Why Some Men, Like Women, Cannot Read Maps Too

Anti_Stigmatization2.jpgI never quite got around to write the sequel to Barbara and Allan Pease’s evocative work (1), although I had figured out a nice name for it, “Why men don’t use makeup, and women can’t Sumo wrestle.” Not to make fun of the genetic determinists who study gender differences, but to drive home the whole nature-nurture point on this issue: men and women have evolved to be different. But not in its restricted Darwinian sense, but in the current expanded evolutionary contexts as well — social, psychological and politico-economic.

However, as I have closely followed the sexual dimorphism debate over the years, I am of the opinion that although there is irrefutable scientific evidence that there are important differences in the way male and human brains function, they are not significant enough to justify any role stereotyping in humans on a purely biological basis. Women can become Sumo wrestlers if they wanted to and they do these days; in fact Japan held its first-ever official women’s Sumo wrestling championship in 1997 breaking away with the age-old tradition of keeping women away from the arena, even as spectators. Women in the 20th century have been fairly successful as “father role models,” despite significant opposition to the idea from orthodox quarters.

Recent behavioral research has focussed on the gay male brain, and one such recent study (2) from the Queen Mary Hospital, University of London has reported that when it comes to spatial navigational abilities, gay men’s performance tend to equal that of women, which under laboratory conditions, is worse compared to straight men. In the computer-simulation study carried out on 140 volunteers, gay men, straight women and lesbians shared the same weaknesses when it came to tasks that required spatial navigational abilities. I can accept that as a possible explanation why there are so few women who aspire to be fighter pilots, while arguing of course that current combat aviation technology is still not quite as gender-neutral as one can hope for. But in the above case, the reaction of the British press all across the UK to this research finding was simply hilarious.

For example The Telegraph, a national daily ran its story “Women and gay men are worst drivers,” without justifying their assertion. Worse, an accompanying picture was captioned, “Be afraid: gay men or women could be behind the wheel of any car.” Despite the fact that in Britain women are universally acknowledged as safer drivers, and pay less insurance than men (indeed in my household, both our cars are insured in my wife’s name, quite legally of course). Here is a classic demonstration of the pitfalls of illogical stereotyping through misinterpretation of research findings — life skills in modern human society are too complex to be evaluated on the basis of laboratory tests of simple behavioral tests alone. Dr. Rahman, the senior author agrees that “the headlines splashed across the British press about driving were completely taken out of context.”

Behavioral psychology is valuable in numerous aspects, but we must be cautious about jumping to conclusions. And I have always acknowledged that at least in my family, my wife is the better driver.


1. Why Men Don’t Listen And Women Can’t Read Maps: How We’re Different and What To Do About It: How We’re Different and What to Do About It. Barbara and Allan Pease. Orion. March 2001.

2. Rahman, Q., Koerting, J. (2007). Sexual orientation-related differences in allocentric spatial memory tasks. Hippocampus, 18(1), 55-63. DOI: 10.1002/hipo.20375

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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