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He Saw, She Saw

• According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women have twice the incidence of anxiety disorders. Men have three times the incidence of learning disorders, autism and attention-deficit disorder. The NIMH says while the disparity is indirect evidence of hormonal, biological, social, cultural and developmental factors, "an increasing body of basic and clinical research also provides evidence of neurobiological sex differences."

So what if women are different? What does it mean if we are? The question of gender difference is not a popular question in sports, for the same reason it's not a popular one in academics. It provokes a lot of anxiety. If you say that women aren't totally like men in their abilities and their interests, it could be taken to mean that they are somehow inferior. Unequal. Equality, in the minds of some, has to mean utter equivalence.


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But to me the real trouble lies not in the possibility of difference, but in the anxiety over it that requires stamping out all useful discussion of it.

The other night I sat next to Mike Wilbon at the Washington Wizards game. While we watched Gilbert Arenas put up 33 points and nine assists, I started laughing and said, "Do you realize that you and I may not be watching the same game?"

Wilbon snorted. "Two people can watch a game and see different things," he said. "They don't have to be male and female to watch a game differently."

I paused to think.

"That," I said, "is an incredibly inconvenient observation."

But that's just the point when it comes to any consideration of gender difference. It's inconvenient, and that's what makes it interesting. There are no neat answers to these questions. Researchers are reluctant to draw any definite conclusions about gender, genetics and aptitudes, because as soon as they do, they are contradicted by the unpredictable behavior of . . . men and women. When it comes to behavior, you can find as many differences within the sexes as between them.

Here is my own pet theory, based on 20 years of writing about everything from figure skating to Super Bowls alongside predominately male colleagues. It could be that women possess a kind of left-handedness -- a slight intellectual, chemical, biological, social, and cultural difference, one that gives us our own set of aptitudes and perceptions, and that, like left-handedness in sports, is not an inferiority but can in fact be an asset, especially in fields dominated by "right-handers." And it could be that just now, we're learning to use those perceptions unselfconsciously and without anxiety.

Here is one last interesting scientific tidbit. "Brain research has indicated that experience," says the National Institute of Mental Health, "can modify brain structure and function."

That, too, is inconvenient -- but interesting. A lot more interesting than some lame idea of sameness.


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