Are female infants more caring?

As the NY Times and CNN are reporting, important new research is telling us that infants can distinguish between helpers and hinderers and they prefer the helpers; from the NYTimes:

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday’s journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly-eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly-eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Further, there were no differences in reactions between boy and girl babies.

The lead author, Kilely Hamlin, presented related research to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology in June, 2007; this newer research indicates comparable skills in 3 month olds.

So how about the male  brain that is naturally absorbed by a mechanical world and not attuned to the social world that Baron-Cohen has written about:

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.

For Baron-Cohen, autism is a form of an extreme male brain. Autism very rarely is diagnosed at 9 months, and so it is on the cards that the difference between girls and boys shows up later, as boys might might lose a capacity for empathy just as, it is conjectured, some children start out with synaesthesia and lose it. But given the most recent research, people who assume that the baby girls are sweeter and more empathetic than the boys may well be teaching this difference rather than discovering it from observation.

Stereotypes, cultural variation, and perceptions of competence

From the NY Times, via Lemmings, we learn of a study suggesting that whatever traits a culture values in the workplace, women are taken to lack those traits:

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed “inspiring others” as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was “delegating” that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators.

The NY Times article contains loads of useful data on gender stereotypes and perception in the workplace. Though some of the studies seem a little dodgy to me. For example this one, which at least appears (haven’t had time to read it) to make some rather bold assumptions about what women find sexually attractive.

He is the author of one such study, in which he showed respondents a video of a woman wearing a sexy low-cut blouse with a tight skirt or a skirt and blouse that were conservatively cut. The woman recited the same lines in both, and the viewer was either told she was a secretary or an executive. Being more provocatively dressed had no effect on the perceived competence of the secretary, but it lowered the perceived competence of the executive dramatically. (Sexy men don’t have that disconnect, Professor Glick said. While they might lose respect for wearing tight pants and unbuttoned shirts to the office, the attributes considered most sexy in men — power, status, salary — are in keeping with an executive image at work.)

If salary were really what women found *sexy*, you’d expect to see photo-spreads of dumpy middle-aged men and their big paychecks whenever advertisers wanted to appeal to heterosexual women. What’s with the models with six-packs and chiseled jawbones? Don’t they know that does nothing for women??