Brain study pits girls’ skills against boys’

His and hers: Can science tell us which roles to play at work and at home?

A study of brain scans suggests that male and female brains are arranged differently, leading to bold conclusions about how the two sexes think. Are gender differences predetermined?

By evaluating over 1,000 brain scans, researchers have announced what seems shocking to some, and confirms what others believe they knew all along: striking differences between the content of male and female skulls.

Men’s brains are larger, but they also show a pattern of connections very different to those of smaller, women’s brains. Male patterns showed a greater tendency to connect within the right or left hemisphere, whereas women showed more connections firing up between the two sides.

The researchers (and most of the headlines about their study) claimed the findings proved there were innate differences between the skills of men and women, and the tasks for which they were suited. The popular view that men are better at spatial awareness and motor skills, while women are better at social skills, communication and multitasking was, they said, confirmed by the study.

But other scientists rushed to dispute their conclusions. One pointed out that if adults brains were firing differently that could be a result, not a cause, of the gender-specific tasks they were accustomed to performing: ‘Hard to imagine,’ he wrote, ‘training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.’

Others claimed that what was most remarkable was the overlap between male and female patterns of connectivity, not the differences between them, given the divergent life experiences of men and women.

As one writer put it: ‘Subtle observable differences exist between male and female brains, but how exactly these relate to differences in behaviour is unknown.’ The variations, he went on, tend to be exaggerated by both researchers and the media, ‘to reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate myths.’

Different spheres

Some argue that science should trump any attempts by society to change male and female roles. ‘We can’t fight our biology,’ they say. ‘If men and women tend toward particular skills, then why not make the most of your natural bent?’ After all, they point out, traditional division of labour has served humanity for centuries – if that limited the options of individual men and women, it was a necessary price to pay while maintaining a scientifically logical social order.

But if we lived in a truly natural state, none of the advantages of human civilisation would be available to us, counter others. Opening up non-traditional careers and other pursuits to people of both sexes is part of the human story of progress: in fact, seeking to overcome our biology to enable each individual to fulfill their potential is, you could argue, just the latest phase in mankind’s natural struggle to evolve as a species. And what could be more scientific than that?

You Decide

  1. Are men and women innately suited to different roles at work and at home?
  2. Until about the age of 13, the researchers found little difference between the sexes’ brain connectivity. What might change that?

Activities

  1. In groups, can you explain the definitions of sex differences and gender differences? What does this make you think about?
  2. Research why ‘hard-wiring’ of the brain is not a good metaphor for connectivity patterns, and present your findings.

Some People Say...

“Vive la difference!’French saying”

What do you think?

Q & A

So men and women are built differently. Obvious.
It’s the connection between skulls and skills that’s causing the controversy. Below the age of 13, for example, there are almost no differences in how the brains of the sexes fire. After that your brain may be operating more according to male or female patterns. Is that going to determine how to live your life and what you are good at? Should it?
My mind is mine alone, thanks.
Good for you. And be aware that what seems to come naturally to your fellow male or female students may not always be the choice that serves you well in the long term. For example, choosing maths or physics opens up lots of exciting university degrees, and then well-rewarded careers, so it’s a problem when girls don’t take these options because they are seen as male subjects.

Word Watch

Hemisphere
Literally half of a sphere. The two sides of the brain are called the left and right hemispheres.
Stereotypes
This use of data about brains to reinforce prejudices about men and women is now so common that it has earned its own word: ‘neurosexism’.

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