In a week of dismaying news, there was a ray of sunshine: a scientific breakthrough with the potential to change lives. Men and women’s brains have finally been proved, by actual scientists, in a massive study, to be completely different! This, you gathered, was the substance of a prominently reported new study that made the front page of the Times: “Men and women really do think differently, say scientists.”
In another paper, the headline specified how: “The sex divide: female empathy vs male logic”. Dr Varun Warrier, of the research team, was widely quoted, saying: “These sex differences in the typical population are very clear.”
Rarely, if ever, since social impact was added to official measurements of academic excellence, can a psychology study have enjoyed a reception as extensive, and thus far as warm, as this new contribution, from four Cambridge researchers, to the scholarly literature on sex difference. Perhaps discouragingly for their colleagues, it appears that the findings, rather than the field itself, account for the paper’s remarkable appeal. To date, no equivalent headlines – Men and women’s thinking can be surprisingly similar! – have welcomed contradictory work, such as Cordelia Fine’s, on the destructive fallacies of gendered minds.
Admittedly, the new study had its critics: Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, had reservations about its reliance on self-reporting (to a Channel 4 online questionnaire, in which subjects identified, or not, with statements such as “I am good at predicting how someone will feel”). Rippon noted that the respondents, aged between 16 and 89, would have had “plenty of time to have absorbed the gendered messages to which they will have been exposed”.
Elsewhere, the neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett pointed out, in a comprehensive demolition, that the study of sexed brain difference “doesn’t look at brains, at all”.
Broadly, however, the reported message remained, like the original research, supportive of pink/blue thinking on human behaviour and, incidentally, of the employment status quo. In fact, given the prominent and, for the most part, respectful coverage of this research, its cultural impact could surely go beyond news headlines and broadcasts, to the point of shaping thinking on fixed behavioural traits, even to influencing policymaking, or employment, especially if the study’s “very clear” sex differences can be aligned with covert sex discrimination. You can imagine, for instance, the utility of the Cambridge research at the BBC, where women have long been diagnosed as temperamentally unsuited for some journalistic work; yet more so in the City, where companies are currently defending themselves against findings of the Hampton-Alexander review. It has just revealed a decline, last year, in the number of women CEOs in the FTSE 350, from 15 to 12.