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Society 2019.10.01

The myth of the gendered brain

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Gina Rippon has spent her career trying to debunk the idea that men and women’s brains are different – yet she believes the “gender bombardment” we are subjected to is greater than ever. Why?

When I meet the cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, she tells me one anecdote that helps demonstrate just how early children can be exposed to gender stereotypes.

It was the birth of her second daughter, on 11 June 1986 – the night that Gary Lineker scored a hat trick against Poland in the men’s Football World Cup. There were nine babies born in the ward that day, Rippon recalls. Eight of them were called Gary.

She remembers chatting to one of the other mums when they heard a loud din approaching. It was a nurse bringing their two screaming babies. The nurse handed her neighbour a “blue-wrapped Gary” with approval – he had “a cracking pair of lungs”. Rippon’s own daughter (making exactly the same sound) was passed over with an audible tutting. “She’s the noisiest of the lot – not very ladylike,” the nurse told her.

“And so, at 10 minutes old, my tiny daughter had a very early experience of how gendered our world is,” Rippon says.

Rippon has spent decades questioning ideas that the brains of men and women are somehow fundamentally different – work that she compellingly presents in her new book, The Gendered Brain. The title is slightly misleading, since her argument hinges on the fact that it’s not the human brain that is inherently “gendered”, but the world in which we are raised. Subtle cues about “manly” and “ladylike” behaviours, from the moment of birth, mould our behaviours and abilities, which other scientists have then read as inherent, innate differences.

Rippon’s writing bristles with frustration that this argument still needs to be stated in 2019. She describes many of the theories about gender differences as “whack-a-mole” myths that keep on arising, in another guise, no matter how often they are debunked.

“We’ve been looking at this whole issue of whether male brains are different from female brains for about 200 years,” she says. “And every now and then there’s a new breakthrough in science or technology, which allows us to revisit this question, and make us realise that some of the past certainties are clearly wrong. And you think that, as a scientist, you might have addressed them and put them right, and people will move on and not use those terms or conclusions anymore. But the next time you look at the popular press you find that the old myth has returned.”

One of the oldest claims centres on the fact that women have smaller brains, which was considered evidence for intellectual inferiority. While it’s true that, on average, women’s brains are smaller, by about 10%, there are several problems with this assumption.

“First of all, if you just thought it was a ‘size matters’ issue, then sperm whales and elephants have got bigger brains than men, and they’re not renowned for being that much brighter,” says Rippon. Then there’s the fact that, despite the average difference in size, the overall overlap in the distributions of men and women’s brains is huge. “So that you get women with big brains and men with small brains.”

It’s worth noting that Einstein’s brain was smaller than that of the average male, and overall, many studies find that there is next to no mean difference between men and women’s intelligence or behavioural traits. Yet the claims continue to persist in the media.

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