Sex-Typed Interests: Do Early Hormones Create “Empathizers” and “Systemizers”?

Rebecca Jordan-Young


There is currently widespread scientific endorsement of the idea that early hormones channel our fundamental interests in masculine or feminine directions. Even before the research leaves the pages of scientific journals, this idea is directly linked to career choices and chances, education, the division of labor in families, and the “drive” to be a leader versus a nurturer. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, believes it explains the sex disparity among top scientists, suggesting that a “male-type” pattern of fundamental interest in inanimate objects makes one a “systemizer,” while fundamental interest in people (the “female-type” pattern) makes one an “empathizer.” For historically minded skeptics, it’s hard to reconcile women’s advancement over the past few decades with the idea that innate sex differences are the key force behind sex distribution in education, occupations, and the division of labor in families. But there are even stronger reasons to question this theory, based on a scientific evaluation of the studies themselves. In particular, how well do the sorts of interests that are studied in relation to prenatal hormone exposures actually connect to the kinds of differences they are meant to explain in occupations, education, and family life? Based on a systematic review of more than 300 studies linking early hormone exposures to sex-typed patterns of sexuality, cognition, and interests, Professor Jordan-Young will explore what is actually known about the influence of hormones on so-called “masculine” or “feminine” interests.

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Barnard, is a sociomedical scientist whose research includes social epidemiology studies of HIV/ AIDS, and evaluation of biological work on sex, gender and sexuality. Prior to joining the faculty at Barnard College, she was a Principal Investigator and Deputy Director of the Social Theory Core at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research of the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., and has been a Health Disparities Scholar sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. She teaches courses in critical science studies, sexuality, gender theory, and HIV/AIDS. Professor Jordan-Young is currently preparing a manuscript titled “Sex, Hormones and Hardwiring: Re-thinking the Theory of Brain Organization.”