable with Women?
If you are like me, you enjoy, lets say: classical music and well written US TV series as well… I mean you are not a snob, you have an open mind for the popular as well. If you know “The Big Bang Theory“, you know how awkward the nerdy science guys feel around women. I also like Star Trek, particularly “The Next Generation” and the “Voyager” seasons. In the futuristic “Voyager” story professional crew members enjoy gender equality, the captain is a woman (she takes command in over 300 years from now…) and everyone knows what their duty is. (I hope you appreciate the geeky female in me…) This is what I am going to talk about this time: men feeling awkward around women and how this will change in the future. If you don’t know these series, rest assured, the women who survive around the boys, the women who make it around men as equals are well equipped with tomboy features, it is not necessarily about how sexy a woman is. Ok, Seven of Nine is both smart and sexy, but she is also the most “Aspie” like female character in the “Voyager” series… you know, “Asperger’s Syndrome“, a neurological difference, that often comes with very high cognitive capacity and low social skills… Tuvok from Vulcan, the eternal believer in rationality and self control is probably more like male Aspies. In “The Big Bang Theory” Amy is the female Aspie, Sheldon is the male Aspie, and together they are the socially highly awkward “ShAmy”. Amy is typically much more aware of the social nuances compared to Sheldon, but even Amy experiences the social elements cognitively, not intuitively. It is not her social instinct that helps her, it is her cognitive skills, her powerful intellectual capacity. “The ShAmy” perfectly represents the differences between Aspie men and women and I keep believing based on my experiences with humans on this planet that this has to do with testosterone too (and with social expectations, and with the more effective corpus callosum in female brains, connecting the two hemispheres better, and with other structural differences, like men having more gray matter, causing them to be better at math, and women having more white matter, that makes them more skilled in social situations). Men and women come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of personalities and brains (with diverse hormonal, neurological, genetic and social profiles) in the world and we have to learn to live with that. I believe that cognitively powerful Aspies are key leaders of humanity, and sadly neurotypicals (people not on the Aspergers spectrum) find it really hard to understand them or accept them.
I am known for my interest in talented people with Aspergers (whatever it is), and I believe that many change-makers are part of the group… at the same time I keep thinking that the trouble is, many male Aspies feel really happy online, love technology and science, but have no social skills, particularly no abilities to connect with women (even Seven of Nine has to learn how to behave with men.. she is human, but having been a Borg Drone for too long did not help her social skills…). Some have social skills or are skilled at pretending and are obsessed with topics that fit the business world, banking and politics. I keep thinking that in fact women are not common in high leadership roles because Aspie men feel less comfortable with women (they are too demanding for them emotionally and in social terms), and because only one in four Aspies are women (or more specifically, four times more men get diagnosed because women are better at fitting in and pretending to be neurotypical… by the way this means that Aspie women often suffer in silence)… Women with Aspergers have equal or better social skills and empathy than neurotypical men (men without Aspergers)…
Here is a speaker from the second day of TED 2013: Mary Lou Jepsen, screen engineer. This is what I wrote about her talk (while as usual live blogging a TED conference). “She had a brain surgery many years ago. A key part of her brain was removed and she had to experiment with some powerful chemicals, hormones, in really small doses, and she felt how just a small amount of change impacted how she felt, who she was, her temper, her self, her intellect. This talk reminds me of a radio show on This American Life about testosterone. She is actually showing us technology that can tell what you see in your head. I have heard about this before, but now I must really face it, because it is coming…” What I did not emphasize in this quick summary of her talk (that actually contained two topics) is that she also explained how her hormonal imbalance changed her understanding of men. In fact she also explained, that it was impossible to recreate her original personality due to the delicate balance having been ruined by the surgery. But amid her drama she emerged with a much deeper understanding for men, because her new brain chemistry is now closer to the male hormonal mix. And in a men’s world, until the circumstances change, and leadership requirements expand to emotional intelligence, empathy and the like, today women like Mary Lou are more likely to make it professionally. This will hopefully change, but for now lets focus on the women who are most likely to find their ways into leadership positions in technology and business and meanwhile lets gradually change the definition and toolkit of leadership, for more women to be able to become high profile leaders.
Lets face it, there has to be a reason for the fact that even in Norway, where companies that were active on the stock market were forced to appoint 40% women onto their boards, this did not result in other entities suddenly or even slowly having 40% women at the top. So, I have to ask this controversial question: Is it possible that today, the natural thing would be to set a 25% – 30% goal for women in the highest positions and see what happens? I know that leadership skills can be developed, but for example it might be that women with Aspergers are more likely to become high profile leaders in politics, science, banking and in technology, and still the gender stereotypes hold them back. They don’t need to force themselves, leadership comes naturally to them, but it is not expected of them… They have to adjust to male behavior, while also must appear (pretend to be) neurotypical to be socially accepted. Now that is really confusing and draining.
In other fields women (not necessarily Aspies) are intelligent conformists, who are more likely to become successful leaders in education, community development, childcare, social services and the like. These women are less hindered by the stereotypes, especially when the prestige of their field is low (so men are less likely to compete for those positions and those women are more neurotypical, need less effort to appear “normal” to their environments).
I keep thinking that Aspergers and androgyny are linked, as are humor and androgyny…
There is an interesting marker that shows division between men and women, and that is humor. Men and women both prefer male humor. However, if you dig into the standup and entertainment world, you will find some hilariously funny women (often noticeably androgen types, many of them are lesbians). But wait, there are in fact fewer females in standup and that might be because: 1. women are expected to be less funny by both genders, and 2. because in fact humor has a lot to do with aggression and androgen hormones (like testosterone).
