Blaming Biology.

by Vicki Larson


There has been a lot of research lately that I’ve found particularly handy in coming to my defense when I’m forgetful or when I’m clearly acting “like a woman.”


It’s nice to be able to blame biology or my brain for whatever failings I may have.


But some recent writings have thrown a new wrinkle into the working mother issue. Bringing ancestral roots into modern-day arguments is always tricky, but I’m starting to wonder if we working women are going against our biology, thus wreaking havoc for future generations, or if men are just not evolving as fast as women are.


Of course, women have always worked; the only difference, notes Anne Campbell in ”A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women,” is that nowadays we typically have to leave our children to do so.


Yet some researchers are saying we just aren’t cut out for work the way men are. In his book “Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality,” Wayne State law professor Kingsley R. Browne suggests that the reason women don’t fare as well in the workplace as men do has to do with the different pressures we faced throughout our evolutionary history, which effects our temperaments and interests. Men are more interested in making money and achieving higher status (which, back in the cave-man days, assured them reproductive success) while women, whose reproductive success relied on our ability to mother, are less risk-taking, less status-seeking, and less aggressive and competitive.


Chalk it up to oxytocin, the hormone that drives us to care for our young, writes Montreal psychologist Susan Pinker in “The Sexual Paradox.” Women seek meaning and connection in our work; the same competition that boosts a man’s performance lowers ours.


And Sandra Witelson, the Canadian professor of psychiatry and neuroscience who analyzed Einstein’s brain, believes focusing on our career may not offer women as much pleasure as it does for men. “It may be that the way the female brain is wired — and maybe through the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens — that there is a pleasure and a reinforcement that one gets when one is care-taking. This may be something that is more developed, on average, in women than in men,” she says.


In truth, the most aggressive, competitive bosses I’ve had have been female, and now that I’m a divorced mom of two teens, I am extremely interested in making money, evolution be damned. But my choice to quit my full-time job and stay home with my two boys while I was married meant that I, like many other stay-at-home moms, didn’t take the risks and make the sacrifices that my former husband was willing to make to support our family. Now that I’m back in the workplace, I’m paying the price.


Still, other researchers are finding that our hormones and the way the female brain is wired may give us an edge in the workplace, or at least add a nice complement to the way men handle things, offering a holistic approach to decision-making and problem-solving, better multitasking, and a more collaborative, inclusive management style.


Yet it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t — work, that is.