Exploring how biological sex and gender influence our brain, body and behavior.

Dr. Jeannette Wolfe, MD

My Story

I first stumbled upon research examining sex and gender differences when I was searching for literature on how to prevent my own professional burnout. Although I was usually comfortable with the medical decision making associated with my job, I was having a great deal of difficulty effectively managing all the different needs of those I encountered- sick patients, scared family members, exhausted consultants, overwhelmed nurses, second guessing administrators etc. In retrospect, I now realize that effective communication in high stress situations is an absolute critical skill for emergency medicine and yet most of us receive little actual training in it.

At the time, I was spending way too much energy either actively dodging difficult conversations or fumbling through them and then later endlessly replaying them when they didn’t go so well. It was truly exhausting and when I asked physician colleagues (who were then almost all male) for tips, I quickly realized that although they too had their fair share of conflict, the way they approached and resolved it seemed somehow elusively quite different.

All this left me with the erroneous impression that how we communicate and resolve conflict is predetermined by our innate personality and is essentially unalterable. This caused me to really question whether I could do emergency medicine for the long haul. Fortunately, I serendipitously discovered two books, Same Words Different Language by Barbara Annis and Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax. These books literally reframed my world as they introduced me to the emerging brain science on differences in biological sex and gender (as a reminder the term “biological sex” refers specifically to our chromosomal and hormonal make up, and “gender” to how we identify ourselves within a societal context).

Things finally started to make more sense as I realized that often times men and women simply “perceive” things differently because much of the machinery of our brain – its type and numbers of neurotransmitters and its bundles of neuronal superhighways – is influenced by our biological sex. In this light, I found it easier to depersonalize conflict as men and women’s intentions and perceptions were often simply unintentionally cross firing.

Importantly, further reading (Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Sabastian Seung’s Connectome) introduced me to the concept of neuroplasticity and our ability to literally change our brain’s wiring through deliberate and repetitive practice. So yes, we are all born with certain chromosomal/ hormonal templates and genetic predispositions, yet who we ultimately “are” is a continually evolving process that is greatly influenced by our environment and our mindsets. We all innately possess the ability to change our own undesirable habits.

Since then my interest has expanded beyond neuroscience to the world of Sex and Gender Based Medicine which is the medical field that examines how men and women respond – either similarly or differently – to the same infection, trauma, toxins, therapy, drugs, etc.

Through reading hundreds and hundreds of papers I now understand that the dogma we were taught in medical school about men and women being basically physiologically the same outside of our reproductive organs, is unequivocally false. Some of our identified medical differences (and we are only at the tip of the iceberg in the discovery of what differences actually exist) are trivial but others are critically important. My goal for this website is to share some of this emerging science so that we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

What I Do

Read a lot – preferably with really good coffee. I also write, podcast and lecture about how biological sex and gender impacts our health and our actions. As discussions related to anything about sex and gender can quickly become extremely tricky, my only request for using this website or listening to my podcasts is that you approach the material we are going to cover with an open and curious mind. We all have some kind of baggage around this stuff, but the stakes have simply become too high to ignore that important sex and gender differences don’t actually exist.

In the last several years there has been an explosion of research examining the influence of biological sex and gender in medical care. Not only does studying men and women side by side allow us to double check that our medical “facts” (things we learned by studying only male animals and male humans) actually apply to women, but it can also identify new ways to help men. This is because in some instances, like severe traumatic brain injury and certain types of infection, females have a natural advantage in prognosis. Importantly, once these areas are identified, scientists can then figure why they occur and develop new therapies to mitigate the differences.