Women are more emotional. They can multi-task. They're better care-givers. Men are more rational. They keep their emotions in check. They are unbeatable in their ability to read maps.
These are the kind of claims perpetuated in pseudoscientific literature and media reports, with writers often pointing to neuroscience studies as evidence for a distinct neurological difference between men and women. It's in the brain; you can't argue with that.
Except a lot of these ideas have little scientific support; and even when they do appear to be backed by a scientific investigation, the conclusions drawn may not be as objective or clear-cut as you'd expect. Neuroscientists aren't immune from twisting their observations to fit sex and gender stereotypes—even when their own findings offer no scientific justification to do so.
Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne and the author of the acclaimed 2010 book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, calls this "neurosexism." In a commentary in a recent issue of the journal Neuroscience, she argues that this can lead to "a scientific literature that can be viewed as subtly biased toward a presentation of sex differences in the brain as more dichotomous, fixed, and functionally important in stereotype-consistent ways than is warranted."
Neuroscientists aren't immune from twisting their observations to fit sex and gender stereotypes
It's not sexist to observe potential differences between men's and women's brains, or to go looking for them. That's a valid query that could help us understand more about the functions and dysfunctions of our most mysterious organ, and help advance scientific and medical understanding as much as any other research that takes sex and gender into account. In an email conversation, Fine explained that, "Rather, neurosexism refers to the subtle and–in the popular media–not so subtle ways in which assumptions about the sexes can bias research design, analysis and interpretation."
There are a few general scientific differences between male and female brains. Men's brains are, on average, ten percent larger. There are also reports of different patterns of connectivity between male and female brains (though Fine pointed out this could be down to that size difference, not sex).
But problems arise when you try to take observations about the brain and draw links with stereotypically gendered behaviour. That's where scientific rigour can lapse and interpretations can fall into speculation based on tired old stereotypes.
Fine gave a recent study in PNAS as an example; researchers looked at sex differences in brain connectivity, and found that male subjects had more connectivity within the two hemispheres of their brain while females had more connectivity between hemispheres. So far, so interesting. Except they then suggested this could account for behavioural differences in men and women—which is really beyond the scope of an imaging study.
This kind of speculation tends to get exacerbated by popular reports—"she can't read a map; it's not in her nature;" "he can't do his own laundry; he's just not wired that way"—that feed back further into stereotypes that demean both women and men. An Independent article covering that study had the headline, "The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading.'"
As an example of quite how hasty researchers can be to draw flimsy links between neuroscientific observations and gendered behaviours, Fine pointed me to a 2013 paper published in Hypatia, a peer-reviewed journal of feminist philosophy. Robyn Bluhm, a philosopher at Old Dominion University in Virginia, investigated claims made in neuroimaging research.
She looked at neuroscience research that used fMRI scans to look at differences in brain activity associated with emotion in men and women, and concluded that "these researchers go to great lengths to make their results consistent with the view that women are more emotional than men."
It's an important area of focus, given the long-standing stereotype that women are more "emotional" and men are more "rational"—and the implicit suggestion that the two are unrelated and the latter is somehow superior to the former.
In one study Bluhm looks at, the authors unsurprisingly started with the hypothesis that women would show more activity on the scan in areas of the brain associated with emotion. In fact, though women reported a greater emotional response, they did not show the expected greater brain activity—in fact, men showed more activity in response to stimuli associated with one emotion: fear.
These researchers go to great lengths to make their results consistent with the view that women are more emotional than men
The researchers nevertheless resorted to stereotypical assumptions to explain their results, suggesting that the finding could be related to "more frequent and severe aggressive behavior in males than in females." Bluhm describes this explanation as "ad hoc," and adds, "It is also interesting that the authors do not consider the possibility that, despite what they report, men are more sensitive to fear."
In a couple of other studies, she suggests that researchers seem to leap to an assumption of a sex/gender difference when other factors offer a more obvious rationale for their results.
As well as perpetuating sex and gender stereotypes that often lead to discrimination, "neurosexism" could have the negative effect of obscuring or simplifying observations. Fine emphasised that there's no such thing as a "fixed" male and female brain, or a fixed brain at all.
"What non-human animal research has shown is that biological sex interacts in complex ways with many different factors (hormones, stress, maternal care, and so on) to influence brain development," she said.
As such the impact of sex on the brain is complex, and doesn't lead to two distinct types. Rather, everyone's brain is what she calls a "mosaic" of characteristics, some of which are considered male, others female. You're not just one or the other. "Then a critically important point is that a sex difference in the brain doesn't necessarily imply a sex difference in behaviour," she added.
And even if there is a general difference between male and female brains that results in different behaviour, it's problematic to think of this as some kind of "innate" quality. That ignores the many factors aside from sex and gender that could influence either your brain or behaviour, and the fact that these can change.
No one's suggesting that neuroscientists or other researchers set out to jump to sexist conclusions; it's likely a result of implicit assumptions based on an outmoded, essentialist view of sex and gender. In a paper earlier this year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Fine and three co-authors suggested principles that researchers and science communicators could use to help get over this bias.
After all, neuroscientists are not exempt from harbouring misconceptions around sex and gender. "This is an important message for neuroscientists," the researchers wrote of their recommendations, "because, unless they have specific expertise or knowledge in gender scholarship, they too are laypeople with respect to gender research, and may also be susceptible to gender essentialist thinking."
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