Male or female? It’s a ‘mosaic’, says study

A new study suggests that traditionally ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains do not exist; personality differences are not due to our sex. Why do we think they are? And what might this mean?

Map reading. Multi-tasking. Talking about feelings. Logic puzzles. Problem solving. For decades, scientists have insisted that the discrepancies between men and women’s brains affect their skills and personalities.

But a new study of 1,400 MRI scans suggests that this long-held assumption is not true at all. Although they showed some broad differences — male brains are larger, for example — when individual scans were studied, they were unlikely to show ‘mostly female’ or ‘mostly male’ traits — only around 6% fell into a clear category. Instead, most showed a mixture of both.

In other words, explained psychobiologist Daphna Joel, you cannot assume aspects of personality or ability based on a person’s sex. ‘We separate girls and boys, men and women all the time. It’s wrong, not just politically, but scientifically – everyone is different.’

Neuroscience has been used to justify gender stereotypes for well over a century. In 1873, a Harvard professor named Edward Clarke wrote a bestselling book called Sex in Education, in which he asserted that women should not go to university because studying would divert blood away from the uterus and towards the brain. They would be left ‘irritable and infertile’, he said. In 1992, John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus said that cleaning toilets is ‘oxytocin-boosting’ for women, but ‘testosterone-draining’ for men.

Twisting dubious science to fit social prejudices is a phenomenon that the author Cordelia Fine refers to as ‘neurosexism’. But when these attitudes are prominent in society, she explains, it has a ‘ripple effect on the mind’, changing how we see ourselves, influencing interests and triggering discrimination.

There are still differences between men and women, explain the scientists. It’s just that they are nothing to do with the brain, which reveals a wonderful variety of strengths and characteristics in each individual. Instead, the differences that emerge are learned during a lifetime of social conditioning.

Boys and girls

The psychologist Meg John Barker says that the study is also helpful in proving that gender is ‘non-binary’, meaning that it does not have to be split neatly into two categories. One day, perhaps we will live in a society which does not treat people differently at all — where biological sex is simply not an issue.

But you cannot escape the knowledge that our bodies are different, say others. There is no getting around the facts — those of us with a uterus will carry the babies; and higher levels of testosterone make certain people physically stronger. It is naive to think that these distinctions will stop affecting our behaviour.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel your personality is more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? What does that mean?
  2. Will we ever see a world where gender does not affect how people are treated?

Activities

  1. Divide the white board into three columns, ‘Masculine’, ‘Feminine’ and ‘Neutral’. As a class, take it in turns to think of adjectives which describe people (such as ‘strong’, ‘kind’ or ‘fast’). After each word, vote on which column it belongs in. What do the results this tell you about gender roles?
  2. Draw and label a diagram of the brain, naming specific regions.

Some People Say...

“It’s time to abandon Mr and Mrs — we should all be known as Mx.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does this study say about me?
It says that your personality and your skills are unique, and that they have nothing to do with the sex on your birth certificate. Girls should not simply assume that they are bad at maths, just like boys should not think that they are incapable of talking about how they feel.
But gender does still exist...
It’s true that lots of us identify with the words ‘boy’ and ‘man’ or ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. But it’s important to understand that these feelings may not always match our biological sex, and that some people do not feel attached to any of these labels at all — and that’s okay.
I don’t get it.
It’s a complicated issue, and people are still figuring out what it all means. In the end, just make sure you stay true to yourself, and allow others to do the same.

Word Watch

MRI scans
Magnetic Resonance Imaging uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of inside the body.
Sex
A biological category, most often divided into male or female.
Gender
A social identity, such as man or woman.
Harvard
One of America’s most prestigious ‘Ivy League’ universities, founded in 1636. It is currently top of the Times Higher Education ‘s World Reputation Rankings.
Oxytocin
Often described as the ‘love hormone’, it works as a neurotransmitter in the brain, and helps to form bonding between partners, parents, and even pets. It is present in men and women.
Testosterone
A steroid hormone which is produced in the testes, and at lower levels in the ovaries. It can build muscle mass and the sex drive, and has sometimes been linked to aggression.
Non-binary
An umbrella term for anyone who does not feel they are simply a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. This may mean that they identify with both terms, or neither of them. A 2014 survey by Practical Androgyny estimated that one in every 250 people defines as non-binary.