Tag Archives: gender verification

Our Brains Are Gendered … by the Scientists Who Study Them


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.”

Excuse Me, Ma’am. May I See Your Gender Card?


Laurie and Debbie say:

03intersex3-articleLarge“Sex verification” in women’s sports, especially amateur sports, has a long and checkered history. The Olympics required gender cards like the above from 1968 to 1998, subjecting women to humiliating, unnecessary, and scientifically indefensible physical examinations. They relaxed their policies somewhat in the late 1990s–for a while.

As Ruth Padawer reports in the New York Times, chromosome testing has been replaced by monitoring testosterone levels–only in women, and generally in women who are either extremely fine athletes or have some “male” physical characteristics, or both. Women who have never  given a moment’s thought to questioning their gender are put through a grueling process to prove that they are not somehow “too male” to compete.

When [India’s outstanding runner Dutee] Chand arrived in Delhi, she says, she was sent to a clinic to meet a doctor from the Athletics Federation of India — the Indian affiliate of the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.), which governs track and field. He told her he would forgo the usual urine and blood tests because no nurse was available, and would order an ultrasound instead. That confused Chand, but when she asked him about it, she recalls, he said it was routine.

Chand had no idea that her extraordinary showing in Taipei and at a national championship earlier that month had prompted competitors and coaches to tell the federation that her physique seemed suspiciously masculine: Her muscles were too pronounced, her stride was too impressive for someone who was only five feet tall. The doctor would later deny that the ultrasound was a response to those reports, saying he ordered the scan only because Chand had previously complained of chronic abdominal pain. She contends she never had any such pain.


Because of her exceptional athletic abilities, Chand went through a grueling and invasive series of tests, only to be told that her testosterone levels were “too high” and that she could not compete as a woman.

After her results came in, officials told her she could return to the national team only if she reduced her testosterone level — and that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete for a year. The particulars of her results were not made public, but the media learned, and announced, that Chand had “failed” a “gender test” and wasn’t a “normal” woman. For days, Chand cried inconsolably and refused to eat or drink. “Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual,” Chand told me. “I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation.”

Pradawer’s long, detailed article is an excellent overview of gender testing, particularly in amateur athletics, since the 1930s, including discussion of the well-known case of South African runner Castor Semenya, who “established her gender” sufficiently to win a silver medal in 2012 and who will be competing in Rio. Like Semenya, Chand chose to fight her case:

In court, the I.A.A.F. acknowledged that men’s natural testosterone levels, no matter how high, were not regulated; the rationale, it said, was that there was no evidence that men with exceptionally high testosterone have a competitive advantage. Pressed by Chand’s lawyer, the I.A.A.F. also conceded that no research had actually proved that unusually high levels of natural testosterone lead to unusually impressive sports performance in women either. Nor has any study proved that natural testosterone in the “male range” provides women with a competitive advantage commensurate with the 10 to 12 percent advantage that elite male athletes typically have over elite female athletes in comparable events. In fact, the I.A.A.F.’s own witnesses estimated the performance advantage of women with high testosterone to be between 1 and 3 percent, and the court played down the 3 percent figure, because it was based on limited, unpublished data.

Chand’s witnesses also pointed out that researchers had identified more than 200 biological abnormalities that offer specific competitive advantages, among them increased aerobic capacity, resistance to fatigue, exceptionally long limbs, flexible joints, large hands and feet and increased numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibers — all of which make the idea of a level playing field illusory, and not one of which is regulated if it is innate.

Other female athletes have had medical treatment for testosterone reduction, and also surgical treatment to reduce clitoris size, just so they will be allowed to compete.

Chand has provisionally won her case:

… the judges said that the I.A.A.F.’s policy was not justified by current scien­tific research: “While the evidence indicates that higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone may increase athletic performance, the Panel is not satisfied that the degree of that advantage is more significant than the advantage derived from the numerous other variables which the parties acknowledge also affect female athletic performance: for example, nutrition, access to specialist training facilities and coaching and other genetic and biological variations.”

The judges concluded that requiring women like Chand to change their bodies in order to compete was unjustifiably discriminatory.

However, the I.A.A.F. has until July 2017 to bring new evidence and change the policy, but meanwhile Chand pushed herself to the limit to overcome her lost time, and will be the first Indian woman to run the 100-meter race in the Olympics in just over 25 years.

However, many other women (as Chand repeatedly says in the article, most of them from poor backgrounds) face similar humiliation, oversight, and potential defeat–especially if the I.A.A.F. manages to overturn the ruling next year.

Once again, an arbitrary, unscientific “standard” is imposed only on women who have the temerity to do something that society codes as “male.” The women targeted are usually the ones with the fewest resources to fight back. And once again, primarily male rulemakers get to decide what women can and cannot do with our bodies. Women keep fighting back, winning remarkable victories which are then so often negated by the next generation of arbitrary standards.

We’ll be rooting for Dutee Chand in the 100 meters … and in the 2017 court challenge.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the link!