A lot of men and women will watch the Super Bowl next week, some of them together. It's a perfect opportunity to use humans as lab mice, which after all is what sports are really good for. While the game's on, ask yourselves this question: Do men and women see games differently, and if so, does this mean they have different innate abilities?
The president of Harvard asked a question sort of like this recently, for which he was beaten about the head and shoulders with a lot of handbags. Larry Summers was addressing the question of why women are underrepresented in the upper ranks of science and engineering, when he wondered aloud if one of several possible factors might be that they are genetically different in their aptitudes. I'm going to risk being smacked with the same handbags, when I tell the following story.
Sportscaster Larry Merchant once took a date to a Philadelphia Eagles game. As the couple sat in the stands waiting for the game to begin on a beautiful fall afternoon, the Eagles ran on the field, in their dazzling green and white uniforms. His date regarded the players as they jogged through their pregame exercises in unison.
"Dandelions," she said.
"No, Love, the Eagles and the Steelers," he said.
"Dandelions," she said again. "Look. They look like dandelions, running around, blowing in the wind."
Merchant gazed at the field. He saw the tiny figures of the Eagles in their greens, and the Steelers in their yellows, dancing across the dappled grass. She was right, he decided. They looked like dandelions.
Now, you can do one of two things with that story. You can find it comical and interesting, or you can find it threatening. If you're threatened by it, it's probably because you're worried it suggests women have an inferior understanding of football.
But what if we simply watch different things? A few years ago I raised this question with Joe Gibbs. "Women appreciate the game," Gibbs told me, "but they see it differently."
It's a fact that women are now enjoying games in almost the same numbers as men. What's less clear is whether we are having the same experience while we watch. There are lots of reasons why women would observe games differently and feel differently about them. Women of a certain generation view sports from the outside in, intellectually and emotionally, because they were forced to watch them from the periphery of male-only enclaves. For another generation of women, sports may be about subversion, a conscious or unconscious rule-breaking experience that helps tear down old cultural constructs. For still others perhaps it's about the acquisition of power and credibility. And for others maybe it's simply a gratifying escape. You could even say the progression of female sports observance, over time, has gone from self-defense to self-satisfaction.
But it's also perfectly reasonable to ask whether pure genetics may have a role.
In viewing the Super Bowl, a contest that is partly about spatial tasks, and about aggression, keep in mind some of the following:
Gender is the single greatest difference in the human species, much bigger than race. MIT biologists have found that men and women differ genetically by 1 to 2 percent -- the same amount of genetic difference that separates humans from chimpanzees.
Studies show women's brains are smaller, but more symmetrical. They also tend to have a larger corpus callosum, the structure that enables communication between the two brain hemispheres.