Dancer in corner store

James Maher Photography

 

US scientists are scared to talk about differences between male and female brains, probably because it will get them fired. The loudest voices say there cannot be male and female brains because there are women and men who think in similar ways.

While universities in the US squelch ideas they don’t like, the rest of the world accepts the scientific theory that there is a male and female brain, and Autistic is the word to describe women who think the same way men do. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from Cambridge University describes human thinking as a spectrum ranging from extremely logical to extremely social.

Women with Autism think like men
Baron-Cohen imagines one end of the spectrum with a type of extremely high problem-solving intelligence, like Albert Einstein. You probably recognize him as having Autism. He has incredible brain power for using logic to solve complex problems, but he couldn’t get along with teachers, he didn’t get married, he didn’t understand why people combed their hair so he never did. 

On the other end of the spectrum is extremely high emotional intelligence, like the girl in high school who is prom queen and always has a great boyfriend and is nice to everyone, and always seems to know the right thing to say. She might have a high IQ and might not; it doesn’t matter because she trades on social skills. Here’s the spectrum:Neurotypical men are one step from Einstein toward the center of the spectrum. Neurotypical women are one step from the prom queen toward the center. So the spectrum looks like this:

Autism pushes a person’s brain one step toward the left. One step toward the left from neurotypical men is Autism. So men who are one step toward the left seem like they have Autism. And women who have Autism are one step to the left of neurotypical women, so they seem like neurotypical men.

Women with Autism make life choices like men
That means women who have Autism actually seem like neurotypical men. And in order to identify women with Autism, we need to compare women to other women. A woman who seems similar to neurotypical women is neurotypical. A woman who seems similar to neurotypical men has Autism.

Basically, our society defines a successful person as having traits typically found in neurotypical men, not neurotypical women. In our misogynist society, we tell women they can be anything, do anything and every door is open to them — theoretically true, but in practice, it’s only true for women with Autism.

Most successful women have Autism
Not all women with Autism are highly successful but most highly successful women have Autism. That’s because highly successful women have to bet big on themselves, and they have to have a singular, long-term focus which is a male approach toward life. Neurotypical women do not enjoy risk-taking, and they don’t like having a singular focus. Even when neurotypical women are in a position to be exceptionally successful, they prefer to spread their attention across many different interests in life. (Look at those links. Harvard Business School. Scientific American. No nonsense there.)

Neurotypical women aren’t tough competitors at work
Neurotypical women are motivated by befriending people rather than competing with them. This is what makes neurotypical women great managers. Neurotypical women aggressively defend people close to them but are not aggressive when it comes to people they know casually. So neurotypical women choose family over work and lose out to men who compete at work nonstop.

Similar to men, Autistic women approach work as a competition, and their Autistic traits make them incredible at hyper-systematizing and hyper-attention to details like if p then q rules. (Um. Yeah. Like, this post.)

Autistic traits help women consolidate power
So when you’re looking for women with Autism, don’t obsess over eye contact because most women with Autism have fine eye contact. Instead, look for influence. Autistic women circumvent barriers to power via their androgynous brains.

When it comes to networking, the people who do best are good-looking men and androgynous women; androgynous women look smarter than other women and make the most successful female entrepreneurs. Androgynous women provided the best leadership during Covid, and androgynous women are more flexible and innovative thinkers.

Autistic women appear androgynous unintentionally with markers like a wide gait, a one-footed stance, stories with lots of nouns, and frequent use of UH instead of UM. Or maybe it’s more of an intentional thing because 28% of genderqueer people have Autism.

Okay. So Autistic women and neurotypical men are primed for power and influence and neurotypical women are not. I’m not saying this is how it should be. I’m just saying this is how it is.

Now, remember that spectrum of human thinking? What if just changed the labels?
And what if I told you that in our society, only the people who are in the logic part of the spectrum (not the extreme logic) will be very successful in life, and everyone else will support them either emotionally, intellectually, or manually. You don’t have to be male or female or queer or cis. But you have to fall into that spot on the spectrum. I don’t actually think a lot of people would argue with me. They’d probably be like, yeah, whatever.

So I want to know. Does it make sense to you that women with Autism are the ones who are successful? Then what are the ramifications? Can we stop telling all women they can be anything? Is androgyny totally on-trend? Or are things more complicated?

