Why asking whether your brain is male or female is the wrong question
Sun 24 Feb 2019
You receive an invitation, emblazoned with a question: “A bouncing little ‘he’ or a pretty little ‘she’?” The question is your teaser for the “gender reveal party” to which you are being invited by an expectant mother who, at more than 20 weeks into her pregnancy, knows what you don’t: the sex of her child. After you arrive, explains cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon in her riveting new book, The Gendered Brain, the big reveal will be hidden within some novelty item, such as a white iced cake, and will be colour-coded. Cut the cake and you’ll see either blue or pink filling. If it is blue, it is a…
Yes, you’ve guessed it. Whatever its sex, this baby’s future is predetermined by the entrenched belief that males and females do all kinds of things differently, better or worse, because they have different brains.
“Hang on a minute!” chuckles Rippon, who has been interested in the human brain since childhood, “the science has moved on. We’re in the 21st century now!” Her measured delivery is at odds with the image created by her detractors, who decry her as a “neuronazi” and a “grumpy old harridan” with an “equality fetish”. For my part, I was braced for an encounter with an egghead, who would talk at me and over me. Rippon is patient, though there is an urgency in her voice as she explains how vital it is, how life-changing, that we finally unpack – and discard – the sexist stereotypes and binary coding that limit and harm us.
For Rippon, a twin, the effects of stereotyping kicked in early. Her “under-achieving” brother was sent to a boys’ academic Catholic boarding school, aged 11. “It’s difficult to say this. I was clearly academically bright. I was top in the country for the 11+.” This gave her a scholarship to a grammar school. Her parents sent her to a girls’ non-academic Catholic convent instead. The school did not teach science. Pupils were brought up to be nuns or a diplomatic wife or mother. “Psychology,” she points out, “was the nearest I could get to studying the brain. I didn’t have the A levels to do medicine. I had wanted to be a doctor.”
A PhD in physiological psychology and a focus on brain processes and schizophrenia followed. Today, the Essex-born scientist is a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, Birmingham. Her brother is an artist. When she is not in the lab using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques to study developmental disorders such as autism, she is out in the world, debunking the “pernicious” sex differences myth: the idea that you can “sex” a brain or that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain. It is a scientific argument that has gathered momentum, unchallenged, since the 18th century “when people were happy to spout off about what men and women’s brains were like – before you could even look at them. They came up with these nice ideas and metaphors that fitted the status quo and society, and gave rise to different education for men and women.”
Rippon has analysed the data on sex differences in the brain. She admits that she, like many others, initially sought out these differences. But she couldn’t find any beyond the negligible, and other research was also starting to question the very existence of such differences. For example, once any differences in brain size were accounted for, “well-known” sex differences in key structures disappeared. Which is when the penny dropped: perhaps it was time to abandon the age-old search for the differences between brains from men and brains from women. Are there any significant differences based on sex alone? The answer, she says, is no. To suggest otherwise is “neurofoolishness”.