Fisher, Helen

Helen Fisher is an anthropologist at Rutgers University and the author of The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior and Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. For her books, articles, lectures, and television and radio appearances, Dr. Fisher received the American Anthropological Association's Distinguished Service Award in 1985.

We're talking to her about her book The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World. asks …

Your opening epigraph reads, “If ever the world sees a time when women shall come together purely and simply for the benefit and the good of mankind there will be a power such as the world has never known,” from Matthew Arnold. Why begin with that?

HF: I thought that it was dramatic. I’m a realist, I come from a world of natural selection and women are interested in survival just the way men are, and I don’t think that either sex is going to be totally altruistic. But I started this book realizing that men and women, from millions of years doing separate jobs on the grasslands of Africa, have evolved different talents.

I started the book just wondering, as women pile into the job market—as they are doing in almost every culture in the world—and as they bring their special talents to all parts of the economy, what impact will they have on 21st century life? What I realized as I continued writing the book was that not only are women being pulled into the job market for very real reasons, but the job market itself is changing in ways that actually need the female mind.

But what’s the shift? Something has changed in the last not-so-many years, so that women are now needed much more in the workplace. Is it a case of the chicken or the egg, women coming into the workplace has caused a shift, or—

HF: No. This really started with the beginning of the industrial revolution. After World War I you see the beginning of 21st century patterns of business life that are very inclusive of women. Now we see real growth in the communications industries around the world. TV, radio, Internet activity, magazines and newspapers are all expanding.

Women are naturally extremely good with words, and this skill is associated with the female hormones, particularly estrogen. A woman’s ability for basic articulation, which is simply finding the right word rapidly, goes up in the middle of the menstrual cycle when estrogen levels peak. But even during menstruation, on average, women are more skilled with language than men are.

And I think this particular talent comes from millions of years of holding a baby in front of their faces, cajoling it, reprimanding it, educating it with words. Words were women’s tools for millions of years, and indeed we now finally have a century where the communications industries are expanding rapidly and globally, pulling women into the job market.

In a United Nations study of 40 societies, almost 50 percent of students in the communications industry were women. And we’re going to see more of these women on television, more on the radio. Today, 53 percent of authors in America are women, 54 percent of editors and technical writers are women, and to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, “To have a great writer is to have another government.”

Indeed, words are power, and women are going to move into the communication industries and express their views. Women’s ability with words is also really beginning to show in higher education. Today, more women than men graduate from high school in America, more women graduate from college in America, 45 percent of all Ph.Ds are now women, and in the future, the gold collar jobs are going to be held by people who have higher education, and a lot of them are going to be women.

A lot of the quotes that you use are from men.

HF: Hmm-hmm.

Is there a reason for that?

HF: When there’s a good quote, I take it; I don’t care who said it, so long as the person is well known enough that the audience can appreciate who said it. For the past several thousand years we have come from an agrarian background; and in a farming economy, men have had the resources, education, and opportunities to be writers and philosophers and orators and playwrights and journalists.

Women are not going to overcome men. As a matter of fact, I did not want this book to be called, “The First Sex.” I wanted it to be called “The Female Mind.”


HF: Yes. I’m not your standard feminist at all. I’m very much for men. I don’t see men declining in the job market. I hope they don’t. But what I see in the job market is the beginning of a collaborative society in which the talents of both men and women are understood and employed.

But back to why all these quotes are by men: for millions of years on the grasslands of Africa, women and men were relatively equal. Women went out in the morning, they commuted to work to do their gathering of vegetables, they came home with 60 to 80 percent of the evening meal. Double income was the rule. Women were as important as men.

I wouldn’t be surprised if for millions of years women were just as likely to be the songsters and poets and theatrical people, just as men have been more recently. When our ancestors began to settle down on the farm, men’s roles became much more important; it was men’s jobs to move the rocks and fell the trees and plough the land and bring the produce up to local markets and come home with resources. Women lost their ancient jobs as gatherers of vegetables and took on secondary roles, weeding, picking, pruning, preparing the evening meal, and having lots of babies with little fingers to help pick the vegetables.