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40 replies
  1. S.D.
    S.D. says:

    I follow – and like – the logic but it ignored the concept that a work environment created by men is rigged for men to succeed. What about a work environment created by women? Could women thrive in that? I’m attentively following what will happen with the droves of talented women who are leaving the corporate world to start up on their own. Is it possible that they will create something new in which they can thrive and succeed without the need to be ‘autistic’. Women who have followed this path certainly think so.

    PS are there not plenty of men who are social but not logical yet plenty successful? It makes me think the autism idea is a red herring and it does still come back to social bias associated with gender and other ‘success’ projections

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Nada. I’m glad you follow the logic and like it. Hooray!

      I get what you mean about the workforce being rigged for men to succeed. Anne Campbell wrote a great book about psychological evolution and how women evolved to care about people close to them and men evolved to leave those people each day. Click in the post “choose family over work” — it’s fascinating! Campbell shows that this is so ingrained in women that when women commit murder they only kill people very close to them because women only care about people very close to them. Men kill people they don’t know because men will kill to get something in exchange. So while everyone is arguing about if women are hard-wired to take care of kids, women are proving we are by our crime rates. That’s so incredible to me.

      Okay. So, anyway, I digress. Women have been leaving the workforce for the last 20 years. It’s nothing new. During Covid it happened fast, because kids had to stay home from school, but those moms were going to leave the workforce anyway, because if they could leave the workforce during Covid then they would have left the workforce after Covid. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how women don’t work full-time after 40 if they can:
      https://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2019/12/16/heres-why-there-are-no-women-over-40-in-your-office/

      In the last 15 years, women have been able to move to the top. I’m just giving the label Autism to the women who stay and move to the top.

      Penelope

      Reply
    • Nin
      Nin says:

      Einstein was married twice, with numerous affairs. Being a ladies man seems to be not infrequent with genius physicists, consider Feynman, who spent his time off of mental work with music and ladies.

      That shows there is no dichotomy between social and logical/genius thinking, one person can easily do both. Autistics with high intelligence can use it to compensate for lacking natural social skills, too.

      Reply
    • Cheryl
      Cheryl says:

      Jeanette,

      Thanks for sharing this article.

      I watched the Genius series season for Einstein and really enjoyed it.

      Reply
  2. Jane
    Jane says:

    Wow I love it when you have posts like this. I’ll be more careful when I speak to my kids because I do feel like I’m not good enough because I’m not like your neurological men and when my husbands tries to speak logic to me, I shut him down because one I feel bad because I don’t fully see things the way he does, and two, I think he’s missing an important half, the social/emotional part.

    I think that’s why I’m still so resistant to going back to your typical office job.

    Can you write more about what a “social” person can do to be successful that is outside your typical office job? Or how can we define success, because to me making a lot of money is part of that definition.

    Reply
  3. KD
    KD says:

    You are trying to collapse 5 factors into 1, and it’s not working. The most successful people are conscientious (part social skills, part logic), slightly disagreeable (part logic), somewhat extraverted (which helps them get away with being slightly disagreeable), open (innovative), and not too neurotic.

    Neurotypical men are not always all of those things. Which is why not all neurotypical men are successful.

    I think slightly disagreeable is really the thing your post unknowingly tries to touch on. It’s uncommon for women to be even a little disagreeable, and being so is what can prevent them from needing to be liked and empower them to go for the brass ring at work while putting themselves above others. I think this most closely maps to autism as well.

    However, in order to be REALLY dangerous you need to also be conscientious and extraverted. Part of conscientiousness is doing annoying soft-skill things like the prom queen and extraversion gives you the confidence and dominance to pull it all off.

    Anyway sorry Penelope but your post is very off base.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, KD. I think you are talking about measuring success for low-level jobs.

