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Can hormones explain female high fliers?

25 August 09 14:44 GMT

By Clare Murphy
BBC News health reporter

A new study suggests women with higher levels of the male sex hormone testosterone are more likely to be risk takers. These "ballbreakers", so the thinking goes, may find it easier to break through the glass ceiling into the boardroom.

Is this credible, or more evidence of our willingness to let nature trump nurture when it comes to explaining complex social issues?

Testosterone has long conjured up the image of the powerful, aggressive, sex-hungry male.

First isolated and christened in 1935, it inspires admiration and anxiety in equal measure, eyed jealously by those who feel they would like more of it and blamed by others for various forms of unpleasant behaviour.

Deviant ladies

The US study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that female business students with higher levels of testosterone were more likely to opt for risky financial deals when given the theoretical choice of a high-risk, high-return option and a guaranteed investment.

The authors said their study showed gender differences when it came to financial risk had a biological basis - and that differences in testosterone levels could affect decisions not just about finances but career choices too.

Hormones are increasingly invoked to account for a wide range of behaviours, from a mother's "failure" to bond with her baby to one's willingness to donate to charity.

"No-one could argue that they do not have a role, but the relationship is a complex one, and hormones can be as much a product of experience as the other way round," says Alex Haslam, professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter.

"There is an implication in this latest research that the woman who is prepared to take financial risks is somehow unfeminine - deviant, if you like.

"Our appetite for biological explanations of difference is actually rather worrying - it's a way of justifying the status quo, and often prejudice. Sadly we seem to prefer this explanation than one that emphasises society, choice and the ability to change."

Lumped together

There is however some evidence that testosterone can affect behaviour, particularly exposure prenatally: a little girl whose mother had a relatively high level of the hormone when pregnant may display a preference for Bob over Barbie, and for what are deemed more male forms of play.

This phenomenon of gender-specific play has been well-documented among primates, where females gravitate towards certain toys and activities. But while similar patterns are seen in humans, the finger has been pointed at society norms.

The theory is that testosterone in the womb has an impact on the developing brain of a female, which makes it more susceptible to signals released by the hormone after birth. But exactly how this hormone appears to encourage certain types of play is not clear.

"We were surprised by the findings, but it really doesn't mean that there is no role for socialisation and parental influence," says Professor Melissa Hines of the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge, who has carried out the research in this area.

"Moreover just because you like trucks doesn't mean you'll end up hitting people and taking lots of risks. We have lumped a number of characteristics into one to come up with a unitary view of gender that doesn't bear up to scrutiny."


Indeed so far the research into the effect testosterone has on producing anger has been inconclusive: the stereotype of the testosterone-fuelled aggressive male has yet to be scientifically substantiated.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about the effects of testosterone," says Daryl O'Connor of Leeds University, who carried out a study into the effects on mood in men when injected with the hormone. "Our research showed very limited impact.

"What we must not lose sight of is that hormones never act in isolation and never account for behaviour on their own.

"It is always going to be a complex transaction between the individual and the environment."

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