Monday 14 October 2019

Winning at twinning: Why life is better with a twin brother

A new study suggests women with a male twin are less likely to thrive academically and in their careers, and less likely to get married. Julia Molony speaks to two Irish women and their twin brothers who believe their sibling relationship has helped, rather than hindered them

Winning team: Dancing twins Gavin and Niamh Shevlin
Winning team: Dancing twins Gavin and Niamh Shevlin
Winning team: Dancing twins Gavin and Niamh Shevlin

Don't tell Scarlett Johansson. Or Alanis Morissette, both of whom have twin brothers, but science suggests they might be at a disadvantage in life by virtue of having once shared a womb with a boy.

According to a study published last week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, being the girl in a male/female twin pair can be an impediment in life. Researchers from Northwestern University looked at the lives of over 13,000 pairs of twins and found that when compared to women with a twin sister, those with a twin brother tend to earn less in their careers; they do less well in school; have reduced fertility, and are less likely to graduate or get married.

The researchers think the cause might relate to the fact that females who share a womb with a male are exposed to elevated levels of testosterone prenatally. This, they speculate, might have an impact on their behaviour growing up and in adulthood, with a knock-on effect on educational attainment and their ability to create relationships.

Clearly that extra dose of testosterone has done little to hold back Johansson and Morissette, both of whom are undisputed high-achievers in life, and arguably considerably more accomplished than their brothers. (Hunter Johansson has dabbled in acting and politics, while Wade Morissette is a yoga therapist and reiki master).

Closer to home, Louise Carr, a 48-year-old dental hygienist from Dublin whose twin brother Graham Carr is a financial adviser, says the study in no way reflects her experiences. She is adamant that, "I wasn't in any way disadvantaged as a result of being born a twin."

On the contrary, Louise argues, having a male twin has provided benefits that other girls her age didn't get to enjoy. "Growing up, as a young child and a teenager I would have found that I got on well with boys just on a platonic basis, whereas some of my friends would have been terrified. They wouldn't have wanted to speak to boys because they didn't have the courage, they were fearful of them almost," she says.

Take two: Louise Carr and her twin Graham have always been supportive of each other. Photo: Frank McGrath
Take two: Louise Carr and her twin Graham have always been supportive of each other. Photo: Frank McGrath

"As a girl with a male twin I probably had a lot better insight into what boys were really like than my other friends who were girls of the same age."

Her brother Graham is even more unequivocal. "It's rubbish," he says when asked his point of view on the study. "I've always though Louise had it pretty good. She's done quite well for herself and I don't think she's experienced any disadvantages."

He agrees that being part of a male/female twin contributes to a sense of well-being in later life. He and Louise have always been very close and they remain so today. "We help each other out. We always look out for each other and go out of our way for each other."

If anything, Louise, who is married with one son, believes that the extra confidence she has enjoyed as a result of having a twin brother has been a boon to her career. "When I went to college or to work I was always comfortable in male company. No matter how successful the male was I was well able to speak on the same level even though I might have been one of the few women in the class or the group or the surgery. The main advantage was socially. I'm able to communicate with men on an equal basis," she says. "When I was born in 1970, women might not have been as equal then. And in the late '80s and early '90s when I was going to college or getting ready to go to work, I was well able to speak up and stand up for myself in front of men, especially in the work place."

Of course, context is everything, and one of the authors of the twin study suggests that their findings may be explained by the differences in cultural expectations between boys and girls, with girls who demonstrate more testosterone-influenced behaviour being disadvantaged in particular social contexts. Chis Kuzawa, professor of anthropology at Northwestern commented: "The evidence here is there likely are biological effects of prenatal testosterone, but how they actually manifest is a product of a particular society. What behaviours are considered problematic or encouraged is a cultural phenomenon."

We can speculate then, that exposure to extra prenatal testosterone might offer an advantage to some women in certain situations. Perhaps it has played a role in the extraordinary life stories of some Irish women who break the mould in male-dominated fields.

Such as Averil Deverell, who in 1921 became one of the first two women called to the bar in Ireland and the UK. She had a twin brother. As does Ellie Mae Garland, a current European Junior Boxing champion and leaving cert student from Clonmel who alongside her twin, Jerome, recently became the first Irish male/female twin pair to box for Ireland.

For dancer Niamh Shevlin, having a twin brother has been a factor that has spurred her on to greater heights of achievement. She and her brother Gavin are professional Irish dancers and perform together as The Shevlin Twins. Gavin is a two-time World Champion dancer and Niamh says their careers have gone from strength to strength since they started performing together. "We're working together towards the same thing," she says. "Especially when we're dancing together."

Gavin agrees. "As soon as we started working together without fighting we started to move up the ranks in the competitions," he says. "Before we weren't doing that good at all."

Gavin also thinks the support of having a twin has been essential to their success.

"We used to be competing against each other, but it was never wanting to beat each other.

"As long as both of us were doing well we were happy," he says.

"We're always there for each other to motivate each other," adds Niamh. "It's a reminder of why we're there. We've always had the same goals and we're working towards the same thing, which has made it twice as easy for us to get there, because the two of us were doing the same thing, we both knew what we wanted."

She too believes the study from Northwestern University in no way chimes with her experience. "I think, with us, we peaked in different areas. I always took more of an interest in school and so was more successful academically," she says. At school, "We would argue and Gavin used to copy my homework and mum and dad would be going mad then. We always had to split up in the class room, we couldn't sit beside each other. When we went to secondary school it settled down a bit."

Ultimately, Niamh thinks the benefits of having a twin brother far outweigh any potential disadvantages. "I've always found that although a lot of my friends are girls I found it a lot easier to talk to boys," she says. And there is no substitute for the support and security that comes from having a twin brother by your side. "Whenever we're going out together we've got the same group of friends.

"If I was going out and Gavin wasn't there I'd feel uncomfortable if no one was there to look out for me.

"It put our parents' minds at ease too when we were growing up together, that we were always there to look out for each other, because we were always together."

Irish Independent

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