      Here’s a link that explains why the Big Five personality type factors you’re referring to (conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, etc,) are actually indicators of how people will do in academia and how they’ll do in jobs that are routine and repetitive.
      https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ijsa.12028

      Here is a link to a survey of thousands of Fortune 500 CEOs. At least half of them were introverts. Also, a common trait among all Fortune 500 CEOs is that they can make fast decisions with conviction even if they’re imperfect, which is pretty much the opposite of conscientious.
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/04/17/introverts-tend-to-be-better-ceos-and-other-surprising-traits-of-top-performing-executives/

      There is a link in my post that is a literature review of ten years of research about what makes successful CEOs and the article compares those traits to the traits of someone with Autism. Click “Autistic women approach work as a competition.” The article concludes that successful CEOs are lacking in empathy and fairly self-centered which is why they spend so much of their life amassing power and influence.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • KD
        KD says:

        I referred to DIsagreebleness, not agreeableness. Diaagreeabless is really what you are referring to in your post as neurotypicaly male apparently, without realizing it, and yes it is critical for high level success. But no it isn’t necessary and yes you are oversimplifying things.

        Extraversion, like all of the 5 factors, can be broken into subtraits, one of which is dominance. I think you know this is relevant for amassing power and influence.

        And conscientious is the single best predictor of all kinds of success. This is well validated. It is also not sufficient, but keeping organized and efficient is table stakes, and autistic people easy often.

        Anyway, sorry, you missed the mark with your attempt to be controversial. Modify and try again.

        Reply
        • LM
          LM says:

          So true KD; what’s being missed is that some people are just more of everything.

          In other words you can be more logical and more loving at the same time; That spectrum of human thinking example in the original post, measures a single parameter, but it doesn’t include the volume of the parameters.

          In other words someone can be more social and more logical, some people just have the juice in both areas.

          There’s no doubt that more civilized rational people also have the capacity to be more loving, caring and logical at the same time. It’s a correlation, not mutually exclusive, and the game is changing; dishonest people that ignore the rules; well there’s a lot of cameras out there now catching them so it’s hard to predict what factors will lead to success in the future but it would seem like honesty is going to be a good thing to have or at least to move in that general direction for future success.

          Reply
  4. MaryRobin Gibson
    MaryRobin Gibson says:

    I love you! Everything you write. I am a married with 4 homeschooled kids gal who is an 8 and ENTJ, D on the DISC, all the aggressive things, plus, love my men. Thank you for always posting the most incredible posts. I have followed you since 9/11. You are the best. Please keep sending your good energy and insights out into the world. Also, I have always wanted a PA and chauffeur and all the things you have learned you “need” to get your work out there. One day! Your virtual friend from afar, MaryRobin Gibson (actually, MaryRobin Deleon-Gibson, but two hyphens was a bad idea and I am too cheap to change my name).

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I am too cheap to change my name too! Or I am too overwhelmed with the paperwork. So my kids always have to remember if I am Adrienne Greenheart for what we’re doing or I’m Penelope Trunk. And sometimes a kid will say to me “Are you Adrienne or Penelope” and whoever we are talking to will look at us like we’re nuts.”

      Penelope

      Reply
  5. DJ Scruggs
    DJ Scruggs says:

    What do you make of successful charismatic men? I’m thinking of Richard Branson, who’s said in interviews that he always confuses revenue with profits. Ted Turner has said similar things.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Richard Branson has Autism. He has dyslexia, he started a business when he was 16, his mother was an entrepreneur, his father was a lawyer and so was his grandfather. Those are all risk factors for Autism, and it is genetic. Also, having a lot of money can mask Autism and his family had a lot of money.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Cheryl
        Cheryl says:

        Hi Penelope,

        I just checked out the library book titled “Like a Virgin” by Richard Branson.

        In the Foreword, he states, “I suffered from an acute combination of dyslexia and what I suppose would nowadays be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder. When I went to Stowe School in the sixties however, I was simply regarded as an inattentive and troublesome student.”

        Cheryl

        Reply
  6. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,

    This post made me think, and it is one of those times when I cannot accept what you say.
    You stated that “…highly successful women have to bet big on themselves, and they have to have a singular, long-term focus which is a male approach toward life. Neurotypical women do not enjoy risk-taking, and they don’t like having a singular focus.” And this seems to form the basis of your theory. But universally, this is not generally the case. Take child rearing as a major exception to your premise. It’s duties typically fall to females, but what constitutes a greater risk than this? You don’t know how the kid will turn out, and naturally the female will want to lessen the riskiness of the living situation to ensure the survival of the child/family. This takes highly logical thinking. Additionally, to do it right, child-rearing (above all else) takes singular focus, usually to the detriment of the female’s career, as you have often correctly pointed out in the past.
    I think that what you propose is the result of a cultural artifact specific to some/many western women, but not all. German females are freer to seek equal opportunities because their societies are more encouraging of so-called “male” behaviors like risk taking and a strong career orientation in women. In addition, the family duties are more equally shared – if my observation of my European friends is the norm.
    In addition, in the third world, there is a huge proportion of the female population that conducts entrepreneurial endeavors, albeit on a small scale since they also have a disproportionate amount of the child-rearing responsibility. It’s like conducting business with one hand tied behind one’s back – metaphorically speaking. I agree with your assertion that a western/european woman who seems similar to neurotypical men may have autism, but that is because they are the ones who are most likely to disregard western/American social convention, not necessarily because they think more logically.
    I hope I made my points clearly. Essentially, your theory cannot be generalized to all women, just those in our culture… and only sometimes so. I may however be wrong, I frequently am:)

