NeuroSex: Or, The “delicacy of the brain fibers” in women prevents complex thought

By Boo Patrick

“The delicacy of the brain fibers” in women prevents complex thought.

            Nicholas Malebranche, 17th century

Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former… the inferiority displays itself most conspicuously in a comparative absence of originality, and this more especially in the higher levels of intellectual work.

George Romanes, 19th century

[On why there is a lack of women in high-end science-related positions] ”…in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude… reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination”

Lawrence Summers, Harvard President, 21st century

Neuroscience has been used often in history, to give bullshit a sense of credibility.  This article in no way intends to disavow the many researchers who treat their material with discernment, and, dare I say it, delicacy; I hope only to make evident the raging fictions abounding in popular science, and to stress the significance of human agency when confronting gender issues.

Brains are elastic…

And we are only just beginning to understand to what extent.  Just as, with blindness, the visual cortex is automatically used to processes tactile sensations,[i] people can train their brains to become more adept at certain activities.  Such is evidenced in the work of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, who, after hearing about a study that contrasted the brain development of rats in stimulation-rich cages, with those in sterile environments, figured that if rats could grow their brains, so could she.  Born with a severely asymmetric brain, which allowed her to remember entire news shows, but not to tell the time – she repetitively performed the tasks she found the hardest.  This method proved so successful that she opened a school, and has seen many children achieve similar results – all through her claim to a better brain.[ii]

…and we don’t understand everything about them…

The idea that the abilities of one’s brain are both fixed, and determined by biological sex, saturates western media, as do the assertions that males are naturally better at maths and science, and females more adept communicators.  Through the course of my research, it has become increasingly obvious that this is oversimplification at its finest, and that, when performing complex activities, many different parts of the brain are in dialogue with each other.

Rather than attempting to explain gendered gaps, ‘neuroscience’, as it appears in popular culture has become a buzzword in itself, and a way of selling sexism, without appearing sexist.[iii]  Rather than reading, “Women are better drivers than men” (an incorrect statement, in case you were wondering) one can state that “Women have less developed spatial awareness stemming from their underdeveloped left hemispheres”.  Sounds legitimate, right?

…but some people pretend that they do, and it sucks.

Many studies have been used to retrospectively explain why things are the way they are, namely, why the achievements of women have been dwarfed by men.  In order to do so, ‘scientists’ throughout history have attempted to track down the source of woman’s inferiority, and, with the emergence of neuroscience in the seventeenth century; the brain was increasingly used as the site of weakness.

In the nineteenth century, many women were institutionalized for suffering from “hysteria”.  Used to encompass any illness experienced by women, biologists asserted that it was caused by a woman’s ‘wandering womb’, as the womb would move around inside the body, searching for a sexual outlet.[iv]  Though the theory sounds ridiculous now, its core principle – that women are controlled by their hormones, and cannot be angry without being irrational/PMS’ing – remains commonplace.  In this sense, neuroscience has been used only to justify social attitudes, without telling us anything.

Attitude…

If our brains are as ‘plastic’, or susceptible to change as has been indicated, it is perhaps more fruitful to explore how thought is influenced by social conditioning, rather than merely projecting social hierarchies upon data.

In 2008, Science magazine published an article called ‘Culture, Gender, and Math’, which argued that internationally, as female emancipation rises, the gender gap in mathematics is removed, explaining the disparity as being due to sexist social attitudes, rather than biology.[v]

In another study conducted by Angela Moe, participants were told to complete a mental rotation test, for which men typically account for 75% of the top scores.  The test is often used to explain men’s dominance in math/science fields.  They were split into three groups; the first group was told that men had a genetic advantage in taking the test, the second group was the control, and the third was told that women were more adept at the task.  In both the first and second groups, the men came out ahead, while in the third, men and women performed equally.[vi]  When scrutinized, the results of these studies show the significance of cultural factors in determining people’s abilities.  They illustrate an idea that should be considered obvious – that without self-belief, and a supporting network, it is much more difficult to achieve success.  Stereotypical generalities, that men make bad communicators and women bad inventors, can therefore behave as self-fulfilling prophecies and suppress ability, as they force people to identify with a position of weakness.

…and Intervention

Curious as to why women are still so underrepresented in science/engineering fields in Australia,[vii] I interviewed several female engineers, employed at a major international biotech company.  Each person believed that talking to female high school students, and ‘demystifying’ engineering and what such jobs entail, is the most effective way of enhancing women’s involvement in the field, as getting people started is the critical step.  One engineer commented that many of her intelligent female friends were flabbergasted at the prospect of being an engineer, as they had the impression that it must be beyond their capabilities.  Having been profiled so long as the domain of eccentric, white male geniuses, it is understandable that some girls, living in a culture still marked as patriarchal, could feel inadequate, and intimidated by science.  Groups such as RoboGals have sought to remove from science its sense of mystique, as they show female students how to program robots, showing them an accessible engineering, and presenting them with more diverse role models.

One scientist noted that the advertising used to entice school-leavers into engineering programs often relied upon traditionally male visual codes, as they focused on the large and fast machines that engineers build – a model that potentially alienated female viewers.  She suggested that, by representing other facets of an engineer’s role – such as their potential to benefit third world communities – a wider selection of people could be attracted.

Rather than hiding behind the sexist generalities of popular science and culture, major technology-based institutions – through starting female leadership programs, and encouraging paternal, as well as maternal leave – are taking responsibility for gender imbalances, and attempting to rectify them.

The best, and also the worst thing, about neuroplasticity?  Things can change, but it’s up to us.

Boo is a member of the University of New South Wales Women’s collective. You can check them out on Facebook here. They’re doing a call out at present for Art works for a national competition ‘What is a woman?’. Contact them on Facebook to express interest. 


[i] S Begley, ‘Math is Hard, Barbie Said’, in Newsweek Magazine, October, 2008.

[ii] J Hawley, ‘How to rewire a brain’, in Good Weekend Magazine, March 2012.

[iii] C Fine, Delusions of Gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, p. 168.

[iv] M Schutzman, The Real Thing: performance, hysteria, & advertising, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999, p. 34.

[v] L Guiso, F Monte, P Sapienza and L Zingales, ‘Culture, Gender and Math’ in, Science, Vol. 320, 2008, pp. 1164-1165.

[vi] C Fine, op. cit., p. 28.

[vii] In 2009, women made up 9.6% of the engineering workforce. Engineers Australia Statistical Overview, 2009.

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