Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who now asks to be referred to as Chelsea, dressed as a woman in this 2010 photograph.
(U.S. Army handout/Reuters/Landov)
May 13, 2014

Pentagon OKs Manning Transfer For Gender Treatment

Defense officials say the Pentagon is trying to transfer convicted national security leaker Pvt. Chelsea Manning to a civilian prison so she can get treatment for her gender disorder.

Manning, formerly named Bradley, was convicted of sending classified documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

The soldier has asked for hormone therapy and to be able to live as a woman. Transgenders are not allowed to serve in the U.S. military and the Defense Department does not provide such treatment.

But officials say Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has given the Army approval to work on a transfer plan with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which does provide treatment for transgender inmates.

The officials weren't authorized to discuss the case and spoke anonymously.

(Olga Solovei/iStockphoto)
March 21, 2014

Digging Into The Roots Of Gender Differences

Why do little boys tend to behave differently from little girls? Why do boys and girls play differently, for instance, choosing different toys as their favorites?

Ask these questions and you invite a firestorm — of more questions.

Is the premise behind these queries even accurate? Aren't our sons and daughters really more similar than different, after all? And when behavioral sex differences do occur, aren't parents who inflict sex-stereotypical expectations on their children largely responsible?

Seven experts on chimpanzee behavior, led by Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf of Franklin and Marshall College and including the world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall, have published a paper in Animal Behaviour that speaks, they say, to these issues. Their data on wild chimpanzees from Gombe, Tanzania, indicate that human sex differences in childhood are primarily the result of biological, evolutionary mechanisms.

The scientists analyzed data on the behavior of 12 male and eight female chimpanzee youngsters, ages 30-36 months. At that age, chimpanzees, who develop quite slowly compared with many other mammals, are still considered infants. As a rule, chimpanzees spend most of their day in close proximity to their mothers clear through their ninth year of life.

In the Gombe study, male infants were found to be more gregarious than female chimpanzees; they interacted with significantly more individuals outside the immediate family, including more adult males, than did females. This result held even when the number of the mothers' social partners was controlled.

In adulthood, Gombe females are less gregarious than males, and male-male bonds are particularly strong. So the study's take-home message is that the behavioral patterns of the adult apes at Gombe have their roots in the biology of early ontogeny.

These results, and the relevance Lonsdorf et al. see in them for our species, interest me because I tend toward social constructionism in my perspective on human development. That is, I expect (or predict) that the behavioral tendencies of our children are largely molded by cultural forces, including the actions of parents and other caretakers.

Of course, the old nature vs. nurture debate is by now dead, and deservedly so.

Across the disciplines of anthropology, biology and psychology, scientists accept that development proceeds according to multiple, intertwined biological and environmental influences.

But we don't always agree on the nature of that interlacing.

So, the publication of Lonsdorf et al.'s paper seemed to me an opportunity to reflect critically — not only on their perspective but also on my own. This process was enhanced by corresponding, earlier this week, with Elizabeth Lonsdorf, whom I wish to thank here.

BJK: How would you answer the suggestion that 30 months is too late a developmental stage to point to a primary influence of biology in the existing sex differences? Couldn't the moms have differentially influenced their sons' and daughters' social tendencies even during the first 2 1/2 years?

EVL: Yes, as you well know it is difficult to disentangle the chicken or the egg when it comes to mother-infant interactions. That is why we specifically focused on the 30-36 month age group, when chimpanzee infants begin to spend the majority of their time out of arm's reach, so are theoretically more free to choose whom to interact with.

Of course, it would be ideal to do neonatal testing as is done in human infants to get more direct measurements of biological bases, but that is impossible given the wild setting. We did not find differences in mothers' group sizes during this time, but as you say, there could be differences beforehand, and we are actively investigating this at the moment.

BJK: Is your argument, then, that these results among wild chimpanzees point to a certain fixed pattern of sex differences in humans, or instead that sex differences in human populations will be facultative or malleable according to population-specific patterns that result in heightened reproductive success?

EVL: I would say that, yes, I would expect social constructs and adult gender roles of a given society to interact and perhaps modulate such differences. However, given the basic constraints of primate male reproductive success (access to females), I would still expect differences in some areas irrespective of the social environment.

It's important to note, then, that Lonsdorf and her team are not arguing that human kids' sex differences should exactly mirror the patterns they found among chimpanzees. The researchers do, though, use their data, along with sex-specific data from some other primate species, to assert a role for noncultural mechanisms in human development:

While gender socialization in humans may play a role in magnifying the differences between young males and females, these behavioral sex differences are fundamentally rooted in our biological and evolutionary heritage.

After thinking about all this some more, I emailed Lonsdorf again and asked if she would, based on the nonhuman primate data, predict that boys (human boys) would be more gregarious cross-culturally.

Yes, I would, and in fact, it has been found in some studies that boys tend to have larger play groups, while girls tend to play more in pairs.

