On a gray day in mid-January of 2005, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, suggested that innate differences between the male and female brain might be one factor underlying the relative scarcity of women in science fields. His remarks reignited a debate that has been smoldering for a century, ever since some scientists sizing up the brains of both sexes began using their main finding—that female brains tend to be smaller—to bolster the view that women are intellectually inferior to men.
To date, no one has uncovered any evidence that anatomical disparities might render women incapable of achieving academic distinction in math, physics or engineering [see box on page 11]. And the brains of men and women have been shown to be quite clearly similar in many ways. Nevertheless, over the past decade or so investigators have documented an astonishing array of structural, chemical and functional variations in the brains of males and females.
These inequities are not just interesting idiosyncrasies that might explain why more men than women enjoy the Three Stooges. They raise the possibility that we might need to develop sex-specific treatments for a host of conditions, including depression, addiction, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, the differences imply that researchers exploring the structure and function of the brain must take into account the sex of their subjects when analyzing their data—and include both women and men in future studies or risk obtaining misleading results.