    Mytwocentsworth:)
    D

    Reply
    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      Sorry Penny, in the last paragraph above, I meant to say, “I agree with your assertion that a western/european woman who seems similar to neurotypical men and is successful in her career or business, may have autism, but that is because they are the ones who are most likely to disregard western/American social convention, not necessarily because they think more logically.
      Peace,
      D

      Reply
      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Risk taking is when you do something and might end up with nothing. When you raise kids you get to experience loving kids no matter what. If you chose to not have kids, you could literally end up with nothing. The only thing we are guaranteed in this life is that we can give love.

        I can understand saying that it’s hard to give up the chance to see what you could get in a career. But I have never in my life heard of raising kids as taking a risk. It’s missing an opportunity to take a risk.

        Penelope

        Reply
        • harris497
          harris497 says:

          P,
          I agree with the definition of risk, but I can’t shake the belief that the reason more women aren’t CEOs or “successful” in the ways that men are successful is because society predisposes it to be that way. I’ve mostly had female bosses and coworkers, and while some display “androgynous brains” others who are extremely successful, are your typical “girlie girls” to quote my daughter, who is a “girlie girl” yet very competitive.
          I love this conversation. Thank you for providing an avenue that allows it.
          D

          Reply
  7. Sheba
    Sheba says:

    I enjoy your provocative posts very much.

    You are certainly right that not all autistic women are successful, and I am one of those who isn’t, except to the extent of remaining employed. I have worked as a professional in the public sector, in Europe, for 30 years and more, and I have known as contemporaries many successful women (and men), including heads of government departments, but none of the women showed strong autistic characteristics. Many or most had analytical minds, but the successful ones had good or excellent social understanding, mastered the unwritten rules and office politics, had a knack of speaking the right language for the context, and spotted what mattered to the senior people they needed to impress. They were good at giving the impression of working collaboratively, as the culture has required, but this often seemed to be a facade. Technically, I am good at my profession, and I have the sort of male brain you refer to, but that is not what counts in my environment (nor, I guess, in the corporate sector). I fall down at work due to plain speaking, literal-mindedness, not spotting when I am being lied to or manipulated, being oblivious of undercurrents and worst of all keeping to rules (including rules that have been updated without me realising it) and telling the truth. I am also averse to competition, to the extent of refusing to win a sack race at school aged 5, but that might be personality rather than ASC.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I totally get it. I am more like you than the Autistic women at the top. And, frankly, I don’t understand how women like Marissa Mayer or Madeline Albright can play by the rules for so long and not bite someone’s head off in some an ill-fated irreparable way. But I like watching it. And I guess Autistic women like you and I will watch from the grandstands. Thank you for watching with me.

      Penelope

      Reply
  8. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    My first thought after a couple of paragraphs was: why do we have to label them male or female brains? And then, you got there. I have always said my sucsess was due (at least partially) to the fact that I think more like what people have described as male thinking!

    Reply
  9. Andrea Cranford
    Andrea Cranford says:

    It strikes me as obvious that the women who make it to C-suite jobs are more similar to the men in C-suite jobs than either group are to outsiders, but that’s very rarified air. Most people neither have or desire to have those positions.

    Most people could never plot a course up that ladder unless they started somewhere near the top (at least management) in the first place. Otherwise, they might not even see those positions as reachable. (I’d be curious to see data on how many employees at Fortune 500 companies could identify their top leadership in a photo line-up.)

    So it doesn’t make sense that this is a male/female brains issue when most people are stuck in the middle. Neuro-typical males, are restaurant servers, warehouse associates, and lower management alongside neuro-typical females.