Here is a key and revealing idea for you to understand the problem with 50-50 male and female leadership: No matter how much you want the standup shows to consist of 50% funny males and 50% equally funny females, if the 50-50 audience just won’t laugh 50-50, you would not be successful at reaching your 50-50 goal. You can not force it. Also, low testosterone women will just never be as funny as low testosterone men. And when high testosterone women attempt to be aggressively funny, gender stereotypes make it less acceptable, even when they are really really funny. As in many fields women have to fight harder to be accepted, and that fight goes against the visceral reactions of people. Keep in mind that the normal female testosterone range is below 2 nmol/L and the normal male range starts above 10 nmol/L! And you don’t want to mess with people’s hormones, believe me!
So while I am arguing that society needs to do something about the testosterone dominance of men and of course gender stereotypes need to be removed as roadblocks of healthy human development, I am also suspicious about the 40% rule in Norway and the 50% expectations of social scientists and politicians. It is true that those companies did not go under with the 40% female leadership in Norway, of course they did not, but: did they become supersonic and viral examples? No.
Competitiveness is also driven by aggression and testosterone (while cooperation and empathy has more to do with the female sex hormones). Testosterone plays a role in: leadership, competitiveness, humor, aggression, sexuality, motivation, and so it looks like testosterone has a major role in entrepreneurship, science, politics and sports as well… It is interesting to note that in the show about Testosterone on NPR’s “This American Life” (beyond bringing us interesting human stories about the impact of testosterone) the studio team had their testosterone levels tested, and guess what, the only homosexual male in the group had the highest testosterone level among the male colleagues (and among the women a pregnant and not at all shy female editor). Now, the fact that testosterone drives our societies today, does not make this fact ok for eternity. In fact it is this recognition that makes it possible to change this by conscious analysis and decision making. If today’s leadership styles are running us into a deep canyon of darkness, perhaps we need to look at compassion, empathy, encouragement, vicariousness, and the like, that are not driven by testosterone, but are nevertheless important leadership skills and styles.
At the same time, I enjoy wit and humor, so please, don’t you assume that I have anything against testosterone. However, in a modern society its impact has to be balanced. I might say: Curb Your Testosterone!
While reading the New Yorker article about Peter Thiel, I kept thinking, here is a clearly Aspie man, with lack of emotional maturity running a lot of business shows in his own way… and at the end of the article I was reinforced, he knows.
As cognitively brilliant but emotionally infantile Peter Thiel (venture capitalist) put it: “You can say the whole Internet has something very escapist to it. You have all these Internet companies over the past decade, and the people who run them are sort of autistic. These mild cases of Asperger’s seem to be quite rampant. There’s no need for sales—the companies themselves are weirdly nonsocial in nature.” But, he added, “In a society where things are not great and a lot of stuff is fairly dysfunctional, that may actually be the thing where you can add the most value. You can say that’s an escapist impulse of sorts, or an anti-political impulse, but maybe it is also the best way you can actually help things …”” Peter, you are good with numbers, strategy, logic, but that is only half of the human tool kit… Like Peter Arvai of Prezi or Tim Cook of Apple, Peter Thiel of PayPal is also an openly gay entrepreneur (there are many gay entrepreneurs who don’t want to risk their positions) and surrounds himself mostly with equally autistic men who think that everything is and has to be “rational” (as if there is anything rational about our existence in the universe). He is the most typical example of the problem, why women can not be part of the highest leadership. It’s because Peter and his friends (a boy’s club) feel uncomfortable around women. It is their own limitations, their values that make it impossible for women to be part of the leadership elites in technology and in science R&D, and also the limiting and distorted social values that women can not be leaders in these fields. Trust me, they can be, only the people who are part of the game must recognize their own limitation and counterproductive rejection of “the other”, the female, the more “emotional”, the “complicated”, the perceived “irrational”, the connected, the socially often more adept, the ones with more empathy and consideration for others (not all women are like this, and of course there are men who are like this). If you are blind, it does not mean that there is no visible space around you. If you are blind to the values of women, it does not mean that women don’t have real value in your field at your level.
Open your mind’s eyes cognitively: Aspie men (as well as Aspie women) have the ability to somewhat successfully substitute for lack of empathy, social skills or emotional intelligence (note: not all aspies lack empathy, social skills and EI) by using their enormous cognitive capacity to understand their own shortcomings and recognize new layers of human reality. Yes, you can! Trust me, I know men like this and those men were able to learn. At the same time women also must learn to speak “the male language” to finally meet in the middle and to go from there together.
Update from March 15., 2014: If you think that men and women have an equal opportunity as entrepreneurs in society, you are at least ignorant. If I consider the fact that VC money is mostly controlled by men, and if I add the results of the new MIT/Wharton study: Does it mean that male venture capitalists unconsciously and overwhelmingly prefer to invest in very handsome men? Does it mean that latent or undisclosed or open male homosexuality governs VC investments? Does it mean that the majority of women have no chance of making it as entrepreneurs due to this bias when competing against men in front of male investors? Is this happening in other fields, like science or politics as well? Obviously it is.
Let me recommend more posts on my TED and my Coursera blogs as well (I am dealing with a range of different topics):
On “My Coursera Blog” about Coursera:
On My TED Blog about China, about our microbiomes and big data, and about the founder of TED:
I wrote more about Asperger’s and gender differences in my next blog post on My “Virtual Humanism” Blog: Elementary
And I also have a post in Hungarian with English audio that I recorded for English speakers to give you a summary of my post: (A Nők meg a “Startup” Ápolás Művészete) Women and the Art of Startup Maintenance
- Regina Saphier: Redefining Success and The Elite (virtualhumanism.wordpress.com)