The Biggest Myth About Our Brains is That They are “Male” or “Female” Lila MacLellan
We take for granted how often laymen and even researchers use science—and specifically neuroscience—to “verify” stereotypes about gender: That men are naturally more competitive, for instance, or that women are more in touch with their emotions and better skilled at communicating.
Such notions aren’t just academic, but pervasive and potent, indirectly influencing the way we organize our households and organizations, not to mention the way we see our relationships, and even ourselves.
Recently, former Google engineer James Damore was fired from the company after writing a memo criticizing its diversity programs, and suggesting there may be biological reasons that women aren’t fully represented in engineering.
Studies have found that women care more about people than things, wrote Damore, who holds a graduate degree in biology and cited studies from both Wikipedia and reputable institutions.
“When I hear stories like the Google memo in the news, I think, Is this 1873 or 2017?” says Kimberly Hamlin, a professor of American Studies at Miami University.
Hamlin, who is the author of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America, says the same arguments about women’s abilities keep being repackaged with new natural reasoning because “naturalist” explanations for why there are few women in science and tech are easier to accept than the more complex structural ones.
…Today, these five researchers, while still working independently, also join forces in pairs or as a group to write papers for the scientific and popular press, and to respond to public issues about gender and neuroscience, explaining the many ways that neuroscience studies and their tantalizing headlines are misleading or misinterpreted.
When Damore’s Google memo took over the news cycle, for instance, the scientists were contacted by reporters from around the world. In Joel’s notes for Spanish reporters, which she shared with Quartz, she wrote:
“Studies do often find differences between women and men in specific cognitive tasks, personality characteristics, interests and attitudes. However many of these differences are very small; and some of the differences are different in different societies (for example, in some countries boys do better on average in math, whereas in others girls do better.)”
What’s more, many gender gaps can be eliminated with training, she added, a point which Rippon also made to the Guardian. With some practice playing the right sort of video game, women can boost their spatial reasoning skills to match those of boys.
Rippon and others have called also attention to brain plasticity, which complicates evidence from brain imaging tests since men and women are both saddled with gender expectations from the time of infancy, and develop skills and behavioral tendencies accordingly.
These learned behaviors could be responsible for literally changing the shape of certain structures in one’s brain, in the same way that memorizing London’s streets alters the physical structure of cabbies’ hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory.
Perhaps most importantly, studies have also shown that gender biases exist within science, and a researcher’s implicit assumptions can inform the methods and language they use to build a study.
Damore’s assertion in his memo that “women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things” is a timely example of how this happens, Fine writes to Quartz.
She explains that meta-analyses of career interest surveys have shown that 80% of men are more interested in “things,” compared to the average woman.
But some psychologists who have studied such surveys find them problematic because the “things” they include are often associated with men—the surveys do not try to gauge a subject’s interest in, say, taking apart and reassembling a dress.
….Regarding the question of whether certain traits that we call “male” or “female” (at least in the West) are determined by biology or socialization, Joel says she isn’t sure why scientists or the public are so captivated by it. “The question doesn’t interest me, because we can’t answer it,” she says.
It’s also irrelevant in terms of the way society should operate, she says. For example, if a child can’t read, we give them extra lessons and find ways to help them improve. “We don’t say, it’s biologic so it must be natural and good for the child,” says Joel. “Likewise, we don’t celebrate aggression just because it is natural.”
“If we feel empathy is a great characteristic and someone is not empathetic by nature, we help them to enhance their empathetic abilities. It’s not, ‘She is not empathetic, so let’s help her,’ but ‘He is not empathetic, but it’s fine, he’s a boy,’” she says. “What society needs to decide is what virtues or characteristics we would like to encourage.”
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