In an agrarian society, women are often in second-class positions, socially and sexually. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, women began moving into the workplace, and with the beginning of the 20th century, you really see dramatic changes in the job market and also in technology. Women are having fewer children so they have more time to work.

Technology is helping them with home jobs. They don’t have to make candles and soap and sweaters and socks and stews, etc., etc. They’ve got time to get an education in order to work. There are many forces that are enabling women to move into the job market, and many forces of change in the job market that are beginning to pull women in, because it needs the talents of women. So, we’re actually moving forward to the kind of lifestyle that we had a million years ago, in which women are working as men are working.

I spoke with Sally Helgesen, [author of The Web of Inclusion] and she pointed out to me that for the first time in history men and women are using the same tools, meaning the computer keyboard. And that’s really the first time that’s ever happened.

HF: That’s interesting. On the other hand, we really do see men and women gravitating towards different parts of the job market, still. Ninety five percent of nurses are women; over 80 percent of engineers and architects are men. Men are much more likely to go into government, women are much more likely to go into childcare. Women really gravitate toward certain aspects of the health care industry. Men are skilled at spatial relations, and we know now that that’s associated with levels of testosterone.

You inject testosterone into middle aged men or women, and their ability to solve certain kinds of spatial puzzles goes up, and for good reasons. For millions of years men had to hunt, and they not only had to find the animals but surround them and kill them and then find their way back home. So men acquired these spatial skills while women evolved their verbal skills for the rearing of young and for negotiating around the campfire and for keeping the peace.

And you still see these differences in men and women in the job market. They do gravitate toward different kinds of jobs. Even though we don’t tell our little girls that they should be nurses and we don’t tell our little boys that they should be engineers, they tend to pick these things.

I saw a New York Times article recently about a woman who was trying to give her daughter Tonka toy trucks, boy things, but they’d go into a store and she just gravitated toward the dolls.

HF: If the toy industry could get boys to play with dolls and girls to play with trucks, they would have done it a long time ago. You can change these tendencies to a very limited extent, and there are always variations among individuals, but natural selection is not a fool; these appear to be fairly hardwired genetic codes.

You reference the ancient past a lot, talking about what men and women were doing on the plains of Africa millions of years ago. But there’s no real direct evidence of this; isn’t some of this supposition?

HF: Right.

So, do people attack you for not having specific evidence for things like that, or is this all accepted by whatever—the anthropological community—as fact?

HF: No. First of all, let me tell you that I did not start this book with any preconceived notions. I really am your garden-variety anthropologist. I know that you can’t believe that, but my friends can.

I want to ask you about people attacking your point of view, because I don’t understand why that would be happening, but apparently it is. Why is that?

HF: I’d be happy to tell you that, but first let me tell you about the data. I basically study sex and love. To write a book on gender differences and their impact on modern culture was an entirely new experience for me. I’m very glad I did it because I learned a tremendous amount. Why I did it, I still don’t know.

I started collecting data. Everything that I am operating with in that book is real data. I take everything from, for example, gender differences in chimpanzees. Female chimpanzees do three times more gathering of termites and ants than males. And male chimpanzees do three times more hurling of weapons and hunting for meat than females. When you look at hunting and gathering cultures around the world, you see that—universally—females do 90 percent of the vegetable gathering and males do over 90 percent of the large-animal hunting.

Scientific studies indicate that high levels of testosterone are associated with spatial relations and high levels of estrogen are associated with fine motor coordination—tiny things like berries and seeds. Then you look at some of these international studies of a billion people in twenty-two societies, and you see that in modern culture men tend to be more spatially skilled and women tend to more verbally skilled or more skilled at fine motor coordination.

This data adds up. This is not Helen Fisher swinging at windmills. The data collects and collects and collects until you see worldwide patterns among human beings, trends in other primates and other mammals, and then physiological correlations between specific behavior patterns and specific molecules. And then you write it down.

