Gifted to be a woman

In the introduction to her book ‘The Hormone Cure’, Sara Gottfried, a hormone expert and Harvard-educated physician-scientist, speaks about what she calls ‘The Unfair Truth’, the fact that women are much more vulnerable to hormonal imbalance than men; e.g., an underactive thyroid affects women up to fifteen times more than men, and women feel more stressed than men.

Contrast this to the title (but not necessarily the content) of my study unit ‘Gifted by Nature: The Science of Being a Woman’ that is part of the University of Malta’s Programme for Liberal Arts and Sciences. The idea behind this study unit is that women have been gifted by nature with some unique talents that enable them to solve problems, offer solutions, and bring about change, and that it is through an awareness of our female nature and the tools we have been given over evolutionary time that we can be empowered to participate with liberty in modern society. The core premise here is that being a woman is not about being the same as a man, but having a mind of your own, a thought that is borrowed with gratitude from the title of the book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’ by the great Anne Campbell, British academic specialising in evolutionary psychology.

Whenever I start to deliver a new training course, I prepare both students and myself for the excitement that comes along with the experimental nature of something that is fresh out of the oven. What follows is fascinating; the result of an open conversation in which everyone feels free to share and challenge what is being said. One such debate centred around the title, with some asking whether the term ‘gifted’ was in the context of a comparison with men, and whether this in turn implied that women had some sort of advantage in solving everyday problems including situations where it is mainly an issue of competition with males.

This question, transferable from week to week, set a few thinking wheels in motion. From a biased point of view, arguing from the perspective of either men or women, this might well be the case, but from a more neutral position, which is why we choose evolutionary theory as our ground, it doesn’t make sense to compare. When we speak about human nature, what we are talking about, in reality, are two human natures, one male, and one female, a distinction with good evolutionary reasons and clear evolutionary consequences (Matt Ridley, 1993, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature). The point, then, is not whether the tools you have been given are better or more high-tech, the point is whether they are suited for the task at hand, and that since men and women have faced different problems (this is especially true when it comes to reproduction rather than survival), they have also evolved different adaptations. This is the basis of sex differences.

With sex differences, you are either a fan, or an objector. In a recent episode of ‘The Psychology Podcast’ by cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, American sexologist Anne Fausto-Sterling made a call to end sex differences research. Fausto-Sterling is also the author of the 1993 paper ‘The Five Sexes: why male and female is not enough’. Precisely why I find knowledge on sex differences to be illuminating: it is one of the filters through which we can construct our individual identity as we sift through the many layers that make our core – our human nature; our biological sex; our gender; our personality traits; our desires, preferences, and ambitions, and so on and so forth.

It is also why I find that the research on sex differences provides a robust basis for exploring what it means to be a woman. When my new study unit Gifted was being advertised, I was hesitant to promote it to men, and not out of any sort of discrimination. With the material I had prepared, intended to explore different chapters of a female’s life journey – motherhood, work, mating, aggression, status, sexual conflict – through an evolutionary lens, I felt men would derive much less benefit than women and, in a sense, it would be a disservice to let them in.

Right now, I am in my 8th or 9th lecture, and I have a class of twelve females, one male. It is immense fun for all (or at least I hope it is the right mix of information and amusement). One reason for what I believe is the success of this course is that it provides the space and the opportunity for women of different ages and lifestyles to explore what it means to be a woman. Some of the chapters, like motherhood and sexual conflict, can be uncomfortable to say the least, and this is where the mutual respect for sensitivities is appreciated. In other instances, such as learning what women want in a mate, the atmosphere is lighter and many can relate to the stories on offer.

Back to our original argument on whether women are truly gifted. I say yes. We are gifted with wonderful adaptations that enable us to do marvellous things, like the superheroes. Of course, that might be the more romantic side of me speaking, because back on solid earth we all know that some of these adaptations are incredibly costly (consider, for example, that the placenta is referred to by obstetricians as a “ruthless parasitic organ existing solely for the maintenance and protection of the foetus, perhaps too often to the disregard of the maternal organism”; or that women’s fear of rape redesigns their internal psychology and motivates a suite of tactical and metabolically expensive actions for the sake of vigilance. I say we are gifted because these are the tools we need to navigate the complexities of life and to handle the things we cannot change, the gifts that grant us the freedom to lead our lives with the purpose we choose.

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