The thing that really annoyed me all through reading this book was the way most of the experiments that Gina Rippon dissects are so badly framed. How were these studies ever taken seriously in the first place? They just seemed so unscientific? I just couldn’t get around the idea of giving modern toys to find some ‘innate’ and hardwired gender difference, given that in evolutionary terms toys are a mere blip at the end of our evolutionary process.
Anyway, The Gendered Brain takes a look (okay, an axe) to the belief that men and women’s brains are different. It looks at decades of scientific progress on the subject, poking holes in badly constructed studies and highlighting the social conditioning that happens as a person develops and how that affects your brain too.
I am not a neuroscientist (obvs) but there were some things that made a lot of sense to me while reading the book. The first was the socialisation of gender and how pervasive it was in society. There were several clever experiments measuring what parents ‘said’ about not caring about gendered activities but then their kids clearly gendered their toys along expected lines. It was so interesting.
Basically, the picture that is drawn is that:
- even when there are differences between gender, the overlap of similarity is often huge (like 90-95%)
- these minor differences are decreasing with better studies, metastudies
- gendered ideas are set very early, even unintentionally
What I thought also made a compelling through line was the history going back to the nineteenth century of difference, and how the definitions changed as they were found out to be bunk. Basically, we’re still acting like Victorians, trying to reinforced gendered stereotypes at every turn. There were some amazingly clever women early on who did experiments on brain size which showed some eminent professors with small brains and undergraduate women with larger brains, which then changed the way people thought about brain size being indicative of intelligence. It set a good benchmark for modern studies, some of which repeat similar fallacies. It was frustrating but interesting.
Anyway, I don’t understand why we don’t start from a point of neutrality or a spectrum as Rippon suggests.
It’s a very interesting read, along the lines of Inferior and the Invisible Women, which shares the same ability to make you infuriated about how women are perceived, even in ‘objective’ science. Though, Rippon ends on a more upbeat note, looking at how the technology to understand and interpret the brain is getting better all the time.