Neuroscience and the Gender Fallacy

Arthur Wenk, Certified by OACCPP and EMDRIA

Theravive Counseling


Neuroscience and the Gender Fallacy

For more than a century men have been employing bad science in support of gender stereotypes.  In 1887, evolutionary biologist George J. Romanes wrote, "Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former." [quoted in Fine, p.141]  In 1915 the neurologist Dr. Charles L. Dana offered a scientific argument against women's suffrage:  "There are some fundamental differences between the bony and nervous structures of women and men.  The brain stem of woman is relatively larger; the brain mantle and basal ganglia are smaller.  These structural differences … point the way to the fact that woman's efficiency lies in a special field and not that of political initiative or of judicial authority." [quoted in Fine, p.131]

We laugh at such arguments, based on antiquated notions of human anatomy, yet as recently as 2005 Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, speculated that "women might be intrinsically less capable, on average, of high-level science." [Fine, p.129]  Support for Summers' position came from Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sasha, of Borat fame), who cited a study of newborns by his graduate student Jennifer Connellan, an experiment repeatedly brought forth to support the notion that "girls are born prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects." [Fine p.112]

This experiment has been mentioned so often in the popular media that it is worth looking at in some detail.  The choice of newborn infants as subjects was designed to counter the argument that gender differences occur largely through socialization.  In the experiment, infants were offered a mobile and Jennifer Connellan's face to look at, and their responses were recorded.  As a group, males looked longer at the mobile than did females, and females, as a group, looked longer at the face than at the mobile.

In a proper test of visual preferences, subjects would be presented with two stimuli simultaneously.  Otherwise you don't know whether limits to a baby's attention span are reflected in the so-called preferences.  But in Connellan's study the face and the mobile were presented separately.  In a proper test, the experimenter would have remained ignorant of the baby's genders, in order to prevent bias, but Connellan, knowing the genders of her subjects, could easily have inadvertently influenced the results.  Finally, any experiment that promotes an important change in our way of thinking needs to be replicated by other scientists.  After nine years, Connellan's experiment has yet to be successfully replicated.  In fact other, more carefully designed studies, have observed no gender differences in eye gaze.  But small, possibly non-existent differences in newborn babies are enough for Simon Baron-Cohen to conclude that "the female is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.  The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."  [Quoted in Fine, p.xix]

Another mathematical aspect of gender studies merits attention.  Suppose that there are no significant gender differences in the brains of newborns.  Nonetheless, random variations will produce "significant" differences one time in twenty, or five percent of the time.  (Whence the phrase "ninety-five percent confidence," a standard measure of significance in statistics.)  Because of the elevated popular interest in gender differences, studies reporting such differences receive eager attention from journal editors whereas so little interest attaches to studies reporting no differences that researchers are reluctant even to submit them, producing what has been termed the "file drawer effect" in which studies unlikely to be published are simply filed away.

Gender distinctions popularly attributed to "innate" differences in the brain are frequently refuted by enlarging one's cultural or temporal focus.  Boys in the United States regularly outperform girls on standardized math and science tests.  But girls in Iceland and Thailand outperformed boys on an international math exam administered to fifteen-year-olds in forty different nations, "challenging the idea that boys' brains are innately better wired for this subject." [Eliot, p.208]  Perhaps the supreme measure of mathematical excellence in the young is the International Mathematical Olympiad, a competition involving up to ninety-five countries.  The problems are so difficult that "every year just a few students (or sometimes even none) get a perfect score. …  Yet girls are among those who achieve perfect scores. "  [Fine, p.182]  Still, the representation of girls on IMO teams varies considerably from one country to another.  During a ten-year period no girls competed for Japan while seven competed for South Korea.  Many more girls were included on the team from Slovakia than the team from the neighbouring Czech Republic.  Cordelia Fine concludes that "mathematical eminence is not fixed, or hardwired or intrinsic, but is instead responsive to cultural factors that affect the extent to which mathematical talent is identified and nurtured, or passed over, stifled, or suppressed in males and females." [Fine, p.184]

