Our Brains Are Gendered … by the Scientists Who Study Them

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Lise Eliot, in her review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain sums up the central message of the book as “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.” Since our aggressively gendered world produces endless myths about gendered bodies, gendered emotions, and gendered preferences, no one should be the least surprised that (extremely gendered) neuroscientists have extended this simplistic binary into the realms of neuroscience.

The history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse. Rippon, a leading voice against the bad neuroscience of sex differences, uncovers so many examples in this ambitious book that she uses a whack-a-mole metaphor to evoke the eternal cycle. A brain study purports to discover a difference between men and women; it is publicized as, ‘At last, the truth!’, taunting political correctness; other researchers expose some hyped extrapolation or fatal design flaw; and, with luck, the faulty claim fades away — until the next post hoc analysis produces another ‘Aha!’ moment and the cycle repeats. As Rippon shows, this hunt for brain differences “has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster”. And it has exploded in the past three decades, since MRI research joined the fray.

Eliot does not mention (so perhaps Rippon does not either) that any questions of gendered brains must rely on a certainty that we know which brains are male and which brains are female (and that all brains are one or the other), which is in itself a fatally flawed assumption on which to build. The International Olympics Committee, perhaps one of the organizations in the world with most to gain from being able to make a bright-line gender test, has repeatedly failed to be able to do so. In 2018, they simply gave up.

So all gendered neuroscience (“neurosexism”) rests on a faulty foundation. But Rippon, even if she doesn’t question the foundation, has many critical comments about the structure:

… the hunt for proof of women’s inferiority has more recently elided into the hunt for proof of male–female ‘complementarity’. So, this line goes, women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in a way that happens to coincide with biblical teachings and the status quo of gender roles. Thus, women’s brains are said to be wired for empathy and intuition, whereas male brains are supposed to be optimized for reason and action.

This was how researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia framed a highly touted 2014 MRI study that seared into the public imagination a picture of men’s and women’s brains as diametrically opposed subway maps: the connections in women are mostly between hemispheres, and those in men within them (M. Ingalhalikar et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 823–828; 2014). However, the map omits the vast majority of connections that did not differ between the study’s adolescent participants; nor did it control for puberty-related maturation or, once again, for brain size, all of which reduces apparent male–female difference.

According to Eliot, the last part of Rippon’s book

… brings us into the twenty-first century, although not to any happy ending. It focuses on women in science and technology, and how the gendered world — including the professionalization of science and a masculine stereotype of “brilliance” — has impeded their entry into, and advancement across, this high-status realm. Talented women are regarded as “workhorses”, men as “feral geniuses”, a distinction that children internalize by the age of six, according to research by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian (L. Bian et al. Am. Psychol. 73, 1139–1153; 2018). And all of this factors into the brain-building cycle of differential expectations, self-confidence and risk-taking that drives boys and girls down different trajectories of career and success.

“Brain-building” here is meant literally; as we learn what is expected of us, our brains (to some degree, at least) modulate themselves to fit. And the reinforcement is constant and vicious. Transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who transitioned after he had already built a career in neuroscience, is often quoted for his comment “By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Rippon apparently just touches the fringes of the questions of transgender and genderfluid people, noting that the vast majority of people are still locked within the gender binary. Eliot concludes “The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart.”