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No, Our Brains Aren't Hardwired According to Gender Stereotypes

Did neuroscience just throw a wet blanket on gender equality?
December 3, 2013, 8:20pm

Image via the study

About the last thing 21st-century women still struggling to overcome the limitations of pervasive gender roles need is scientific proof backing those stereotypes up. But that's what we now have, thanks to a new study that found male and female brains are hardwired to have different innate abilities. Did neuroscience just throw a wet blanket on gender equality?

The study lends credence to long-held inklings that women are more adept at things like multitasking and socializing, while men have superior motor skills and are better at focused tasks like reading maps. The research chalks this up to stark differences in how the neural networks are linked. It looked at male and female “connectomes”—maps of the neural connections in the brain—and found women were wired with stronger connections from left to right—indicative of being able to mix reason with emotion and intuition—and men from front to back—associated with perception and coordinated action, like reading maps or riding a bike.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania arrived at the provocative conclusion after looking at nearly 1,000 brain maps from men and women ages 8 to 33. The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, is pretty significant—the largest to gender-based connectivity differences in the brain. But what’s concerning is the narrative that’s bound to follow in its wake. It was counterproductive enough to suggest women aren't in, say, engineering fields because it's clear they're not as good at engineering as men are, but now there’s a biological basis for that baloney?

Without leaving room for the nuances of the conversation, using the brain to explain away why most doctors are men and teachers are women could undo years of progress expunging these kinds of stereotypes. For one, the results represent averages, not individuals. (I for one am an excellent map reader.) And of course, culture plays a huge role in determining our talents. Previous research into the brain's plasticity has found that behavior and experience can shape the mind as much as brain chemistry shapes behavior. In a way, the term "hardwired" is a misnomer in itself.

That raises questions like, do males have superior motor skills because of a biological reality, or does practicing the guitar as a young boy strengthen that particular region of the brain? Are women good listeners and empathetic because their mental makeup wills it so, or because regular social interaction boosts these social skills? Are men disinclined to stop and ask for directions because they're really good at reading maps, or could there be some cultural influences at play there?

Neuroscience researchers still don't know if the chicken or the egg came first. But common sense suggests some combination of the two shapes a person’s strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly, the study found that the small gender-based differences in the neural circuitry grew larger after puberty. That could be biological—sex hormones are kicking in—and the societal one—it's the time when kids face increasing social pressures to conform to gender roles.

Sure, if you look back to our hunter-gatherer days, it makes logical sense that human ability would be divided by gender. "It's quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are," study author Ruben Gur said in a news release.

But that was thousands and thousands of years ago. I think we're due for an update. If we can avoid excuses and temptations to fall back on lazy stereotypes, cultural norms might just continue to progress toward an equal playing field for both sexes, and who knows, maybe our brains will start to reflect that.