    Perhaps there are more men who desire the C-suite and have the stomach and positioning for ladder climbing than women, but all who attempt it must have secondary traits that create that desire, not only the women. Neither group is ‘typical.’ However, those secondary traits may not be autism. (Or it could be some autistic traits without actual autism).

    Most guys with high functioning autism aren’t Einstein. (If they were, the field of physics would be making progress instead of being stagnant for the last couple of decades.) So it goes to reason most females with autism aren’t just behaving like neuro-typical males.

    Under the DSM-V, excessive adherence to routine is one of the diagnosis criteria for ASD, which also does not square with the risk-taking hypothesis. Of course this is only one facet, but if these risk-taking women don’t meet the diagnosis criteria, they don’t have autism. Again, these C-suite people might have some autism-like traits without having autism (which several of Penelope’s cited articles suggest).

    This post also doesn’t sit well with my personal experience. I’m an autistic female and I hate competition. I hate watching others engage in it. I hate thinking about it. I couldn’t care less about the limelight or winning as long as the system runs smoothly. It’s not so much a desire for harmony, but a desire to avoid the time-consuming task of talking to others.

    I don’t care about being in leadership at a Fortune 500 company. It doesn’t interest me. The idea of being constantly available by phone or email gives me the shivers. A quiet room where I can conduct research and create content and somehow make money from that content interests me. That’s why I read this blog. I’m looking for ways to make this happen in my own life.

    As a career advisor, Penelope must deal with a lot of driven women who desire that high-pay, high-risk, high-demand job. As a multi-time start-up CEO herself, it fits for her, too.
    In that world, the ‘male brain’ hypothesis is a useful heuristic.

    But this idea leaves so many people on the outside. There are women with “female” brains who should either stay home or work part-time if they have to work and women with “male” brains who should play 3D chess to get to the highest paid, most prestigious position possible. Then there are the regular men and the super men. What about everyone in between? And what about differences of class and race? All of these paths are often dictated before a child graduates high school.

    I understand that the main point of this article is that women shouldn’t feel bad because they don’t want to dedicate their lives to their careers and would rather focus on home and family. I couldn’t agree more.

    But what about autistic women who also don’t see the value in spending their lives accumulating wealth and power? What about POC women who may want a high ranking career, but have no viable path to management let alone the corner office?

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for the comment. I have a few things to say.
      1.Excessive adherence to routine almost always goes along with big risk-taking. Routine sets up stability. Risk-taking is about having a lot to lose and then risking it. Trading Places is a fun movie to watch to see how risk-taking and routine go together.
      2. My main point is not that women shouldn’t feel bad if they don’t want to dedicate themselves to their family. I feel VERY VERY strongly that one parent needs to stay home with children. It doesn’t matter to me who it is, but marriages don’t stay together when a man stays home and a woman works.
      3. This paragraph you wrote is funny: Most guys with high-functioning autism aren’t Einstein. (If they were, the field of physics would be making progress instead of being stagnant for the last couple of decades.) So it goes to reason most females with autism aren’t just behaving like neuro-typical males.

      Penelope

      Reply
  10. Tara
    Tara says:

    I was just diagnosed as Autistic last month–there’s a pandemic going on, so why not fill out all kinds of surveys and tell a stranger all the ways in which I’ve discovered I might think/behave in a non-typical way, right?

    I’m also an INTJ personality type. I don’t know what it all boils down to, except that I appear to be competent at my job, wasn’t afraid to switch careers in a drastic manner, and even though I don’t feel ready to lead, per se… I sometimes take on that role and get frustrated with bad (in my opinion) leaders. Which suggests that I’m working my way towards a lead role at some point.

    In any case, this post has given me some food for thought/possibly encouragement that when it’s time to lead, I might be suited for some of that. Thank you, as always, for your words out here in the ether. I mostly like to contemplate them for a good while, and you always give me plenty to consider. Thank you!

    Reply
  11. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    PT, you mentioned in the other thread that you would have liked someone to really engage with the sources and ideas in your post rather than just making a trivia drive-by about Einstein. It’s nice to know you missed me too!

