And this is why Rippon is especially frustrated by the “neurosexism” out there. The more that tenuous conclusions, from weak data, reach the public, the more likely we are to pass on these messages to children, strengthening those self-fulfilling prophecies.
“If we believe that there are profound and fundamental differences between men's and women's brains, and more than that – that the owners of those brains therefore have access to different skills, or different temperaments or different personalities – that will certainly affect how we think about ourselves as male or female,” says Rippon. It will also affect how we think about other people and what their potential might be, she warns.
“So scientists need to be really careful,” she says.“Of course, we need to understand where there are sex differences and what they might mean. But we should be careful not to talk about fundamental or profound differences, because we're giving the wrong impression to people who are really interested to know what the answers are to the questions that we're asking.”
Ultimately, we need to accept that each of us has a unique brain – and our abilities cannot be defined by a single label like our gender.
“An understanding that every brain is different from every other brain, and not necessarily just a function of the sex of the brain’s owner, is a really important step forward in the 21st Century,” urges Rippon.
*The video that accompanies this article is part of a BBC Reel Playlist called Re:Think, where you can watch more thought-provoking films about the human brain.
David Robson is a writer based in the London and Barcelona. His first book, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, is out now. He is d_a_robson on Twitter.
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