Boys are hard-wired with navigational skills. Girls are biologically destined to empathize with others.
For more than two centuries, scientists have studied and reinforced these ideas, delivering findings that suggest men and women’s roles in society are rooted in differences in their brains.
But in her new book, Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, England-based researcher Gina Rippon takes a critical look at the scientific literature on the differences between male and female brains, and shows many oft-cited studies are coloured by gender stereotypes from the outset.
“Bias in, bias out,” writes Dr. Rippon, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University’s Aston Brain Centre in Birmingham, England.
She argues people’s preferences and cognitive abilities do not neatly fall into categories of male and female, nor are many of the presumed differences between men and women predetermined by biology.
Rather, as she explained in a phone interview with The Globe, they emerge from the brain’s ability to adapt to a gendered environment:
People have long debated how different male brains and female brains really are. Why did you feel the need to write this book now?
Oddly, I was actually interested in how brains got to be different because I’m an autism researcher, and there’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” So I was really interested in how we arrived at this enormous amount of variability within that population. But in general, it’s clear that if you’re comparing any groups – male and female is the classic one – there are huge amounts of variability, and we seem to ignore that.
I thought I would look at what has long been believed to be a very well-established difference – that male brains are different from female brains, and that was a biologically determined fact – and seeing how good the evidence was, and thinking I could apply a 21st-century neuroscience approach to the question. Actually when I started looking, what appeared to be well-established and supported by good evidence was actually not.
Lately, researchers have been trying to parse out sex differences in the brain to explain why men and women are disproportionately affected by diseases and disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke and depression. What do you make of this avenue of inquiry?
One of the comments my book has caused is that I’m a “sex-difference denier,” said in the same tone of voice as “climate-change denier.” I’m certainly not. I do think there are sex differences in the brain; there are bound to be, with respect to different roles in the reproductive process.
I was challenging the emphasis that’s been played on this for so long, but people say because I challenge it, I must be denying there are any. And then they say we have to look at sex differences in the brain because of evidence between Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, et cetera. Which I think is the case. But don’t stop there. You need to look at the environment people are working in, how they’re brought up, how they’re educated.
Sometimes if you do that, you find that the sex differences disappear, and it’s actually the experiences that people had.
You bring up the idea of the “mosaic brain." What is it?
My basic mantra is every brain is different from every other brain. If you talk about a mosaic, there’s no such single item type as a male brain or a female brain. The assumption has always been if you’re a male, then your brain has male characteristics and doesn’t have female, and vice versa.
But everybody is actually made up of a whole pattern of things, which is maybe due to their biology and maybe due to their different experiences in life. Understanding that is the best way forward to try to understand gender gaps.
You wrote: “gender stereotypes are a real brain-based threat that can divert brains from the endpoint they deserve.” Can you explain?
I use women in science as, I think, the best example of all. If you look at the expectations, to succeed in science, you need to be male, and if women do succeed in science, it’s for different reasons: it’s because they worked hard or they’ve got a great team, as opposed to being a genius.
If the environment is gendered in a way that expects different things from different people, then that will drive them down different pathways because our brains are constantly helpfully trying to help us negotiate the social minefield. But it may be that [the brain] will say, “I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that girls do or boys do, so better put your efforts elsewhere.”
You mention even very young babies can pick up these expectations, even when their parents try to be gender neutral. What can parents do to ensure their children don’t get boxed in by gender stereotypes?
Just keep an eye on the other sources of influence in children’s lives, and keep an eye on yourself too. Because sometimes we can be unconsciously biased. There’s a great phrase: we raise our boys to brave and our girls to be perfect. Now we know how much that can actually change brain development. Being aware of that is quite important.
Throughout the book, you point out that much of the neuroscience research on sex differences is tainted by bias. So how can neuroscience play a role in dispelling gender stereotypes?
The key issue is actually saying to researchers, look very carefully at the questions you’re asking. It’s being aware that just because you’re a scientist doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t biased. So challenge yourself: why am I actually looking for sex differences? Is this an important question to ask in the area I’m researching? And if you find a sex difference, well, what do you make of it?
This interview has been condensed and edited.