For me the developmental question remains one of emphasis. Lonsdorf et al. recognize the influence of caretaker behavior on children's sex differences, but give it a secondary sort of role. By contrast, Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist whose book Pink Brain, Blue Brain I assign when I teach my course on evolution and gender, flips that emphasis: She weights caretaker behavior far more heavily. This paragraph from Eliot's website conveys her book's thesis in a nutshell:

Eliot argues that infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers — and the culture at large — unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Children themselves exacerbate the differences by playing to their modest strengths. They constantly exercise those "ball-throwing" or "doll-cuddling" circuits, rarely straying from their comfort zones.

Even as the nature-nurture debate itself fades, important questions remain about the comparative contribution of parental choices and evolutionary conserved characters in our kids' sex-difference behaviors.

Barbara's most recent book on animals will be released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe
(Harvey Mudd College)
May 01, 2013

How One College is Closing the Computer Science Gender Gap

There are still relatively few women in tech. Maria Klawe wants to change that. As president of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in Southern California, she's had stunning success getting more women involved in computing.

Klawe isn't concerned about filling quotas or being nice to women. Rather, she's deeply troubled that half the population is grossly underrepresented in this all-important field. Women aren't setting the agenda and designing products and services that are shaping our lives. They're getting only about 18 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science, and in the workplace their numbers aren't much higher.

Seated in her modest office on the Claremont, Calif., campus, Klawe, 61, reflects on the stereotype of computer scientists as anti-social nerds, saying it's out of date. But she is quick to add that women often face barriers spoken and unspoken that discourage them from entering the field.

She recalls her own experience growing up in Canada, where she was a top university math student.

"Professors would say to me all the time, 'Why do you want to be a mathematician, Maria? There are no good women mathematicians.' And it just really bugged me," Klawe says.

And that helps explain a career choice she would make decades later. Back in 2005, Klawe was thriving as dean of the engineering school at Princeton. But when Harvey Mudd College approached her about becoming the school's president, she was intrigued. She saw an opportunity to change science and engineering education.

"We're not attracting and retaining enough talent, and especially in areas like computer science. And I think what I recognized was this might be a place that could actually make a difference with that," Klawe says.

With just 800 students and an emphasis on teaching, Klawe believed that Mudd would be an ideal laboratory.

Finding A Passion In Computer Science

More than 100 students are paying rapt attention in Colleen Lewis' second-semester computer science course, and a lot of them are women.

"A lot of universities have this kind of weed-out class," says Kate Finlay, a student at nearby Scripps College who's taking Lewis' course. "The first class you take is a weed-out class, and they are shocked by the fact they don't get any women at the end. But the only people at the end are the people who have been in computer camp since they were 5."

What Harvey Mudd recognized and explicitly addressed were ways to get women interested in computer science, so students like Finlay who've never been to computer camp have their own introductory classes. The kids with experience have theirs. Know-it-alls in any section are told to cool it so no one is intimidated. As for the content, Finlay says it's designed around problems they can relate to.

"They had all these really fun assignments — sound editing Darth Vader's voice; every single answer on the quizzes was 42, in a reference to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Finlay says. "It was so much fun; it was so much fun."

Finlay, who had planned to study art and psychology, found a new passion in computer science.

Along with changes to the introductory courses, Mudd works hard to keep women interested in the field. First-year students attend a giant conference for women in computing. There are research opportunities and coursework that involve solving real problems for major companies. Technology experts like Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, are applauding the initiatives.

"I think they're fantastic," Eustace says. He also cites Mudd's rigorous academics and the critical mass of women studying together.

"They also have great female instructors, and I think that makes a big difference. ... Harvey Mudd is an example of what I consider a model for the future," he says.

Much of this might sound pretty basic, but the approach is highly unusual in higher education, and the efforts have paid off. At Mudd, about 40 percent of the computer science majors are women. That's far more than at any other co-ed school.

As for the male students here, they seem to appreciate and value having more women in their computer science courses.

"Women and men work through problems in very different ways," says Luke Mastalli-Kelly. "Men will oftentimes just try to pound through a problem, and then one of the women will be, 'Wait, hold on, how about if I ask this question?'"

Their questions can lead to further exploration and perhaps a more elegant solution. Indeed, technology companies say they want more women because diverse teams often do a better job of solving problems and creating things.

'I Want To Do That'

Senior Jess Hester was one of several female computer science students who offered their views on why there are so few women in their field. They bemoaned middle and high school math teachers who didn't engage or inspire. They recounted conversations with adults who told them, "Men are better at this." And they shared some apprehension about working in a male-dominated environment.

"If you fail, it's not just you. It is you as like a sacrificial lamb for your whole gender. It's just like a bucket of stress that we don't need," Hester says. "But I also want little kids to look up and be like, 'Awesome. I want to do that.' "

And that would be music to Klawe's ears. She says if you can make computer science interesting to women, empower them so they believe they can succeed, and then show them how their work can make a difference in the world, "that's almost enough to change everything."

Klawe is now working on a new project — a massive open online course, or MOOC, aimed at 10th-graders. It's just one more way the president of Harvey Mudd hopes to get more women at the technology table.


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