    I don’t find that your main sources regarding differences between male brains and female brains demonstrate what you think they do, or are overall convincing. Baron-Cohen’s book is nice (if depressingly repetitive), but his EMB theory about autism being hyper-masculine is hardly the only theory out there or widely accepted. Your other, more scientific, link was fascinating for how quickly it veered away from human brains and into rooster testicles. These are simply not probative sources.

    There is better support out there for the theory that male brains differ substantially from female brains, but then again each one of those decent sources could be trumped by an even better source arguing the opposite. Here are a couple of the latter:

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210325115316.htm

    “How different are men and women’s brains? The question has been explored for decades, but a new study led by Rosalind Franklin University neuroscientist Lise Eliot is the first to coalesce this wide-ranging research into a single mega-synthesis. And the answer is: hardly at all.

    Men and women’s brains do differ slightly, but the key finding is that these distinctions are due to brain size, not sex or gender,” Dr. Eliot said. “Sex differences in the brain are tiny and inconsistent, once individuals’ head size is accounted for.”

    This article may be worth reading for both those who are convinced that there is a large difference between male and female brains and those convinced there isn’t. Because of the scope of the study, its probative value seems high.

    There’s even a word now for the largely discredited but still persistent idea that women’s and men’s brains are significantly different: “neurosexism.” There’s a good book out that plays whack-a-mole with all the ridiculous, tiny, overhyped studies claiming to have discovered the difference:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00677-x

    [A]s The Gendered Brain reveals, conclusive findings about sex-linked brain differences have failed to materialize. Beyond the “missing five ounces” of female brain — gloated about since the nineteenth century — modern neuroscientists have identified no decisive, category-defining differences between the brains of men and women. In women’s brains, language-processing is not spread any more evenly across the hemispheres than it is in men’s, as a small 1995 Nature study proclaimed but a large 2008 meta-analysis disproved (B. A. Shaywitz et al. Nature 373, 607–609 (1995) and I. E. Sommer et al. Brain Res. 1206, 76–88; 2008). Brain size increases with body size, and certain features, such as the ratio of grey to white matter or the cross-sectional area of a nerve tract called the corpus callosum, scale slightly non-linearly with brain size. But these are differences in degree, not kind. As Rippon notes, they are not seen when we compare small-headed men to large-headed women, and have no relationship to differences in hobbies or take-home pay.

    If we dispose of the idea that there are “female brains” and “male brains,” then the rest of your argument falls apart. Are autistic women more androgynous? Maybe some are. But it’s not because autistic women are more like men, it’s because autistic people in general do not fall into our cultural gender roles as readily as neurotypical people do.

    The gendered role of female may seem to be maladaptive and illogical to an autistic girl, and all of the myriad tiny social hints that a girl should be doing one thing rather than the other may go right over the head of an autistic girl. But for autism to be proven a disorder of hypermasculinity, we would have to see autistic males be more masculine as well. Are they? No. For example, among boys suffering with gender dysphoria, a good 40% are autistic. Gender dysphoria in boys is not caused by hypermasculinity. When we look closer, we find that autistic males aren’t hypermasculine at all – much to the contrary, they’re less masculine than neurotypical males.

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/extreme-male-brain-revisited-gender-coherence-in-adults-with-autism-spectrum-disorder/23D058B59E5B837C55C6F9F174C7BD24

    Taken together, our results suggest that women with ASD have elevated serum testosterone levels and that, in several aspects, they display more masculine traits than women without ASD, and men with ASD display more feminine characteristics than men without ASD. Rather than being a disorder characterised by masculinisation in both genders, ASD thus seems to be a gender defiant disorder.

    Baron-Cohen’s studies were tiny. It’s easy to come up with bad conclusions when you are highly motivated towards a particular answer, and do studies on ten people. What if bigger, less biased studies are done? They disprove Baron-Cohen’s results:

    https://www.sciencealert.com/large-new-study-takes-on-some-of-the-evidence-behind-the-hyper-masculine-theory-of-autism
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27460188/

    Baron-Cohen is an interesting philosopher, and probably an excellent psychologist, but he’s not terribly impressive as a scientist (and I don’t think it’s because his fetal brain was starved for testosterone, either).

    The rest of this post relies upon the shaky foundations of “male brains” and “female brains” and the EMB hypothesis to support one of your perennial idées fixes: that successful career women must be autistic. It seems more like an exercise in confirmation bias than in reasoning.

