Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF.

The recent appointment of Christine Lagarde as the first female Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund is an exciting moment for women (and men) in the world. Having the brains (and the balls) to save the sinking Euro ship is significant, and it’s clear that a woman of her experience and intellect is well and truly up for the task.

The only question that perhaps remains is… why is she the first woman? ie what took so long? Is it related to this funny notion that men are generally perceived to be better than women at maths and adding up things? And where did this (archaic) notion come from?

Inevitably, a history-making occasion like this raises the question of gender and the brain.

Long-standing studies have indeed shown that males do tend to score higher on tests of mathematical ability and spatial processing (particularly geometric thinking) than females, who score higher than males on test of verbal fluency, perceptual speed and manual dexterity (Casy, Nutall & Pezaris, 1997; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). In a study of students under age 13 with exceptional mathematical ability, boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1 (Benbow & Stanley).

Interestingly, in the past two decades, with education standards evening out between the sexes, these findings have remained consistent across global studies.

So what’s the deal? Yes there are all the cultural reasons, but anatomically is there a structural difference between the brains that allow for these patterns of mathematical and linguistic tendencies?

The answer is yes. And the secret can be seen in fMRI scans of male and female brains.

Studies at John Hopkins University, U.S., have found that the area called the IPL – Inferior Parietal Lobule  – which is located above your ears, and spans both the right and left hemispheres of your head, is generally responsible for allowing the brain to process senses and be selective in its attention to them.

Across large data samples, the IPL has been found overall to be 5% larger in males than females. This is the part of the brain found to be larger than normal in Albert Einstein among other physicists and mathematicians, indicating that it is related to mathematical ability.

In males it appears larger on the left hemisphere (responsible for calculating time and speed and rotating 3D images) than the right, while in women it is larger on the right hemisphere (responsible for spatial processing, perception of emotions, and the ability to sense relationships between body parts).

And the anatomical differences continue in language.

In 1995, language studies on males using a rhyming task activated the Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe. This showed lateralisation – ie the function was specific to one side or hemisphere of the brain.

However in females, the rhyming task activated BOTH sides of the brain in the frontal areas, showing that for them, language was less lateralised.

Women’s tendency to empathise rather than strategise (male approach) results in greater empathy and mental skills that are the primary reasons why they are better at languages and why they are better judges of character. Also, women naturally dominate primatology, which, like mothering of babies, requires understanding and reading the minds of individuals with whom they cannot communicate by language.

This might definitely help Christine.

We wish her the best of luck for the job ahead; negotiating through tough diplomacy across language and culture barriers, while also balancing sliding budgets and making lasting fiscal decisions must make her grey matter pretty tough stuff.

Thank you to for his research and to Burton, Westen and Kowalski ‘Psychology’, 2009.