Women Don’t Sweat, They Mist

Rose Eveleth

(please note the Statue of Liberty raising her hand, presumably because she’s sure – possibly about denying “feeble minded” minorities?  How many sticks of Sure does that require?)

My television tells me that as a dainty and delicate lady, I sweat differently than men.  (It also tells me that I care more about my deodorant leaving white marks on my beautiful, expensive black dress than I do about it actually deodorizing).

Today’s New York Times has a story on a study that proves it (the sweat part, not the dress part).  This story brings up a really great example of how science journalism and feminism interact.

Scientists study the differences between men and women in almost everything – sex, sweat, language, height, disease risk, response to medication, addiction, the list could go on for a very long time.  These differences are really important.  Men and women (and the whole spectrum between the two) have different genes, different bodies, different levels of chemicals circulating in their blood.  It’s important to understand these differences.

So what Gretchen Reynolds does here is important.  She reports on a finding from Osaka International University and Kobe University in Japan on the differences between men and women’s perspiration.  Specifically, on the difference between fit men and women and unfit men and women.  The results are interesting:

Fit men perspired more than fit women without using any more sweat glands.  Unfit women perspired the least.  There is a clear difference in how men and women sweat – and women tend to sweat less.

Ok, that’s interesting.  Then, Reynolds dabbles in some shady areas.  She has two physiologists start talking about social archaeology (a field often on shaky ground to begin with).  She reinforces the gender stereotype that women sat and men hunted (something that we actually haven’t proven)

“But does this difference in sweating rates, whatever its cause, have practical implications? “It appears,” said Yoshimitsu Inoue, Ph.D., a professor of physiology at Osaka International University and one of the authors of the study, “that women are at a disadvantage when they need to sweat a lot during exercise in hot conditions.” On the other hand, it may be that women, during evolution, had the good sense to get out of the hot sun, and their bodies adapted accordingly. The “lower sweat loss in women may be an adaptation strategy that attaches great importance” to preserving body fluids “for survival,” he wrote in an e-mail, while “the higher sweat rate of men may be an adaptation strategy for greater efficiency of action or labor.”

Dr. Cable agreed. “Prehistoric men followed the herds,” he said, whatever the temperature, while the women, cleverly, sought out the shade. “It’s not a bad survival strategy,” he said, even today.”

Hm, so women are clever, but weak and less “adept” (her word, not mine) at physical activity while men are strong brutes who must be out in the sun all day to provide for the family.  Interesting.

But, but, but, you say, you’re just being nit-picky, you’re just looking for things that you can get all huffy about, you’re being unfair, I’m sure the author didn’t mean that, you say.  I’m sure Reynolds didn’t mean that, but that’s almost as bad.  She didn’t even think that this would raise a red flag.

It also brings up the question – how can science writers address studies that involve gender without people like me crying foul?  How are we supposed to report on things that are inherently tied into sex differences, that cannot be reported without describing the differences between males and females?  It’s a tough question*.

What I think happened here is this.  Reynolds had a study that has an interesting result.  Women and men sweat differently.  This is interesting because, as she explains, we don’t really know how sweating works and why it does what it does.  She got to the end of her piece, explaining the research relatively well (I’ll even forgive the “adept” part, and the grammar issue and chalk that up to indoctrination, next time though…).  Then she probably thought, “so what?”

It’s a common problem.  How will I end this article?  Why will readers be interested.  It’s a natural inclination to ask, “why?”  Why do women sweat differently?  The answer is, we don’t know.  That should have been her answer.  Instead, she dabbled in “evolutionarily defined” sex roles that scientists actually don’t know much about.  And, probably because she didn’t have time, she didn’t even get those ideas from an social archaeologist or an evolutionary biologist.

Reporting on sex differences isn’t easy.  Studying it isn’t easy either.  But reporters should report what the study found.  This is where Reynolds goes wrong.  She doesn’t just report what the study found, she reports speculation about what it might mean about gender roles.  The study didn’t find that.  In fact, no study has found that men stayed out in the sun too long and women stayed in the shade.  Reynolds wandered into speculationland – one that’s heavily informed by a male dominated lens.

Obviously Reynolds isn’t intentionally being sexist – but that’s the problem.  She thought this was a simple “so what” addition to her story that would make it relevant to readers.  Unfortunately, in trying to make it relevant to readers she’s also made it relevant to women who might say “hey, wait a minute.”  Next time, maybe she’ll think twice about jumping into gender roles when they’re not part of the study.

*Some feminists theorists will take a harder line on this than I do.  They will say that gender is simply a social construct, that the medicalization of gender has caused this kind of sexism and division.  If you’re interested in learning more about gender as a social construct, please visit here and here.

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