Gender and Our Brains

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book published in 2019 by Gina Rippon. Gina Rippon (born 1950) is professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre, Aston University, Birmingham, England. The subtitle is How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds. The following quote by Stephen Jay Gould from The Mismeasurement of Man is offered: “Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.

The penultimate chapter of the book has the title: “Mars, Venus or Earth? Have We Been Wrong About Sex All Along?” The chapter begins with a quote by Amanda Montanez, “The more we learn about sex and gender, the more the attributes appear to exist on a spectrum.”

Here is the first paragraph in the chapter: “As we have seen, the hunt for differences between the brains of men and women has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster. It has been a certainty as old as life itself that men and women are different. The empathic, emotionally and verbal fluent females (brilliant at remembering birthdays) could almost belong to a different tribe from the systematizing, rational, spatial skillful males (great with a map).”

Rippon reviews the claim that there are two distinct groups of people, who think, behave and achieve differently. She asks where might these differences come from. She has reviewed old arguments about the “essence” of males and females and the biologically determined, innate, fixed, hardwired processes that underpin their evolutionarily adaptive differences. And she has reviewed more recent claims that these differences are socially constructed, that men and women learn to be different, shaped from birth by the specific gendered attitudes, expectations and role-determining opportunities on offer in their environment. She mused on even more recent versions that acknowledge the entangled nature of the relationship between brain and culture in which they function, an understanding that our brain characteristics can be just as much a social construction as the printout of a genetic blueprint.

Regardless of the cause, the fundamental premise is that there are differences that need explaining. Whether we are filling empty skulls with birdseed, or tracking the passage of radioactive isotopes through the pathways of the brain, or testing empathy or spatial cognition we will find these differences. Both separately and together, through the centuries, psychologists and neuroscientists have pursued the question what makes men and women different? The answers have been extensively researched, widely reported, and either enthusiastically believed or heavily criticized.

However, in the twenty-first century, psychologists and neuroscientists are beginning to question the question. Exactly how different are men and women, not only at the behavioral level but at the fundamental brain level? Have we spent all this effort looking at two separate groups who aren’t actually that different, and might not even be distinct groups.

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