    Yes, autistic people tend to be more androgynous (both males and the females, mind you). But autism is not the only path to androgyny, nor is it the only explanation for the obvious fact that wildly successful women are atypical. Perhaps high intelligence in itself is correlated with androgyny, and high intelligence helps women get ahead, with or without androgyny. Or perhaps high creativity is necessary for women to find ways around the barriers put in the way of their advancement; there’s also a long-standing correlation of creativity with androgyny.

    I can tell you that my wife is both highly intelligent and very creative, and these qualities – along with her social skills, and of course, a very supportive husband – have helped her advance. By some lights, she’s psychologically (though not physically) somewhat androgynous: she can be intensely competitive, and won’t respect a man who can’t best her at something. I am intensely competitive at games (and utterly vicious at scrabble), but otherwise not terribly. So it’s lucky for me that I could beat her at chess; she would not have married me otherwise. I find more fulfillment in nurturing things and children at home than in out-competing people at work, and in this I complement her.

    Which brings me to a request: could you please stop asserting that it’s impossible for a marriage of a career woman and a stay-at-home man to succeed? It’s mean and insulting, and if we’re to break it down to immediate samples, untrue. You know I read this blog. And you know that my wife is in the C-suite and I am in the kitchen. Every time you say that it seems like you’re trying to alienate me and mine. It’s possible that both people in such a relationship require qualities that are unusual and unusually well-matched, but making a pronouncement of our demise like that is foolish and unnecessary. Why not study the reasons for failure or success instead of just falling into black-and-white thinking about it? Is the complexity involved in dire need of simplification? Perhaps the problem is greater for autistic women than it is for successful women; autistic men also have trouble staying married.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this comment. Thank you so much for taking the time to think about all this stuff with me. It’s very difficult for me to hold a lot of competing ideas in my head and not have a final answer. I hate not having a final answer. Sometimes I have this overwhelming feeling like I want to go to sleep until people solve all the Autism questions so that I don’t have to waste my life not knowing and just guessing and sniffing around wrong answers.

      Yah. I hate not having answers. Sometimes I would rather make up a wrong answer then be like, this sure is difficult and we just don’t know. Fuck that.

      But okay. Fine. You have written so convincingly about how we do not have answers. Black and white is so nice. I see that other people are much more able to cope with gray than I am. You are so calm in your comment when you write about how people are looking for answers and you write so calmly when you write that you actually don’t appreciate a lot of what I wrote.

      I admire that — your calmness. Thank you for clicking my links. I saw the book about neurosexism. It’s a good word. And of course, I want to be with the cool kids who use the new terminology.

      I’m scared to align myself with people who don’t think it’s important to stay with children and take care of them.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I’m scared to align myself with people who don’t think it’s important to stay with children and take care of them.

        If you did, you would not be aligning yourself with me. I think it’s very important for someone in a family to stay at home with children and take care of them. I just don’t think that person has to be a woman.

        Black-and-white thinking can be very attractive, especially to autistic people. I know that my son has trouble with it. If it isn’t always X, it must always be Y! But no, most things are not binary. Most things are probabilistic, bell-shaped: the predominant grouping is central, but there are tails to either side. I have had many conversations with my son about this phenomenon.

        Baron-Cohen beats this drum incessantly in that book: ‘if A, and B, then C.’ He says autistic people are great at that kind of thinking, and it’s why autistic people are responsible for us not living in caves and screaming at wooly mammoths. But what if something doesn’t work that way? What if something works more like ‘if A, and B, then there’s a 68% probability of C?‘ In my experience, autistic people have a lot more trouble with probabilistic thinking. It’s a good thing that basic technology doesn’t work that way, or autistic cavemen would never have invented it.

        All of the traits that make up a gender role, or make up masculinity or femininity, or make a person a good caregiver for children, are distributed not in a black-and-white fashion but in a probabilistic fashion. I know that I am a good caregiver, and I know also that I am an outlier. I know that my wife is a great corporate executive, and I know also that she is also an outlier. I know, furthermore, that the likelihood of two outliers like us actually forming a good and stable marriage is perhaps the square of our peculiarities. But probabilistic thinking does not make me at all uncomfortable (I was even once employed as a statistician).