That’s what I did. Then when I begin to take a look at the future, for example, and say, well, here we have communications becoming more and more important, people need an education to get ahead; who’s going to be good at this? People who are verbal, people who are good at listening, and people who are good at sitting; that’s what our education system demands, and that’s what women are good at.

This is what the educational system demands; if women seem to be good at this, there’s every reason to think that they’re going to excel. And you take a look at sociological records and indeed you discover that women are excelling.

The reason that people object to this kind of research has nothing to do with the quality of the research, it has to do with their fears about basic science and what it can mean for them. And I understand why they are afraid of that, because we come historically from a background where women were regarded as weak and stupid, and there were certainly scientists who wanted to show that the female brain was smaller and that women were weaker.

Biological data has been used to keep women down. And so some people are afraid that biological data will once again be used to keep women down. In this particular case all I’m doing is pointing out biological data and discovering that we are finally in a particular time in human evolution where society is changing so that it needs the natural skills of women. But some people are so scared about biology that they don’t even want to hear good news.

When you say they’re scared of biology, are you referring to women or is it men who are all of a sudden terrified because the status quo is going to disappear and they’re going to have to (laughter) fight on an equal basis with women.

HF: The only people I found who seriously disliked me and my work were hardcore traditional feminists who come from a world of being afraid that biology is going to keep women in second place.

I see.

HF: That’s the only crowd that seems to hate Helen Fisher. As for men, it’s not women they’re scared of, they’re just scared of being taken over by anybody. And when I give speeches to corporate groups and men are in attendance, a lot of them are there because they want to know what the natural talents of women are, because they can see for themselves that women are piling into their offices and they want to be able to use those women in ways that are not only appropriate for the company but good for the women.

Part of the reason that we’re having this discussion is that Tom Peters is quoting you in his seminars. The quotes he’s using tend to support his thesis that people are looking for talent in the workplace, and there’s a lot of talented women, and it’s about figuring out how best to use their talents.

HF: Exactly. And that’s exactly what this book should be used for, and I want to thank him for it. Because that’s really why I wrote this book. It was there. I knew women were flooding into the job market; I wanted to know what impact they would have. I’m a basic scientist. But for someone like Tom Peters to pick this up and have it be of some use, I say bravo, because this is enormously useful data.

Oh, absolutely. It’s a tremendous amount of data. It’s overwhelming.

HF: Much too much data, that’s one of my problems. I’m just about to start my next book, and I’ve now pasted right next to my computer keyboard, “Small is beautiful.”

Yes. That would be my only criticism, I think; it’s just too dense, it’s too much—

HF: It’s too much, it’s much too much, but it’s perfectly wonderful for Tom Peters because he’s looking for information.

He’s like an information sponge. But sorry, getting back to the book itself, you say that women display web thinking, and I think—

HF: That’s a term that I coined.

I’ve spoken with a couple other people who have used the term, and I think at least two of them have quoted you or said that they got it from you. I just wanted to make sure about that.

HF: I’m delighted people are using the term.

Now, what is web thinking and how is it going to help women?

HF: I made up the term because much of my research indicated that on average when women think they tend to gather more data and integrate the details faster. When they make decisions they tend to weigh more variables, consider more options and outcomes, recall more points of view, see more ways to proceed. They tend to generalize and they tend to take a broader, more holistic, more contextual perspective. Women tend to think in webs of factors, not straight lines, and so I simply call this web thinking. Men can do that also, but they’re more likely to focus their attention, to get rid of extraneous data, to compartmentalize, and then to proceed in a more straightforward, linear causal pathway. For that I coined the term “step thinking.” And I think that they’re both perfectly good ways of thinking. I’d like to talk about some of the genetics behind why this evolved.


HF: In a study of 130 societies by the United Nations, they established that women are better at what they call multitasking, doing many things at once. That is a spin-off from this web thinking. And I think that for millions of years women really had to hold the baby, stoke the fire, try to control the teenagers, cook the meal—a million things done at the same time.

I think those who were good at it survived, and we selected for specific changes in brain circuitry, enabling women to do this generalized, synthetic web thinking, whereas for millions of years men really had to focus their attention on hitting that zebra in the jaw. And if you’re busy also looking at the cloud patterns and the postures and gestures of the person sitting next to you, you’re not going to hit that zebra and you will die out.

