Women in Science

Calling All Female Brains: Stop the 'Neurosexism'

Friday, December 13, 2013

Research now finds sex-linked differences in the neural connections. So what? The media's rush to pop-psychologize the findings fuels retro gender stereotypes that only raise the obstacles to workplace advancement.

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Brain model
 

Credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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(WOMENSENEWS)--The news media are at it again; suggesting that a new study proves the old gender stereotypes about women being good at intuition and social skills and men being better at understanding systems and action.

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used high-tech imaging on the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged 8 to 22 and found neural pathway differences between men and women. (The study was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.)

As the Guardian explained it, "Women's brains are suited to social skills and memory, men's to perception and coordination."

Other coverage was similar. CBS news decreed: "For any woman who's felt they've tried – and failed – to reason with a man or men who think they're better at taking action, a new scientific study confirmed those suspicions."

Anderson Cooper mused on CNN that maybe the Mars and Venus idea about the sexes was correct. The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, "There may be some truth to commonly held beliefs about what makes men and women tick."

Turning scientific data into this kind of instant pop psychology ignores the complexity of brain science as history has shown.

Nineteenth century science decided that men's larger brains made them intellectually superior. Because of their relatively smaller brains, women were said not to be capable of high-level rational thought. They certainly did not belong in universities, and for centuries were not admitted to them.

But we later learned that intelligence does not vary much between men and women. In this case, brain size means little.

What do the different neural connections between the sexes mean? Just the fact that they exist tells us precious little. Most neuroscientists today agree that a major mystery of the brain is the relationship between structure and function.

The study also tells us nothing about culture and socialization, which have a huge effect on behavior. In her 2010 book "Delusions of Gender," neuroscientist Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne offered an exhaustive examination of more than 650 peer-reviewed studies. She concludes that social learning and cultural expectations account for most observed differences between the sexes.

Brain Is Always Changing

The brain is changing and making new connections all through our lives. Our choices--and those that are made for us, especially when we are children--are the main forces that shape our destiny. No static, innate tangle of neurons does it, though of course biology does play a role.

The notion that you can explain observed gender differences in behavior by gender differences in brain structures or hormones is, according to Fine, "sexism disguised in neuroscientific finery"--or what she calls "neurosexism."

Behavior is not static. Skills that we think are hardwired turn out not to be. For example, tests usually show that men have better mental-rotation skills than women; imagining how objects will appear when they are rotated in space.

A group of Canadian scientists observed that young people who played video games that involved tracking had superior mental-rotation skills. Instead of just noting that the males did better than the females, and chalking the difference up to female brains, the team took another step. The low scorers were divided into two groups; one group spent 10 hours playing tracking video games, while the others did not get such training. What happened? The training almost completely eradicated the gender gap in mental-rotation skills. And when the researchers checked back six months later, the group that had received the training had retained their gains.

Not a lot of "hardwiring" there.

Another popular notion is that males are inherently better at math than females.

True? Not according to a huge study by Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz of the University of Wisconsin. They analyzed scores from more than half a million fourth-

and eighth- graders from more than 60 countries. Their conclusion: There were essentially no gender differences between girls and boys in math performance. In the few instances where a slight difference did occur, Mertz said that it "is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance."

Assumptions About Male Brain

Men's brain structures presumably lead to a lack of emotion and ability to communicate.

In the bestseller "The Female Brain," Louann Brizendine claims: "A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can't spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm."

Men are supposedly more likely than women to respond to a coworker's problems by giving advice, joking, changing the subject or giving no response. For men, it's said, status and dominance are important. Women supposedly respond to a colleague's problem by sharing a similar problem or expressing sympathy.

But this is not true, according to researchers at the University of New Hampshire.  

When confronted with other people's problems, men and women use essentially the same types of responses. Both men and women largely provide support by giving advice and expressing sympathy. The sexes are remarkably alike in the types of support they provide. The clear conclusion: Gender differences in communication, especially giving support to others, are relatively small in magnitude. Men are fully able to both offer and receive supportive communications. Women have no special "communication" style.

All this matters because media coverage of what men and women can and can't do fuels the spread of stereotypes.

We found, in the research for our book "The New Soft War on Women," that old gender stereotypes didn't disappear, they just went underground. They are more subtle and harder to see, but they have not lost their power. The idea that women's brains or hormones or "natures" do not suit them for leadership, make them irrational and out of control or good at communicating, but bad at decision making, are toxic. Such stereotypes are the major obstacles to women who are trying to advance in the workplace.

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