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David Morris Headshot

Is It All About Hormones?

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Sometimes it seems that everywhere I turn, the story line pivots on hormones.

Recently the Boys Scouts denied Ryan Anderson, a gay 17-year-old the rank of Eagle Scout because "he does not meet scouting's membership standard on sexual orientation."  Last April, Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian parent in Ohio, was forced out as a den mother of her son's Tiger Scouts group. (Can it be the Tiger Scouts were worried their boys would become lesbians?)

Way back in 1991, the Girl Scouts also grappled with the issue of homosexuality, but they came to a starkly different conclusion than their male counterparts. "As a private organization, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. respects the values and beliefs of each of its members and does not intrude into personal matters. Therefore, there are no membership policies on sexual preference."  They've never found it necessary to revisit that policy nor, apparently have they been under much pressure to do so.

And then there's the Catholic Church.

A few months ago, on orders from male Pope Benedict XVI, the all-male Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (popularly known as the Holy Inquisition) appointed a male Archbishop from Seattle to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  The LCWR is an association comprised of 80 percent of America's Catholic sisters.  What was the nuns' heresy?  Focusing too much on promoting social justice and too little on opposing contraception and same-sex marriage.  The head of the church's doctrinal office informed the nuns they should regard their receivership as "an invitation to obedience."

And Wall Street.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Wall Street cannot use scripture to justify excluding and diminishing women.  Yet its organizational ranks eerily echo those of the Vatican.  Women comprise only 2.5 percent of U.S. CEOs of finance and insurance companies.  And Wall Street also treats its heretical women with contempt.

In 1997, in Congressional testimony Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission warned that unregulated trading in derivatives could "threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it." She called for greater transparency.  The New York Times later revealed that Alan Greenspan treated her with "condescension."  Larry Summers "chastise(d) her."  When she persisted, Greenspan, Robert Rubin and the head of the SEC, Arthur Levitt, Jr., called on Congress "to prevent Ms. Born from acting."  Months later, the huge hedge fund Long Term Capital Management nearly collapsed -- confirming Born's warnings. (Bets on derivatives were a key reason for the collapse.) "Despite that event," the Times reports, "Congress 'froze' Born's Commissions' regulatory authority." The next year, she left as head of the Commission.

Sheila Bair, the former chairman of the FDIC and one of those who recommended a tough love approach to Wall Street, met a similar fate.  In a recent interview in Fortune magazine about her new book, Bull by the Horns, she was asked if gender was a factor in her marginalization. She replied, "Certainly it was hard for us to get into the meeting sometimes, or even when we got into the meeting it wasn't the real meeting.  The real meeting had already been held.  I'm sure you've all had that experience. You walk in and these guys have already decided what they want to do and so you're stuck, right, trying to talk them out of it, or change course late in the day."

Why do the Boy Scouts fear gay people while Girl Scouts are more welcoming, and the Vatican asserts that same-sex marriage is the most important issue while nuns think social justice is, and Wall Street men risked and lost the economy while Wall Street-related women counseled moderation?  The answer isn't surprising: It could be testosterone and oxytocin.

John M. Coates, a former trader who is now a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge, and a colleague, Joseph Herbert, took samples of testosterone levels of 17 male traders on a typical London trading floor (which had 260 traders, only four of whom were female). They found testosterone levels were significantly higher on days when traders made more than their daily one-month average profit.  The authors hypothesize that if raised testosterone were to persist for several weeks there would be an even greater appetite for risk, a tendency aggravated by the fact that in Wall Street work groups are composed overwhelmingly of men and group deliberation reinforces the tendency toward risk taking.

Dr. Coates concludes, "It's possible that bubbles are a male phenomenon."

While men are driven by testosterone, women may be driven by oxytocin. Emory University biologist Frans de Waal in The Age of Empathy claims that human altruism grows out of empathy, which in turn is positively affected by oxytocin, a hormone involved in birth and breast-feeding.  Both men and women display strikingly more empathetic response in lab experiments after oxytocin has been sprayed into their nostrils.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, as the Los Angeles Times, declared a year ago, "Hormonally speaking, becoming a father may make you less of a man..." The story reported on a recent study's finding that men with newborns saw testosterone levels plunge by 43 percent in the morning and 49 percent in the evening during the baby's first month of life.  Overall, men who devoted the most time to childcare had the lowest testosterone levels.

"Testosterone is a hormone associated with perceived hallmarks of masculinity such as libido, aggression and musculature," the L.A. Times observed,  "Those can be useful qualities when competing for a mate, but less so when raising a child -- an endeavor that requires calm, attentiveness and an even temper."

Iceland's three main banks collapsed in October 2008, leaving debts more than 10 times the size of the country's GDP. Writes John Carlin in the Independent earlier this year:

The country ... was way beyond bankrupt. And men were blamed. Even men blamed men. The ruling party was overwhelmingly male, the bankers were practically all male and the rash, absurdly over-ambitious impulses that led a small nation of fishermen to believe they would all be swimming in champagne for the rest of their lives were clearly, categorically, exclusively male.

So the women stepped in. The male prime minister was replaced by the country's first female and gay PM.  She remains in place today. Women constitute the majority in her cabinet. The male CEOs of the collapsed banks were kicked out.  The banks were renamed and nationalized and women installed as the new CEOs.  The CEO of Iceland's biggest insurance firm is now a woman.

The Independent sums up the result, "Now the country is back on its feet. Why? Because women took over."

Are the Boy Scouts, the Vatican and Wall Street listening?