How Men and Women Think

Are mental differences between the sexes real?

Londa Schiebinger’s book, The Mind Has No Sex?, is an excellent survey of women’s role in the origins of modern science and the reasons for its decline. The title is drawn from a statement by a 17th century philosopher, François Poullain de la Barre. Based on his studies of the ‘new’ science of anatomy, he claimed that there was no evidence that women’s undoubtedly inferior position was due to some biological deficit, or lack of natural ability, and that, given appropriate opportunities, women would be as capable as men of high achievements in all spheres. “L’esprit n’a point de sexe” he declared.

It appears to have been downhill all the way since that optimistic statement. In parallel with the exclusion and disappearance of women from the realms of scientific enterprise and discovery, there is evidence of a powerful drive among (male) scientists towards applying the sexual differentiation associated with reproduction to all other aspects of the body, including the brain and hence the mind. Women’s development was described as being arrested at a lower stage of evolution, with brains and abilities to match.

Behind this was the assumption that a woman’s primary (if not sole) role in society, to be a mother/homemaker, is determined by her biology, and deviations from this destiny (such as becoming ‘over-educated’ or trying to enter ‘male’ occupations) would be damaging for her, her family and, presumably, the future of society. It was not an unspoken assumption either. This prejudice was supported by lofty statements from (male) authorities, full of rousing psychobabble about maternal instinct and the drive to be “womanly companions of men and to be mothers”. The stereotypical view was established of women’s essential nature as empathic, emotionally labile, cognitively fragile, wholly and inextricably linked to their destinies as wives and mothers and determined by their different brain structure and function.

Early brain and behaviour researchers enthusiastically entered into the task of collecting data to support this stereotype – 19th century neurologists cheerily matched their assumptions about which bit of the brain was the most important to their findings about which bits of the brain were largest in males, even if it meant reversing earlier conclusions. For example, researchers scoffed at the extensive parietal lobes in females when it was clear that the frontal lobes were ‘the repository of highest mental capacities’, But, during a brief fashion for identifying the parietal lobes as the seat of human intellect, they had to quickly back-pedal and report that female parietal lobes had been mismeasured and women actually had larger frontal areas than had previously been thought.

It was not scientific research’s finest hour. At the beginning of the 20th century, Helen Thompson Woolley in “A review of the recent literature on the psychology of sex” wrote:

“There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here.”

We might hope that today, well into the 21st century, this backward glance would be from a position of enlightened objective research results, free from the trammels of outdated stereotypes, where findings about the links between sex/gender, brain and behaviour had successfully harnessed the stunning technological advances in brain research to properly inform enquiries and conclusions about biological determinism and essential differences between men and women. Would that it were so!

There are two innovative concepts in this field that should have changed our understanding of the alleged role of the brain in gender differences.

Firstly we now know that the brain is immensely malleable or ‘plastic’, its structures and functions changeable not only by specific learning events but also by social contexts and attitudes. For example, ‘stereotype threat’ is a psychological phenomenon where the performance of individual members of negatively stereotyped groups can be detrimentally affected by this expectation of deficiency. We now know that this response is underpinned by changes in how our brains process information. Importantly, this plasticity is a process that remains active throughout most of our lives so, for good or ill, our cerebral characteristics are constantly being altered and updated by our life experiences.

Secondly, it is becoming clear that sex itself (in both its physical and its social, gendered, presentations) needs redefining. The fundamental sex-based dichotomisation into male or female, XX or XY, masculine or feminine, (Mars or Venus!), whereby it is assumed that men and women can be neatly divided into two groups distinguishable by non-overlapping physical characteristics, personality profiles or cognitive skill portfolios, no longer fits the evidence. International surveys and meta-analyses of decades of psychological research has shown there is much greater evidence of gender similarity than difference, that scores on dozens if not hundreds of behavioural measures cluster along a single dimension and not into two categories. To paraphrase the title of an excellent paper on this very theme, we are none of us from Mars or Venus, we are all from Earth. Even in the most fundamental aspect of our biology itself, the XX/XY genotype, contemporary research is showing that there is nothing like the neat dichotomies on which so many research interpretations have been based.

Armed with these advances, one would hope that we were no longer asking questions about whether men and women think differently, or explaining world-wide gender gaps in leadership, power, opportunity or achievement in terms of pre-determined differences in innate brain-based abilities. But we are, with new brain-imaging techniques even being hailed as sources of evidence of the ‘essential’ differences between men and women, and the concept of ‘hardwiring’ sneaking into popular parlance as a brain-based explanation for all kinds of alleged sex/gender differences.

So we need to alert ourselves to this new manifestation of the old 19th century determination to prove women’s inferiority. Sometimes those of us who are waging this campaign are labelled as ‘sex difference’ deniers, as trying to ‘remove’ biology from explanations of any kind of differences in aptitudes and abilities, behaviours and emotions. Not so! The brain is the basis of everything we do; the challenge is to understand and then communicate how much our brains are entangled with the world in which they function, how much the opportunities this world affords us and the attitudes that we find in this world will shape and mould these very brains. We need to rid the world of toxic stereotypes, to stop thinking about ourselves and others in terms of outmoded categories such as ‘male’ and female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and understand that differences in brains are not determined by the sex of their owners but by the expectations and opportunities the world has afforded them.

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