Selective forces being what they are, we selected for subtle but real differences in the way men and women think. And you know, nature would have been pretty shoddy if she had made the sexes exactly alike; we were built to be members of a team. There’s a poem by Robert Lowell, I think, that reads, “Men and women are like two feet: they need each other to get ahead.” And indeed, that’s the way I see them.

On this web thinking: the more I saw psychological data on this gender difference, the more I saw the purpose it could have had in evolution. I then began to stumble on some genetics which are just the beginning of what I was going to end up discovering. And one thing they’ve found is a gene which builds a region of the prefrontal cortex.

Now the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain right behind your forehead, where you weigh data, keep track of bits of data, order them as they accumulate, and find patterns. It is also the part of the brain with which you focus your attention on very specific things, compartmentalize, and do your step thinking.

One gene or gene group—they don’t know which it is—has been found that builds specific regions of the prefrontal cortex. This gene is active in 50 percent of women and silenced in all men. So, we’re beginning to see that genes operate differently on this very important part of the brain for thinking, which indicates a mechanism that could have operated to create different architecture in the male and the female brain.

Another example is that the two hemispheres of the brain are literally better connected in the female brain than in the male brain. If the two sides are better connected in women, they will likely be able to store and retrieve data differently than men, and indeed, may be better at web thinking.

Now, given all that, who cares? Well, web thinking is good in the home, it’s good for rearing babies, it’s good for driving the car and making sandwiches and talking to the dog and feeding the goldfish and watching television all at once. But what’s important now is that web thinking is needed in the job market where the new buzzwords are breadth of vision and depth of vision and systems thinking.

And in a job market that is changing so rapidly, to have that kind of thinking is critical. This is where The First Sex comes in. Because at this point, the only logical thing would be to say, “Oh, then it’s entirely possible that in such a job environment, the female brain is going to be very useful.” So, that conclusion reached in the book is the only part that is mine. The rest is simply collecting an awful lot of data and then putting it together.

I’ve been reading a number of books that are about or having sections about the differences between men and women and what they mean for our society. I started with Faith Popcorn, who quotes you and uses as an example guys driving cars and how they turn off the radio when they have to follow directions because they can’t function with too much input. And then I find myself doing just that, clicking the radio off as soon as I’ve really got to think about where I’m going.

HF: Step thinking is particularly good if you’re going to be the president of the company because you do not want to collect all of those details. You want someone else to collect all those details. Strangely enough, I’m not at all surprised that there are a lot more women in middle management where you have to collect a tremendous amount of information and have a very broad, contextual view. Now, this is not to say that women can’t be the head of the company.

To go back to what I said about professions—it’s interesting how we are really seeing the rise of non-profit organizations right now in 21st century America, and that seems to be spreading around the world. In one study of 667 non-profit organizations, over 50 percent of CEOs are women, and around 67 percent of program officers are women.

Women are gravitating to the non-profit organizations. Men are still gravitating to government. Many more young men go into government than women. Many more young women tend to go into the non-profit sector than men do. And I’m not surprised that women are interested in the non-profits. Take Amnesty International, or even the local block association, and Planned Parenthood, anything in between. You need a large, broad, contextual view of the problems and issues of society to be a part of these non-profits. You also need a real drive to nurture, and women are the nurturers on this planet. Around the world, women spend more time raising the young, helping the sick, and helping the elderly.

I’m not surprised they’re also interested in helping the environment, helping the block association, helping poor women do family planning, etc., etc. We’re still going to see more women gravitating towards those parts of the economy where their web thinking is rewarded. And I think we’re going to still see men gravitating towards that part of the community where step thinking is rewarded and where men’s spatial acuities are rewarded.

Let’s just take medicine as a good example. First of all, the biggest industry in the modern world now, apparently, is the health care industries. And women are piling into them. Fifty percent of medical students are now women; this doesn’t surprise me. For millions of years on the grasslands of Africa, women took care of 90 percent of the daily ills of the flesh, and this nurturing and caring is associated with levels of estrogen. If you inject estrogen into almost any mammal—the female mammal—they will begin to nurture anything that is around them.

