Pop neuroscience has long been fascinated with uncovering secret biological differences between male and female brains. The question of whether men and women have innately different brains rarely fails to get people riled up. Just last year, the Google engineer James Damore caused an uproar after publishing a manifesto detailing the various ways women were biologically different from men.
But Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that anyone who goes searching for innate differences between the sexes won’t find them.
“People say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but the brain is a unisex organ,” she said onstage Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
That’s a bold statement, and one science is divided on. It seems to depend on what exactly is being measured. For example, a large study in the U.K. found that many regions of men’s brains were larger than women’s, and that women on average had thicker cerebral cortices. What does that mean for how the brain works? Unclear. Another study found that “averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features,” as New Scientist reported in 2015.
But there’s no doubt that whatever their brains look like, behavior and school performance differences between men and women are strongly shaped by socialization.
Eliot said that Damore has a misunderstanding of neuroscience and that his letter overstated the role of testosterone in male and female bodies. While testosterone is linked to aggression, it doesn’t offer a universal explanation for male behavior. Eliot also said that everyone, regardless of sex, can be competitive or aggressive, but males and females might have different ways of expressing those traits based on social norms.
Eliot blames academia and the media in part for the cycle that leads to the ongoing argument over biological brain differences. Because most scholars know that any small statistical difference between men and women will make headlines, academics, desperate for funding and attention, often focus studies on gender disparities. “You go back to data, analyze it for sex, and if you find a difference, then guess what: You have another paper,” Eliot said.
She said that even scientifically indisputable differences, such as the oft-cited statistic that male brains are 10 percent bigger than female brains, don’t mean anything. All of men’s organs are bigger on average, but that doesn’t mean they function differently.
If scientists and academics were to begin with the premise that men and women are equally capable, Eliot said, their studies would result in radically different conclusions.
For instance, many, including the then–Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, have used a 1970 study that showed men outperformed women 13 to one on the math portion of the SAT to explain why there aren’t more women at the top of STEM fields. “People said brilliance in math is a male phenomenon,” Eliot said.
Of course, it turned out women were being discouraged from pursuing STEM. Once more programs were put in place to foster this type of learning, the ratio dropped to three to one, Eliot said, and is now on its way to closing.
When young men and women come up against sexist stereotypes masquerading as science, Angela Saini wants them to be armed with the facts. “I call my book ammunition,” she says of her 288-page prize-winning work Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. “There are people out there who insist that somehow the inequalities we see in society are not just because of historic discrimination, but also because of biology – the idea that there are factors within us that will cause men or women to be better at some things than others.”
She wrote Inferior to demonstrate that “actually, science doesn’t support that point of view. I think it’s important we understand these scientific facts. We need that ammunition to counter the weird mistruths that are circulating within and outside science about sex difference”.
To female scientists fed up with being treated as though their brains are the odd exceptions among their sex, Inferior is more than just a book. It’s a battle cry – and right now, it is having a galvanising effect on its core fanbase. On 31 July a crowdfunding campaign to send a copy of Inferior to every mixed secondary school in England with more than 1,000 pupils was launched by Dr Jessica Wade, a British physicist who writes 270 Wikipedia pages a year to raise the profile of female scientists. Within two days the campaign had raised £2,000. Yesterday it reached its original £15,000 target and was powering its way towards £20,000 – a figure which would allow the book to be sent to every state school in the country.
“There’s nothing you want more than for people to be inspired by your work,” says Saini, 37, a multiple award-winning science journalist, who first became intrigued by sex difference research when she wrote about the menopause for the Observer. “What Jess is doing means such a lot to me. I hope if my book can empower her, it can empower other young women, and men, too.”
The key message she hopes her readers will take away is that nothing in science suggests equality is not possible. “We are not as different as the inequalities in our society makes us believe we are. Even now, there are people saying we shouldn’t be pushing for gender equality because we’re never going to see it for biological reasons.” For example, many people think there are large psychological differences in spatial awareness, mathematical reasoning or verbal skills between men and women. “Actually, those differences are tiny, a fraction of a standard deviation,” says Saini. “Psychologically, the differences between the sexes are not enough to account for the inequalities we see in our society today.”
