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Viewpoint: We can’t fight sexism by denying the science behind male-female brain differences

| April 24, 2019

Recently, Nature, one of the top scientific journals in the world, ran a review written by Lise Eliot of Gina Rippon’s new book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain. Both Eliot and Rippon, neuroscientists affiliated with Rosalind Franklin University and Aston University, respectively, are vocal supporters of the view that gender, and the corresponding differences we see between men and women, are socially constructed.

Not a week goes by without yet another research study, popular science book, or mainstream news article promoting the idea that (a) any differences between men and women in the brain are purely socially constructed and (b) these differences have been exaggerated beyond any meaningful relevance. More recently, this argument has evolved to contend that (c) there are, in fact, no brain differences between the sexes at all. Eliot’s article appears to subscribe to a hodgepodge of all three perspectives, which not only contradict one another but are also factually incorrect.

So begins the book review, titled, “Neurosexism: The myth that men and women have different brains.” “Neurosexism,” a term coined by philosopher of science, Cordelia Fine, brands as “sexist” any claim that sex differences in the brain have a bearing on our personalities and behavior. From this line of thinking, wanting to understand these differences from a scientific point of view is inherently suspect—“bad neuroscience” and “bad research practice,” in the words of Eliot—because only sexists and those seeking to subjugate women would presumably be interested in them.

It is a tired argument that incorrectly conflates the potential for bad applications of a research finding with the finding itself. We can acknowledge that male and female brains have differences in structure and function, on average, without subscribing to the belief that one sex is better than the other.

Eliot writes, “Rippon’s central message is that ‘a gendered world will produce a gendered brain,’” but also that “conclusive findings about sex-linked brain differences have failed to materialize.” Furthermore, in an interview with the Guardian, Rippon says it is “neurofoolishness” to suggest there are any brain differences associated with sex.

How anyone familiar with the neuroscientific literature can argue this with a straight face is puzzling. Even if we were to neglect the thousands of studies documenting the effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain, we need look no further than the largest neuroimaging study examining sex differences to date, published just last year in Cerebral Cortex. In a sample of 5,216 brains, the study found significant differences between the sexes. The amygdala, a region associated with appraising emotion, was larger in men, even when men’s larger overall brain size was taken into consideration. Another study, published last month in Nature’s very own Scientific Reports, found sex differences in grey matter volume among 2,838 participants.

Contrary to Eliot’s statement that Rippon’s book exposes “the surprisingly weak evidence for brain sex differences in newborns,” a 2016 paper, also in Nature’s Scientific Reports, showed how testosterone alters brain growth in utero.

French psychologist Gustave Le Bon is also dragged from the grave for saying, in 1895, that women “represent the most inferior forms of human evolution.” What is unclear is how it is relevant to take a quote from the 1800s and extrapolate from it a representation of today. James Damore and the Google memo also receive mentions as further evidence of “neurosexism,” when the truth is, as several of us have said before, Damore was correct to cite biologically-based sex differences in occupational interest as the reason why we don’t see a 50:50 ratio of women in tech.

I don’t deny that sexism exists, but sexism today is not so severe that it stands in the way of a woman achieving a career in science—or any field—if she really wants to. There are countless programs in place that encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in scientific disciplines.

On a personal note, I remember my reaction when I first came across the term “neurosexism” many years ago—I felt relief. As someone who had learned about feminist theory, I believed that gender was a social construct, and was pleased to see outspoken women finally calling out these outdated, misogynistic beliefs. I was, in fact, a fan of some of these scholars’ work. (To hear someone like Eliot publicly denouncing my writing has been both surreal and, in a strange way, complimentary.)

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I began studying sexology (the scientific study of sex), that I realized none of these ideas made any sense. The fact that biologically-based sex differences exist in the brain was undeniable. Furthermore, acknowledging these differences and wanting to understand them more clearly, was not, by definition, a sexist endeavor.

Considering that brain imaging studies cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars, a more effective use of these resources would be to promote a nuanced dialogue around acknowledging these group differences while also emphasizing that we should treat people as individuals. We should be questioning why femininity is devalued instead of pretending that it’s society’s fault that women aren’t identical to men. Pressuring women to be male-typical (and conversely, that men be more female-typical) is just as regressive as reinforcing stereotypical gender norms.

On top of this, misinformation only adds unnecessary confusion and damages basic science literacy. Happily embracing a distorted view of world, whether intentionally or out of ignorance, does nothing to promote gender equality. If anything, it offers evidence to those who are genuinely misogynistic that women aren’t as good at science and math.

As more and more scientific institutions jump on the social justice bandwagon, we will be hard-pressed to find scientists publishing papers demonstrating sex differences. Any such differences that are based in biology will be reframed as the result of socialization.

In a world where world-class scientists’ merit is now determined by their sex and skin color—with white men’s work being dismissed in the name of promoting women and minorities—I call on women who disagree with the suppression of sex differences to speak up, because it has negative implications on our health and wellbeing, too.

The science of sex differences isn’t perfect, but the response from the scientific community should be to improve its methods and to approach these questions with an openness to whatever one might find, instead of predetermining what the acceptable outcome should be and shaming suggestions to the contrary.

Eliot’s article ends with two claims that should leave neuroscientists and anyone with a cursory understanding of evolutionary biology, speechless: “The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart,” (sex differences have been observed in each one of these organs) and “‘biosocial straitjackets’…divert a basically unisex brain down one culturally gendered pathway or another.”

What on earth is a biosocial straitjacket?

Ultimately, we should all want equal rights for women. And we should all want sexism to end. But the way to achieve this is not to deny the role of biology, or to mislead the public with feel-good ideas that have no basis in reality.

Debra W. Soh holds a Ph.D. in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Follow her on Twitter @DrDebraSohA

A version of this article first appeared on Quillette as Science Denial Won’t End Sexism and has been republished here with permission.

Related article:  Podcast: Exactly how does the brain do something as simple as storing a phone number?

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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