The health care industry is really rising, it’s very powerful, it’s very lucrative, there are lots of jobs available in it, and these things will continue to be true, with our aging population. Both men and women are going to medical school, and what do they do when they get out? The women tend to gravitate towards those jobs that are hands-on care of the sick. Men gravitate towards the high-tech jobs like cardiology, radiology, pathology.

Men gravitate to being heads of hospitals, heads of insurance companies, because they are much more interested in status jobs than women are as a rule, whereas women gravitate to being not only the nurses but also the doctors—they pick the hands-on care of the sick. But men are very good at raising their children. We’re seeing many more single fathers, though more women are raising the young by themselves, and many more are nursery school teachers, primary school teachers, and educators of the young. So, culture changes, and we’re providing equal opportunities for men and women. But even in this time of equal opportunity, equal education, women are still gravitating towards jobs that suit the female mind, and men are still gravitating to jobs that suit the male mind, but this doesn’t surprise me based on all the data I collected.

We want a society that is free and open, and that’s what we’re getting. We’re never going to see gender parity. In the very top of the Fortune 500 companies, it’s 90 percent men, and it’s not just because men are putting women down, it’s in large part because women are not willing to devote 100 hours a week to doing high-stress jobs. There’s something more important for them to do, and that is raise their DNA. And so they are more likely to drop out of the high-powered jobs in order to balance work and family. And from a Darwinian perspective, that is exactly what you would expect.

Which reminds me of a Harvard Business Review article by Doug McCracken, CEO of Deloitte & Touche, “Winning the Talent War for Women: Sometimes it Takes a Revolution.” They saw all these women fast-tracking up the ladder but then dropping out at a certain point. The assumption was that since they were women they were dropping out to have children. But when they really began to look at the situation, it wasn’t necessarily to have children, it was just that these women didn’t want to have that kind of a life where you’re on the road nine days a week. They just wanted a more balanced life. And because Deloitte wants to keep talented women working as consultants, they’re developing more flexible structures to meet their needs, such as requiring the consultants to be back in their home office at least one day a week. They’re small steps, but they’re finding that the men are happy to have these changes made as well, but it took a study of the women’s needs to make it happen, which I thought was very interesting.

HF: As a matter of fact, I think that’s a very good example of an important point, which is that the rise of women is going to be very helpful to men.

Yes, I agree.

HF: Because it’s going to bring in a more balanced view of work life and of opportunities, and enable those men who don’t want to follow the very rigid male-male dominance hierarchy to chart different paths. It will provide more opportunities and more choices. I think that women are still going to make different choices and different opportunities than men will, but if women moving into the job market causes changes in the job market to occur that are suitable to both sexes, then bravo.

One of the fascinating things for me, reading this, was, well, everything I’ve learned about estrogen and testosterone, but then, particularly, menopause and this whole generation of baby boomer women. And then having read your book and seeing how the loss of estrogen unmasks the natural testosterone of the women so that they take on certain male traits such as—

HF: Assertiveness.

Yes, assertiveness, and then thinking about what happens when all these baby boomer women hit menopause and then start becoming more assertive. So what does that future look like for us?

HF: Well, I think it’s the first time in history that a very large number of middle-aged women are going to go through menopause and also have a very good education, a lot of job experience, a lot of connections, and the savvy to make themselves heard.

And probably a lot of money as well.

HF: And money as well, more money than at any time in recorded history. What has started as a trend will continue to snowball. There are other similar trends. There’s an aging world population. A great many people are living up into their eighties. Some demographers in America are saying that middle age should now extend to age 85, because something like 40 percent of the people aged 75-84 have nothing seriously wrong with them.

In many European societies, of those people who are over age 65, there are twice as many women as men. Around the world, women tend to live about seven years longer than men do. We are not only seeing women from the baby boom population moving into middle age with education, with skills, with background, with business acumen, but we’re also seeing these women living a very long time.