Inferior is not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination. It includes a firsthand account of female genital mutilation and deliberately examines a large number of academic studies in painstaking detail. But, like recent bestselling children’s books Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, it could play a valuable role in breaking down gender stereotypes for the next generation of would-be scientists and mathematicians, and Saini is confident many teenagers will engage with it. “Girls and boys aged 13 or 14 upwards have really responded to the message, and the earlier we can get this message to them, the better.” She was the only girl in science and maths classes at school. “Even if it’s not overtly stated to you, just being in a minority – especially a minority of one – makes you think maybe there are some differences between the sexes.”
Researching and writing the book has totally changed how she feels about herself, destroying her own “subconscious stereotypes” about women. “It made me look at the world differently. That’s the power of science.”
In one of the most shocking chapters, Saini relays a letter written by Charles Darwin in which he argues that women are intellectually inferior to men. “He was looking at society. He saw women weren’t achieving as much and he treated us almost the way you would treat observations of lions or peacocks in the wild. He thought: this reflects the biological facts.”
Even at the time, contemporary female intellectuals pointed out that this theory ignored a lot of obvious historical and cultural factors, but Darwin failed to take on board their arguments. “It was quite lazy of him, which is surprising, because he wasn’t a lazy scientist. He was usually so painstaking and thorough.”
But she still admires him for everything he got right. “Even the best scientists can fall into this trap of looking at the world around them and thinking: things are the way they are because of nature.” After all, she points out, assuming 19th-century scientists could be biased but 21st-century scientists never are makes no sense. “That’s why, in the book, I look not just at the science, but at the scientists.”
These range from Kristen Hawkes, whose research suggesting postmenopausal women played a vital role in increasing the human lifespan has been met with dogged resistance from some male scientists, to Robert Trivers who, Saini shows, used evidence from a flawed 1948 experiment on fruit flies when he famously argued that men are more naturally promiscuous than women. “A lot of people – especially scientists – view science as perfectly objective and rational. But the questions researchers choose to ask, and the answers they come up with, are heavily affected by their prior assumptions.” At times, the book shows a staggering lack of respect from male scientists towards the work of their female contemporaries. “Science won’t improve unless we understand that we all have biases and those biases affect research,” says Saini.
QotD: “countries where there is high equality between men and women, the difference between men and women is very small on our spatial navigation test”
Men are better at navigating than women, according to a massive study, but there’s not much for men to be proud about.
Scientists at University College London say the difference has more to do with discrimination and unequal opportunities than any innate ability.
The findings come from research into a test for dementia.
But it has also given an unprecedented insight into people’s navigational ability all around the world.
The experiment is actually a computer game, Sea Hero Quest, that has had more than four million players.
It’s a nautical adventure to save an old sailor’s lost memories and with a touch of a smartphone screen, you chart a course round desert islands and icy oceans.
The game anonymously records the player’s sense of direction and navigational ability.
One clear picture, published in the journal Current Biology, was that men were better at navigating than women. But why?
Prof Hugo Spiers thinks he has found the answer by looking at data from the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index – which studies equality in areas from education to health and jobs to politics.
He told the BBC: “We don’t think the effects we see are innate.
“So countries where there is high equality between men and women, the difference between men and women is very small on our spatial navigation test.
“But when there’s high inequality the difference between men and women is much bigger. And that suggests the culture people are living in has an effect on their cognitive abilities.”
QotD: “Not biologically essentialist = having language to describe the political status of people with vaginas”
For the millionth time, biologically essentialist = thinking people with vaginas are born to be feminine / empathetic / maternal / subservient / decorative etc. Not biologically essentialist = having language to describe the political status of people with vaginas
Unsurprisingly, language, for Adichie, is a feminist issue, at its most insidious when it comes to pregnancy and parenting, a verb she dislikes. She rages against terms such as “baby bump” as “diminishing”, preventing proper discussion of serious issues such as the gender pay gap and maternity leave. “There are so many women for whom pregnancy is the thing that pushed them down, and we need to account for that. We need to have a clause in every job that a woman who gets pregnant gets her job back in exactly the same way. It’s wrong!” For her, gender is a social construction: “I don’t think I’m more inherently likely to do domestic work, or childcare … It doesn’t come pre-programmed in your vagina, right?”