If mathematical or scientific ability were innate, we would expect consistency over time, but this is not the case.  "A few decades ago, most biology and math majors were men.  So were most doctors.  Now math undergraduate majors split close to 50/50.  In 1976, only 8 percent of Ph.D.s in biology went to women; by 2004, 44 percent did.  Today, half of M.D.s go to women.  Even in engineering, physics, chemistry, and math, the number of women receiving doctorates tripled or quadrupled between 1976 and 2001." [quoted in Fine, p.119]

Neuroscience does have much to tell us about the training and performance of young minds, but the key concept is not "hard-wired" or "innate" but "plasticity."  As Norman Doidge writes in The Brain That Changes Itself, "We can change the very structure of the brain itself and increase its capacity to learn." [Doidge, p.47]  The brain is not hard-wired but plastic.  The concept of plasticity has enormous consequences for the education of boys and girls.  Boys typically begin reading later than girls and often encounter difficulties reading during the early grades.  Advocates of "hardwiring" have helped to produce a culture that encourages parents and teachers to accept this difference.  But recent studies in the neural basis of reading reveal the effect of dyslexia and phonological processing as impediments to reading.  Proper intervention, recognizing the importance of plasticity particularly in children, can overcome these obstacles.  "Such problems can be overwhelmingly avoided if vulnerable children are identified and given the appropriate phonological instruction at an early age. … Education, not biology, is both the cause and the answer to sex differences in reading skill." [Eliot, pp. 199, 201]

What about the difficulties girls encounter with mathematics?  In the lower grades girls regularly outscore boys in mathematics, but by high school many girls have come to believe that "math is for men" and put their efforts elsewhere.  The explanation would seem to lie in socialization.  A key factor in mathematical excellence is spatial intelligence, "the ability to visualize, manipulate, and remember object locations, directions, motion, and trajectories." [Eliot, p.216]  Boys typically outperform girls in this area.  But is this the result of "innate, hardwired differences in the brain" or the fact that boys' activities constantly involve spatial pursuits:  building with blocks, throwing, catching and batting balls, and the like?  Despite the attitude that "spatial abilities are hard-wired, the skills themselves—mental rotation, line orientation, distance estimation, direction sense—are a matter of experience, or 'practice, practice, practice.'" [Eliot, p.232]  Although spatial ability may be regarded as one of the cardinal intelligences, it is seldom taught in school.  Both boys and girls would profit from its inclusion within the curriculum

Neuroscience has repeatedly been invoked in the battle over gender differences even though socialization plays a far greater role in producing these differences than elusive brain distinctions among newborns.  What are some of the consequences of reinforcing gender stereotypes?

  • Women are directed away from leadership and entrepreneurial careers
  • Women are systematically excluded from higher-paying positions with greater opportunities for promotion
  • Women are discouraged from careers in engineering, computer science, and surgery
  • Even today, in the twenty-first century, jobs held by women are considered lower status than traditional male jobs

     Those of us in the field of mental health—psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists—who do understand how the brain works, have a responsibility to challenge misapplications of neuroscience just as we would challenge expressions of racism or sexism.  We need to develop "far more sceptical attitudes toward claims made about sex differences in the brain. … Neurosexism promotes damaging, limiting, potentially self-fulfilling stereotypes." [Fine, p.174]

The popular press has credulously accepted speculation and bad science and elevated it to the status of fact.  Misconceptions about male and female brains become part of the culture, accepted by parents and teachers, adults having the greatest influence on young minds.  These supposed facts "reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain."  [Fine, p.186]  We in the mental health professions have an obligation to challenge neurosexism.


Doige, Norman (2007).  The Brain That Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.  New York:  Penguin Books.

Eliot, Lise (2009).  Pink Brain, Blue Brain:  How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We can Do About It.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Fine, Cordelia (2010).  Delusions of Gender:  How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.  New York:  W. W. Norton

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