Is your brain male or female?
That was the title of BBC documentary in 2014. In one of the documentary interviews, Michael Mosley, a British physician claimed that “studies” have found that women are better at “empathizing and communicating”, while men are better at “systematising” which means understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music. Michael Mosley has been strongly influenced by the work of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who argued that the differences between male and female brains occur because of the higher testosterone levels in the womb. No need to say who have the highest levels.
Simon Baron-Cohen is so confident that there is a link between foetal testosterone and mathematical ability that
….’he expresses concern that a future, hypothetical prenatal treatment for autism that blocks the action of foetal testosterone might reduce ‘that baby’s future ability to attend to details and to understand systemic information like maths’.
In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine spends a lot of time discussing the topic of foetal testosterone, exposes the bad science and reveals how unconscious gender bias influences people’s behaviour. Her initial motivation, she says in an interview in the American Scientist, was “simply to alert people to the fact that old-fashioned stereotypes are being dressed up in neuroscientific finery, and to remind people not to be so enthralled with brain imaging that they forget the importance of social factors.”
She discusses research into hormonally-driven “hard-wiring” of gendered interests, behaviours and aptitudes, aka neurosexism. She is also funny!
…. [W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine’s claim (Louann Brizendine is an American neuropsychiatrist) that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let’s work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book (The female brain, 2007). We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, “All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.
There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, says Cordelia Fine, but the wiring is soft. Thinking, learning, sensing can all change neural structure directly. As Bruce Wexler has argued, one important implication of this neuroplasticity is that we are not locked into the absolute hardware of our ancestors. We are not prisoners of our genders or our genes.
“ In addition to having the longest period during which brain growth is shaped by the environment, human beings alter the environment that shapes their brains to a degree without precedent among animals ….. It is this ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alternation of the genetic code itself. This transgenerational shaping of brain function through culture also means that processes that govern the evolution of societies and cultures have a great influence on how our individual brains and minds work.”
In the epilogue of her book, Fine writes:
The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, “gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around.”
As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don’t expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won’t. “Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones,” point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers.
And gender differences in the mind can shift from moment to moment: for example, as stereotype threat is created or dispersed, or self-identity changes. But also, our actions and attitudes change the very cultural patterns that interact with the minds of others to coproduce their actions and attitudes that, in turn, become part of the cultural milieu: in short, “culture and psyche make each other up.” When a woman persists with a high-level math course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotions, values, interests, hormones, and brains – because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.
Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.