Although she put on “the feminist hat” quite happily, she never intended to become a voice for feminism, “then it happened”. She expected a degree of hostility – “Feminist is a bad word, everywhere in the world, let’s not kid ourselves, but particularly where I come from.” But she was not prepared for the furore that followed an interview on Channel 4 last year when she sparked controversy by arguing that the experiences of trans women are distinct from those of women born female, which was interpreted by some as “creating a hierarchy” and implying that “trans women were ‘less than’, which I was not … I don’t think that way.”
She was “genuinely surprised” by the outcry, “because I thought I was saying something that was obvious”, she says and remains defiant on the importance of acknowledging difference (the final, heartfelt message of Dear Ijeawele): “The vileness that trans women face is because they are trans women – there are things trans women go through that women who are born female will never have to go through … If we are going pretend that everything is the same, how do we address that?” She compares this well meaning wish to be inclusive with claims of colour blindness: blackness and whiteness are different, she told the audience to huge cheers at the event with Eddo-Lodge. “Yes, we are all of the human race but there are differences and those differences affect our experiences, our opportunities,” she says now. “There’s something about it that I find inherently dishonest.”
She was accused of “killing trans women with her words” and, she says, there were calls to burn her books; she was particularly hurt by the online response from some of her former students on her creative writing workshop in Lagos, where trying to break down taboos about gay rights and women is as important to her as the teaching. “I was told, ‘you’re being shamed’,” she gestures the inverted commas of internet shaming. “When somebody is shaming you, you also have to feel ashamed. I just didn’t. I was upset. I was disappointed.” She feels her “tribe”, those “generally of the left, who believe in equal rights for everyone”, let her down: “I thought surely they know me and what I stand for.”
Looking back, she thinks her “major sin” was that she “didn’t abide by the language orthodoxy”. At the Southbank event the author, who is not on Twitter (“there’s an ugliness about it”), expressed her reservations about “a certain kind of youthful, social-media savvy feminism that is not my home”. She is wary of the term “intersectionality”, but is clear as to what it does not mean, recalling an interview with a white actor who, in her anxiety to acknowledge the sometimes racist history of western feminism, claimed it was not about her, but about black women who had been oppressed. “Of course feminism is about her,” Adichie says with exasperation. “I wish she’d said: ‘Here is all the shit I get because I’m a woman, but I think about all those other women who don’t have the white privilege I have, I can’t imagine what that must be like.’ That for me would be perfect.”
While she is frustrated with what she identifies as a “quickness to outrage” among young people – “it’s boring” – her real anger is reserved for the progressive left, especially in America, which she believes is fostering this unforgiving atmosphere, closing in on itself and closing down essential conversations (“Shut up, you are wrong” ) in its haste to assume ill will. Displaying a “fundamental lack of compassion”, it goes against her credo as a storyteller, in which all human beings are flawed: “There’s no room to be righteous.”
The parents of a southern Alberta autistic girl are warning other parents that had Bill 24 been the law over the past two years, their 14-year-old daughter very likely could have committed suicide.
The parents, who have asked that their names be changed and their identities hidden to protect their daughter’s privacy, are pleading with Rachel Notley’s NDP government to “not shut parents out of their children’s lives” and “to bring some nuance” into Bill 24, which became law in Alberta on Nov. 15.
Bill 24 makes it illegal for educators to tell parents if their child has joined a GSA, or gay-straight alliance, at their school. But this couple — who are going by the names Sarah and Stephen for the purposes of this article — say their Grade 9 daughter fell into a “dark place” after joining her school’s GSA.
“I believe this law is going to endanger kids, which is the opposite of what Premier Notley is trying to achieve,” said Stephen, a scientist who works in the energy industry and who says he is very much in favour of GSAs, as is the entire family.
The couple’s daughter started Grade 7 at her middle school in the fall of 2015 at the age of 12. It was around that time that she reached puberty — something that upset her. The girl, who will be called Jane in this article, has body dysmorphia, a condition the Mayo Clinic describes as “a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance.”
During elementary school, Jane suffered from anorexia, something she overcame through the help of her parents, counselling and attending eating disorder clinics.