        I find the idea of the Broad Autistic Phenotype illuminating. It’s certain that I have certain traits that are frequently displayed by people with autism. In the sense that – and I agree with you here – some very driven and successful women are autistic, my wife probably displays some BAP traits as well. But neither of us is autistic, and our struggle to understand our autistic son makes this clear to us.

        Reply
        • Angie
          Angie says:

          Can I say this is one of the loveliest discussion threads. Maybe lovely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I really enjoyed reading your initial post, penelope’s response and your follow up. I wish more people could approach discussions like this. it adds so much to the initial post from penelope, way more than people just shouting at each other that they are wrong.

          Reply
  12. Chelsea
    Chelsea says:

    Interesting post – definitely food for thought. I am an ENFP, and although I’m very intuitive and a feelings-based decision maker, I’m also able to lead, take control, take big risks, make decisions, and have far fewer shallow insecurities than many of my female friends (e.g. don’t ruminate over if something I said upset someone, if my hair looks bad etc.). But I think my lack of these insecurities has come as a result of the way I was raised and a heck of a lot of personal development work to improve on parts of myself that were causing me pain/friction. So I guess I am wondering where the nurture fits in here. Women have not just evolved to care about those close to us and be agreeable, we are also socialized to do so in a million tiny ways from the moment we’re born. I think we can really be successful if we cultivate the right mentality, regardless of whether we’re autistic or not (I’m not, as far as I know).

    Reply
  13. Anon
    Anon says:

    Are we considering that autistic women and men who are unlucky in love might take refuge in their career? Autistic individuals may place less emphasis on gender-conforming practices because the practices are irrational. That doesn’t make them more or less male. My fear is that gender-centrism is leading many autistic people to transition to the opposite sex with medical interventions that are irreversible. This seems like a form of eugenics to me.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I agree. There is data that most transitions from female to male leave the person very unhappy. And most people who think they want to do it but don’t do it end up being happy they did not do it later on. I think gender dysphoria during puberty and one’s 20s is huge for women with Autism and no one is helping women with that. I, for one, had SO MANY people tell me they thought I was gay while I was growing up. And it was really difficult for me to process that. I’m sure I would have tried to transition to male if it had been easy back then. But now that I’m 50 I can see that would not have been a good solution for me. I’m not neurotypical but I don’t need to transition to be me.

      Penelope

      Reply
  14. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Excellent piece. Only you define “successful” in the way used to describe high-status male behavior in our elite, i.e., what I call Creative people.

    But I would say that “successful” is different for ordinary Commoners, for whom successful has more to do with being Responsible. And as for Subordinate people, serfs and the like, “successful” probably means serving their loving lord or master — or mistress — faithfully

    Reply
  15. Kameel Vohra
    Kameel Vohra says:

    Great article Penelope,
    Whilst I’m not sure that I agree that Autistic women and neurotypical men are primed for power, I’m glad to see so much great discussion on neurodiversity and logic! I 100% agree that things would be better across the board if logic was more widely adopted, and neurodiversity was more readily accepted.

    Reply
  16. Cyn
    Cyn says:

    Logic with women’s intuition – knock it out of the park in success.
    I never thought the brain was gender specific and still don’t.
    I find brain power is an activity – use or lose it.
    The difference is the process. Women continue to learn throughout their life,
    Whereas, men are quick, once and for all, never looking back thinkers.
    Kind of like the turtle and the hare story.
    Guess who comes out ahead? .All women whether they are on the spectrum or not.

    Reply
  17. Tatyana Davis
    Tatyana Davis says:

    Interesting theory. I would caution you and everyone else to not conflate primary mode of relating to the world (logic vs social) with gender identity. Androgynous-presenting women can still be women in their social gender roles. Equally, they can feel like presenting as men or as neither/both(nonbinary). When we simplify our discussions, we inadvertently negate the experiences/existence of many people who do not fit in our simplified theory. I am parent of an autistic nonbinary child and I find myself policing social commentary so they do not have to in the future.

    Reply
  18. M. Love
    M. Love says:

    Ahh, Penelope, my dear!

    You are a delight to follow, and so often right, that it is disproportionately disappointing when you are wrong. As you are here. So wrong. All of it. I will not elaborate, others have done.

    Too well I understand the need for knowledge closure, the missing piece that will bridge the gap in the mental construct. But please do stop forcing it.

    Sincerely, your INTP lurker

    Reply

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