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In a recent experiment with humans at Temple University, women showed substantial progress in spatial reasoning after spending a couple of hours a week for 10 weeks playing Tetris, of all things. The males improved with weeks of practice too, says Nora Newcombe, a Temple psychologist who specializes in spatial cognition, and so the gender gap remained. But the improvement for both sexes was "massively greater" than the gender difference. "This means that if the males didn't train, the females would outstrip them," she says.
Of course, we already manipulate the brain through drugs--many of which, doctors now realize, have dramatically different effects on different brains. Drugs for improving intelligence are in the works, says Haier, in the quest to find medication for Alzheimer's. "We're going to get a lot better at manipulating genetic biology. We may even be better at manipulating genetic biology than manipulating the environment."
Until then, one solution to overcoming biological tendencies is to consciously override them, to say to yourself, "O.K., I may have a hard time with this task, but I'm going to will myself to conquer it." Some experiments show that baby girls, when faced with failure, tend to give up and cry relatively quickly, while baby boys get angry and persist, says Witelson at Ontario's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University. "What we don't know is whether that pattern persists into adulthood," she says. But in her experience in academia, she says she knows of at least a couple of brilliant women who never realized their potential in science because they stopped trying when they didn't get grants or encountered some other obstacle. "It's much better," she says, "for people to understand what the differences are, act on their advantages and be prepared for their disadvantages."
LESSON 4: EXPECTATIONS MATTER
WE HAVE A TENDENCY TO MAKE TOO MUCH of test-score differences between the sexes (which are actually very small compared with the differences between, say, poor and affluent students). And regardless of what happens in school, personality and discipline can better predict success when it comes to highly competitive jobs.
One thing we know about the brain is that it is vulnerable to the power of suggestion. There is plenty of evidence that when young women are motivated and encouraged, they excel at science. For most of the 1800s, for example, physics, astronomy, chemistry and botany were considered gender-appropriate subjects for middle-and upper-class American girls. By the 1890s, girls outnumbered boys in public high school science courses across the country, according to The Science Education of American Girls, a 2003 book by Kim Tolley. Records from top schools in Boston show that girls outperformed boys in physics in the mid-19th century. Latin and Greek, meanwhile, were considered the province of gentlemen--until the 20th century, when lucrative opportunities began to open up in the sciences.