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4 December 2013

We don’t have to “wire“ our children’s brains to reinforce gender stereotypes

The idea that men and women's brains are "wired" differently is wrong. As long as our children’s brains are in the process of developing and forming connections, don’t we owe it to them to give them the best chance possible of escaping pre-determined, lim

By glosswitch Glosswitch

The first time I encountered the modern-day version of the wandering womb I was on a walk with my partner’s family. As we traipsed through the forest, my partner’s father commented that it would be easier for me to spot any berries “since women have evolved from the gatherers”. I found this bizarre so asked him to explain. In the conversation that followed I learned that not only was I an expert berry-spotter, but I was also “better at repetitive household tasks because gathering didn’t require as much mental engagement as hunting”. On a hunch I asked about low-paid jobs. Yes, I was better at those, too (“used to smaller rewards”). I considered all this to be a joke, albeit a not particularly funny one.

Later that day my partner took me to one side and asked whether I was upset about the “argument” I had had with his father. I told him I hadn’t thought it was an argument. I thought it was just an extended version of those ancient ‘back into the kitchen woman’ jokes some dads make. Apparently not.

“He’s really into those books – Men are from Mars, Why Men Don’t Iron, The Essential Difference, The Female Brain, that sort of thing.”

“Those books that dare to say what no one, apart from everyone, dares say about gender?”

“Those are the ones.”

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Ah yes, those books. Misogyny meets metaphor meets stereotype meets wilful extrapolation, with a good dose of circular argument to bind it all together. Those books which repackage the myths we all need to make extreme gender inequality palatable. I hate those books (but then I would, wouldn’t I? I’m a woman. They’re probably too science-y for me).

Over the past few days there have been several reports on the latest evidence for “the hardwired difference between male and female brains”. It appears that research conducted by Professor Ragini Verma at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia “has shown for the first time that the brains of men and women are wired up differently which could explain some of the stereotypical differences in male and female behaviour”. Hooray! We’ve never had research that shows that before! Well, okay, we have. But the likes of Deborah Cameron, Cordelia Fine and Lise Eliot came along and debunked it, so we had to go out and get some more.

Several people have already pointed to flaws in this study (or at least the way in which it has been presented). Our brains don’t literally have wires. The application of the metaphor is already a value judgment. It’s unclear whether data is validating stereotype, or stereotype is validating data. Most importantly, the study shows few differences between male and female brains before the ages of 14-17.

As one blogger points out, this would surely suggest that below these ages girls and boys are not “wired” differently. To assume that changes that occur after this point are all down nature rather than nurture is merely that: an assumption. Similarly, the belief that until the point at which difference is detectable difference is still there relies on faith, not evidence:

Boys and girls do exhibit differences in gendered behaviour, after a while […] but the brain science does not have an explanation for that. And yet the scientists assume that their brain science does explain the difference between the gendered behaviours of adult men and women. Reports on this study therefore hold, unwittingly, to two irreconcilable claims […]: first, that the brain science doesn’t prove gendered difference, and second that the brain science does prove gendered difference.

My children are four and six. I presume this counts as not-yet-detectably wired. Regardless of whether or not their behaviour reflects gender stereotypes, gendered interpretations of said behaviour – decisions made on whether they are being aggressive or prima donna-ish, managerial or nurturing, boisterous or over-emotional – shape their experience of the world. Given all the other things we consider to have an influence on the people they will become, why shouldn’t these responses do so too? I don’t know why and the research doesn’t tell me. And if they do, should we care? I think we should.

Verma boasts of a “complimentarity” of male and female brains, as though the “hardwiring” that takes place leads to a perfect match. Yet of course it doesn’t. We know that all is not well between the sexes. Rigid gender roles have served one group of people, women, especially badly for millennia. The “it’s just meant to be” narrative of hardwiring may make it easier for some people to accept this gross inequality, but I would ask whether we have the right to do so. As long as our children’s brains are in the process of developing and forming connections, don’t we owe it to them to give them the best chance possible of escaping pre-determined, limited roles in an unequal society?

If there is even the slightest chance that the metaphorical “hardwiring” of children’s brains is something that we influence – and there is scant evidence to rule this out – then shouldn’t research such as Verma’s be a call to arms? If it’s possible to hardwire conformity with gender stereotypes (and one wonders what other stereotypes to which this could apply), might it not be possible to do the opposite? I’m not sure whether it’s possible to encourage brains to form all the requisite connections for self-confidence and tolerance. But shouldn’t we at least try?