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.
Subtle cues about “manly” and “ladylike” behaviours, from the moment of birth, mould our behaviours and abilities
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.
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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.”
Rethinking the gendered brain
You can see Gina Rippon discussing these myths in the BBC Reel video above.
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.
Skills like map reading and multi-tasking are often assigned to gender stereotypes but may be a product of how our brains are trained early in life (Credit: BBC Reel)
Rippon argues that the apparent structural differences within the brain itself have also been exaggerated. The corpus callosum, for instance, is the bridge of nerve fibres that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain, with some initial studies finding that this information highway is bigger in women’s brain’s than in men’s brains. This was used to justify all kinds of stereotypes – like the idea that women are inherently illogical, since their feelings from the “emotional” right hemisphere were interfering with the processing in the cooler, rational left hemisphere.
As Rippon explains in her book: “Men’s more efficient callosal filtering mechanism explained the mathematical and scientific genius… their right to be captains of industry, [their ability to] win Nobel Prizes and so on and so on.”
But such claims are often based on just a small number of participants, she says – and the techniques to measure the “size” of any region are still rather crude and open to interpretation, meaning that even the existence of such brain differences is on very shaky foundations. (And of course, the idea of the “left” and “right" brain is itself something of a myth.) Despite decades of research, it has been very difficult to reliably identify significant “hardwired” differences in the structure of the male and female brain.
What about our sex hormones? Surely they, at least, should have a very clear impact on our minds and behaviours? Yet the evidence has been misinterpreted to denigrate women’s abilities, Rippon says.
Women were initially barred from the US space programme, due to concerns of having such “temperamental psycho-physiologic humans” on board the craft
The concept of premenstrual syndrome, for instance, first emerged in the 1930s. “And it became well established as a reason for women not being given positions of power.” As she points out, women were even initially barred from the US space programme due to concerns around having such “temperamental psycho-physiologic humans” on board the craft.
While few today would hold this view, we still consider PMS to bring about a range of cognitive and emotional changes that are less than desirable. Yet some of the observed symptoms may be a psychosomatic response – the result of expectation rather than inevitable biological changes to the brain.
In one study by Diane Ruble at Princeton University, for instance, women were given false feedback about where they were in their menstrual cycle. “They could give an approximate date about when they expected the period to start – but you could give them a fake blood test saying, actually, you are now in the pre-menstrual phase, or you're in the intermenstrual phase,” Rippon explains. And they were then asked to fill out a questionnaire on various elements of PMS.
Brain size can vary greatly between individuals but it is not an accurate marker of intelligence (Credit: BBC Reel)
The study found that the women who were told they were in the pre-menstrual phase were much more likely to report the symptoms of PMS – even if they were not at that stage of the cycle, supporting the idea that some of the symptoms arose from their expectations. (Read about how the “nocebo effect” means our beliefs can produce real medical symptoms.)
“I wouldn't want to underplay the reality of the hormonal changes that are associated with the menstrual cycle, or to deny that people do have changes associated with fluctuations in hormones – as they should, because the word hormone means stir to action,” Rippon says. “But if you actually look at things like menstrual diaries, or objective measures of mood changes, the effect is nothing like as profound as the person believes. So the very fact that you believe that [you are] experiencing a mood change, and that must be associated with the premenstrual cycle, becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
There are positive cognitive changes about the time of ovulation. Yet I haven't come across an ‘ovulation euphoria questionnaire’ – Gina Rippon
The perceptions of PMS also betray a certain confirmation bias among researchers studying sex and gender differences, who have tended to conduct studies that back up the stereotypes rather than looking for the evidence that may question prevailing assumptions. Rippon says that women may actually experience a cognitive boost at certain points in the menstrual cycle, for instance – but these have been largely ignored, thanks to scientists’ preoccupation with women’s perceived weakness.
“We've done some studies showing that cognitively, there are fluctuations through the menstrual cycle,” she says. Verbal and spatial working memory, for instance, improve when oestrogen is highest. “And that there are very positive changes about the time of ovulation – improved responsiveness to sensory information, for example, and improved reaction time.”
Social media often sends powerful prescriptive messages about what it means to be male or female (Credit: BBC Reel)
But Rippon says that while the standard tool to measure PMS is the Moos Menstrual Distress Questionnaire, “I haven't come across an ‘ovulation euphoria questionnaire’”. The focus, it seems, is always on the negative.
Pink and blue tsunamis
One of the challenges of studying sex differences has been accounting for the role of culture. Even when apparent differences in the structure of the brain can be observed, there is always the possibility that they arise through nurture rather than nature.
We know that the brain is plastic, meaning it is moulded by experience and training. And as Rippon observed with the birth of her own daughter, a boy and a girl may have very different experiences from the moment they enter the world, as certain behaviours are subtly encouraged. She points to research showing that children as young as 24 months are highly sensitive to gender typical behaviours. They are, she says, “tiny social sponges absorbing social information”, and adopting those behaviours themselves will eventually rewire their neural circuits. “A gendered world produces a gendered brain.”
This is why the gender stereotyping of toys is such an important issue to address.
“A lot of people think that the idea that we should avoid gendering toys is actually a bit of PC [politically correct] nonsense,” she says. “But I think if we take a neuroscientific approach to this, we can see that there's quite profound implications of the toys that we play with when we're very young.” These moments of play can be seen as “training opportunities” that can mould a child’s brain into an adult one.
Children can be subjected to messages about their gender – some subtle, others less so – that can alter the way they see their own place in the world (Credit: BBC Reel)
Consider a construction toy like Lego or Duplo or games such as Tetris. As the child plays, rotating bricks and finding increasingly inventive ways to fit them together into new structures, they will be building the neural networks involved in visual and spatial processing. Then, as you get to school, you might perform slightly better at those tasks – and be praised for your abilities, meaning you’ll continue to practice them. Eventually, you may even find a profession that that asks you to spend all day, every day, strengthening those abilities.
“Now, if all of those toys and training opportunities are gendered, then you can start getting what looks like a clear gender divide based on the biological sex of an individual, as opposed to the different training opportunities that individual has had,” says Rippon.
The psychologists Melissa Terlecki and Nora Newcombe have shown that the apparent sex differences in spatial cognition diminish when you account for the amount of time someone has spent playing video games like Tetris, for instance.
A few campaigns – like Let Toys Be Toys in the UK and Play Unlimited in Australia – have had some success in persuading retailers to change their gendered marketing, but in general, Rippon argues that children are still being pigeonholed in many other ways.
“One of the problems we have in the 21st Century is that what I call gender bombardment is much more intense,” says Rippon. “There's much more in the social media, and a whole range of marketing initiatives, which make a very clear prescriptive list of what it's like to be male, or what it's like to be female.”
Children are particularly sensitive to gender stereotyping as their brains are still being moulded by their experiences (Credit: Getty Images)
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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