The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen, Penguin Books, 2004

The sub-title blurb of this seminal book is ‘Forget Mars and Venus, and Discover the Truth About the Opposite Sex ‘. Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University, goes out of his way to distance his book from its famous predecessor (John Gray, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus). This is a more scientifically researched, less anecdotally peppered book. It is Mars and Venus for an audience that is sceptical of American ‘pop psychology ‘ and self-help over-simplifications. The book ‘s central claim is that men are women are different at a neurological level. Simply put, our brains, like our bodies, are built to interact with the world in distinct ways. The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy (what we otherwise call ’emotional intelligence ‘). The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems (from maps to music to maths). Baron-Cohen applies his findings to larger areas of culture (gender roles and parenting) and biology (hormones and hemispheres). As a provocative aside, he sets out his theory that autism is a form of extreme male-brain behaviour. Several useful appendices contain tests for measuring empathy and systemising quotients.

This book is the best of its kind experimentally founded, calmly reasoned, duly nuanced. It has the power to explain much about our human behaviour that up until now has found expression in jokes and clich√©s. It is not a sexist book. Neither does it shy away from the realities of gender difference for the sake of perceived political correctness. What it does not attempt is an application of its findings to the realm of work, beyond merely observing statistical facts about men in engineering and woman in caring professions. I would have liked a model for how the sexes can function reciprocally in an office environment or when working on a single project, with each adding something to the other and contributing to the furtherance of the whole. But, maybe that ‘s for another book….