Sex on the brain
Perhaps the most fascinating differences between the sexes – and certainly the most controversial – are those seen in the brain and behaviour
Are men and women really hard-wired for masculinity and femininity? Historically, women have been seen as the ‘fairer’ or ‘weaker’ sex. Men have traditionally been the head of the family and courage is often – wrongly – said to depend on the possession of ‘balls’. But while modern society is more accepting of less traditional roles for men and women – and while girls often outperform boys in school – some still seem to be obsessed with gender differences, and particularly their impact on personal relationships.
‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ by John Gray is one of the top 100 bestselling books of all time. Deborah Tannen’s book ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Women and men in conversation’ was on the ‘New York Times’ bestseller list for four years; it argues that men and women communicate so differently that they are, in effect, talking different languages.
These ideas about men and women may be considered unhelpful products of popular culture, but there are undeniable differences between the sexes, and not just in the obvious areas. For example, it’s possible to tell a criminal’s sex from chemicals left behind in their fingerprints.
Myth or reality?
Are we really that different though? To assess sex differences, otherwise matched groups of boys and girls are given experimental tests or questionnaires that explore brain function and attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. Do such studies reveal huge differences between the sexes? In short, no.
Many studies have been carried out, and a mass of data has been gathered, much of it conflicting. One way to make sense of it is to group together similar studies to see if differences are reliably seen. A 2005 review that took this approach revealed that men and women were similar across most psychological traits and abilities. However, even when studies provide strong evidence for similarities between the sexes, it is often the small differences that are highlighted in the popular press.
Small differences are not considered statistically significant – they may just have arisen by chance. But not everyone agrees at what point a difference is significant. So there may be differences between the sexes, but even if there are, they are not having a big impact.
Even specific behaviours and abilities can be complex. For example, boys are supposed to have superior mathematical ability, but this is not seen at all ages or in all situations.
Context can markedly affect the results of studies. Men, for example, are generally considered to be more ‘aggressive’. A test in which students played a computer game where the number of bombs dropped measured aggression seemed to confirm this – men dropped more bombs. However, this was only the case when men and women played together in the same room. When women played anonymously, they dropped more bombs. These results also highlight the importance of study design.
So, despite widespread popular perceptions, men and women really don’t appear to be that different. False assumptions create or exaggerate differences, which could have a big impact.
For example, it is widely accepted that adolescent girls typically have problems with self-esteem. This seems to be true, but it’s also true of boys. The danger is that parents, teachers or other professionals may overlook the boys’ problems. Likewise, the belief that girls are always poor at maths could lead to parents or teachers failing girls by not expecting enough of them in the maths classroom.
Although some studies and media reports have suggested that men and women are ‘hard-wired’ to be different, it is not clear what hard wiring really means or whether it exists. We once thought that brain cell networks became fixed early on in life; now we know that they can be rewired and remodelled into adulthood.Lead image:
Illustration © Glen McBeth
- An article on the ‘fairer sex’
- American Psychological Association: Girls make higher grades than boys in all school subjects, analysis finds
- American Psychological Association: Men and women – no big difference
- Guardian: The top 100 bestselling books of all time
- The Conversation: New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism?
- Rethinking Sex Differences in Aggression: Aggressive Behavior in the Absence of Social Roles (1994)
- Eight studies that debunk male gender stereotypes
- Plasticity, plasticity, plasticity…and the rigid problem of sex (2013)