Early into the 2015 school year, the parents noticed that Jane was more anxious than usual. The worried parents were eventually told by a teacher that Jane had joined the school’s GSA and they were “completely fine with it. We thought it would be a safe place for her to meet new friends, stand up against bullying and learn about how everyone is different,” said Stephen.
Eventually, however, the school wrote the couple a letter recommending that they take Jane — who was still 12 years old — to a gender clinic.
By very gently talking with Jane away from the stress of peer pressure, they learned that Jane was being called a boy’s name at school and addressed with male pronouns. At home, she’d be called by her real name and female pronouns.
“To live a double life, where she’s keeping this huge secret from her family, including her siblings, is exceedingly stressful, especially for someone with autism and body dysmorphia,” explained Sarah.
“(Jane) was adamant that she did not want to be a boy, and prior to puberty, she was fine with being a girl,” said Sarah. “A psychiatrist asked her if she wanted a penis and she recoiled at the thought and reiterated that she doesn’t want to be a boy.”
As Stephen said: “Thirty or 40 years ago, she’d have been described as a Tomboy.”
It was decided, with the help of mental health professionals, that the safest way to proceed for Jane was to stop living a double life and be referred to only as a girl. The school agreed but, apparently, many of her school peers continued to call her by her male name.
As Christmas 2016 approached, Sarah received a panicked call from the school to pick Jane up, as she was threatening to commit suicide.
“She was super anxious, she had suicidal ideations. She was in a very dangerous place,” recalled Sarah. Within a week of being kept at home and seeing her counsellor every chance they could, Jane improved immensely. Still, she was never left alone for a moment.
“I’m a very accepting person,” said Stephen. “I love people for who they are. I have many LGBTQ friends. I love all people, I seriously do, but they’re promoting the idea on kids who normally would not have gone there.
“They were facilitating and going out of their way to transition her into becoming a boy without our knowledge. But what training do they have about children with autism?” asked Stephen.
“The school undermined us and that led (Jane) to that point of suicide. We could have helped our daughter, but they didn’t give us that opportunity.”
For two months, Jane was kept at home while the family searched in vain for a new school for their daughter, even considering moving out of the province. Eventually, the school’s principal became more involved and Jane returned to her school.
“He apologized to us for what the school did to Jane and promised that they would work with us and not violate what’s in the best interest of our daughter,” said Stephen, who reached out for help from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
They also approached Jason Kenney, now the United Conservative Party leader, who has mentioned their story on several occasions as a reason why more discretion is needed in the GSA legislation, to empower teachers to not necessarily keep information from loving, safe parents.
Education Minister David Eggen was given three days to respond to repeated requests for an interview to discuss this family’s experience, however, he refused and issued the following statement:
“This legislation will make sure that students are the ones who decide when and how to have these deeply personal and important conversations with their parents and loved ones. If a student’s safety is at risk, parents will be notified. One of our government’s top priorities is ensuring students’ safety and that is why GSAs are so important. For some students, GSAs are the only place they have where they feel safe and accepted. GSAs literally save lives.”
Sarah and Stephen worry that the new law will cause teachers to hesitate to inform parents, for fear of breaking the law, and that hesitation could spell lead to the death of children.
Ashleigh Yule, a registered Calgary psychologist specializing in autism and gender diversity, says the research is clear that “we see a convergence between Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and gender diversity that makes the issue more complex.”
However, Yule is adamant that no exemptions in Bill 24 should be made.
“Students with ASD, just as students without ASD, may have unsupportive or abusive parents. Notifying parents that a student has attended a GSA may be unsafe for that student, regardless of the student’s ASD status,” said Yule.
“Nuance in the law is not about ‘outing’ children,” said Sarah, who has family members who were murdered in the Holocaust for being Jewish. “It’s about recognizing the uniqueness of each person and each family.”
“I’m very suspicious of the state wanting control over our children. We’ve seen where that has led in the past,” added Sarah.
“Most families are the safest places for their children,” said Stephen. “We love our children, more than Rachel Notley or David Eggen do.”
Both parents hope by telling their story, pressure will force the province to make some provision for safe, open-minded parents, especially of children with special needs, to be told very early on if behavioural changes begin after joining a GSA.
“We saved our daughter’s life, only because we knew what was going on with her,” said Stephen. “We shudder to think what might have happened to her if Bill 24 had been the law two years ago.”