And they’re going to vote. And as they vote, they may not be taking over all the seats in the senate, but they’re going to vote the people into those seats. There’s another major trend. And women are going to be having far fewer children. As a result, there are going to be more and more opportunities for girls. Fifty years ago if somebody had four children and they had two boys and two girls they would send the boys to college and they would let the girls fend for themselves. But now, if they have only one child and it’s a girl, they’re going to spend all their money on that girl. And if they have two children, one girl and one boy, they’re still going to spend a great deal of money educating that girl.

So, even the anticipated reduction in the world population is going to be very useful to the girl child. We’ve got more and more technological devices enabling women to work outside the home. They have time to get an education, they’ve got a job market that is pulling them in because of the needs of the job market itself. They’re marrying later, they’re having fewer children, they’ve got more time to work, they’ve got the skills to work, they’ve got the education to work, they’re going to live longer and work longer.

They’re going to become more and more powerful at middle age because of biological reasons as well as social reasons, and we are really moving towards not only a collaborative society but also real collaboration between the sexes. The double income family has always existed; it’s just about to go again to being what it has always been.

Can you talk about that collaboration, because you end your book with a chapter about collaboration. Are there any models of what you’re talking about there when you’re saying the collaboration of the sexes?

HF: One dramatic change in terms of collaboration is the change in the family. We’ve shifted into these peer marriages in which both men and women are bringing home the money and both men and women are responsible for the raising and education of the children. This is a real change from our agrarian economy background where men brought home all the money and women took care of the house and the children. The type of collaboration has really dramatically changed. In the business community, we’re seeing a shift away from the hierarchical office environment and a shift towards an emphasis on teamwork. People aren’t staying with one company forever any longer. They’re jumping from job to job and jumping from one kind of work to another, and there’s a real emphasis on team playing. That itself is a different kind of collaboration. It’s a more feminine model, actually. Little boys grow up on the playground in hierarchical groups, and they spend their lives jockeying for position in these male-male dominance hierarchies, whereas females spend much more time in what they call leaderless packs. As the business community moves more towards that kind of teamwork—now, I don’t know how long it will stay there—that will certainly be suitable to women, and it changes the very nature of the collaboration between individuals in the office. Also, with so much entrepreneurial work going on, that also helps to break down the formal hierarchies in the workplace.

One of the great things about this new economy as far as I’m concerned is collaboration. Teams form and people say, “Okay, let’s figure out the goal and work together,” and you’ve got books about how half the time now you’re going to be working with your competition and half the time working against them, so you have to be able to move quickly, which goes back to what you’re saying is an advantage for women, that flexible mind and being able to jump back and forth, because it is a wildly dynamic workplace.

HF: Absolutely, and that’s going to be very suitable to women. If I had to say, in one word, the most important aspect of 21st century business life that people have to grapple with, I would say ambiguity. We are now living in a world that is incredibly ambiguous. And there is good psychological data that women are better able to grapple with ambiguity because of their web thinking, because they’re capable of juggling so many different variables at once, many of which don’t work together.

What’s interesting about our projects now is they’re not lifelong projects. You form a team with a goal and when the goal is over, the team dissolves. And then you form a new team with a new goal until that’s over.

And once again, women tend to be more flexible than men. And that trait, too, is going to be rewarded in anybody who’s got it, and more women have it than men.

It seems Hollywood as a project-based industry has provided the model for how the rest of America works now. But until recently it was still a male-dominated industry. But now women are really beginning to come to the fore in the industry.

HF: I think they’re going to come to the fore in all kinds of ways that are going to have an astonishing impact in ways that are very subtle. For example, there was a study of 100 managing editors of major newspapers. They were asked, “Has the content of your newspaper changed since you have many more women editors?” Almost all of them said yes. We see much more discussion of diversity, ethnic diversity, and that’s because of women. We have more interest in world health, in children, in education because of women. More interest in the arts because of women.

Women are changing the world we live in. They come with some different talents—talents that are suitable and needed and that will be rewarded.

Thank you very much.