Two muslim girls are learning in school in the far east

The good old bad old days

Throughout history, science has explored sex differences – usually attempting to reinforce the assumption of male superiority

Woodcut illustration of the homunculus

A woodcut illustration of the homunculus from Essay de dioptrique (1694).


Wellcome Library, London

The ancient Greeks, from whom we have inherited many of our social systems, developed the idea that man was the perfect human, representing the mind. Woman was imperfect, not fully developed, and represented matter.

his was ‘clearly’ seen in the fact that men produce sperm, thought to be the superior liquid, able to convert the female menstrual blood into an embryo.

Once the first microscopes were available in the 17th century, male scientists thought they saw ‘little men’ in the sperm (the ‘homunculi’, as pictured). They suggested these were to be nourished by women during pregnancy.

The 19th century saw yet more scientific ‘proof’ of men’s superiority. Because women had smaller brains, it was argued, it did not make sense for girls to pursue higher education. This idea remained right up until the 20th century, even though once body size is taken into account, women actually have more grey matter than men. The medical profession also tended to see women as defined by their ovaries and childbearing capacities, prone to hysteria, unreliable, and in need of a man to guide them.

Recent brain-imaging techniques have shown that brain activity is different in men and women performing the same task – but what does this really mean? Is it evidence of fundamentally different male and female brains, or have all the years of differing social expectations led women and men to think differently? 

Science may reveal nature’s truths, but history suggests that the interpretation of scientific findings can be influenced by deep-seated social beliefs and attitudes.

Lead image:

ResoluteSupportMedia/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Microbiology, History
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development