Sex and the brain

Last week I attended an eye-opening talk by Cordelia Fine, a psychologist, neuroscientist and best-selling author based at the University of Melbourne. She highlighted something to me that I’ve always held a deep discomfort over, but that I’ve never really been able to articulate myself on: the view that men and women’s brains are fundamentally hardwired, and that this translates into differences between the sexes in behaviour and natural aptitude.


Are men from Mars and women from Venus? Source: Wikimedia Commons


Scientists have reported that men’s brains are programmed for understanding systems (for example, technical, scientific, mathematical, or business systems) and women’s for nurture and empathy. We are told that men instinctively prefer the colour blue, reject pink, and can’t help but forget to put the washing out; and that women are more social, obsessed with their appearance, are worse at maths but better at languages… you get the picture. And with so many popular science books emphasising innate sex differences, it’s hard not to give in to the notion, isn’t it? Yet, thinking more about it seems to reveal an unsettling and subtle kind of biological determinism. Are these unwelcomed truths or unsupported codswallop?


Cordelia Fine has taken it upon herself to debunk some brain science. She thinks that what a lot of this seems to come down to is a good serving of neurosexism dressed in the pretence of legitimate science, which “uses psychological power to create self-fulfilling prophecies and gender inequality”. She elegantly argues that this popular scientific view is dangerous, unfounded, and needs to be questioned so that we may stop perpetuating myths that reinforce cultural stereotypes.


In her book, Delusions of Gender, Fine presents readers with a rigorous critique of the mountain of neuroscience literature on brain-sex differences, carefully revealing the flaws and biases littered throughout experiments and conclusions.


Maternal, homely instincts? Source: Wikimedia Commons


Popular neuroscience thinks that brain hardwiring is cemented during foetal life in the womb, through the foetus’s exposure to different levels of testosterone.


As the idea goes:





Experiments often try to find correlations between the level of foetal testosterone at birth and behaviour in children. For example, those that have low levels of testosterone prenatally may show more empathetic behaviour as a child, or those that have high levels may be better at maths. The big problem here is that maternal blood samples or amniotic fluid is used as a measure of foetal testosterone, however, neither has ever been shown to directly correlate with foetal testosterone levels. Moreover, how can we make the simple conclusion that testosterone is the only thing diverging sexual paths? It simply isn’t, as many developmental biologists will tell you.


Another kind of test is frequently conducted, where brain scans are used to highlight regions of the brain that differ between men and women while they are presented with the same cognitive task. The problem with these experiments is that they only emphasise very few visible differences without focussing on the majority of the brain that stays the same. What’s more – where in the brain do the intrinsic abilities to perform well on a certain task lie? Men and women may differ in their brain patterns in one small area of the brain when they are tested on maths, but is this region actually responsible for the difference? Here lies a great hole in the picture, where scientists conveniently bypass important questions on brain biology, merely showing an arbitrary correlation between two things.


What’s more likely is that differences in performance occur because, according to Fine, “our minds are attuned to social stereotypes”. Psychologists have found that when gender dissolves into the social background, men and women’s behaviour becomes remarkably similar: when men and women were told before a test that they possessed fundamental differences in their aptitudes for a particular task due to their gender, they performed according to these differences; however, men and women who weren’t told this performed to the same level as one another. “This demonstrates how social bias kicks in when gender becomes salient,” says Fine.


Of course, there are probably biological differences between the brain’s of men and women, but the wiring is not fixed. Rather, it is malleable and moulded by encounters with the environment, and there is no linear continuum that sexual development follows. Furthermore, different cultures have varying standards of what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’, and this adds to the difficulty in using controlled experiments to capture social realities.


From the age of about two years, children begin to fall to either side of the gender divide, and their sexual identity is continually reinforced and encouraged by our society and marketing companies (one little girl offers some amazingly mature insight into the debate on gender marketing). While having a sexual identity is important (even if we’re looking at it from a purely evolutionary perspective in terms of reproductive success), to allow the popular mentality of innate sex differences to predominate, we are harmfully shaping children’s identities, perceptions and standards of what they are capable of.


And really, what is gender, anyway? Isn’t that just a social construct?

9 Responses to “Sex and the brain”

  1. Ina Yoon says:

    I agree with your post! It sounds interesting 🙂 I think all personality can not be formed in certain sex. I should be different individually.

  2. porbell says:

    @derosaa – Thanks Annamaria! It’s a really interesting (if contentious) topic! The book is excellent and very well written, I would definitely recommend it 🙂

  3. derosaa says:

    Great post Penny!! Really enjoyed it , the book you mentioned sounds also like and interesting read!

  4. porbell says:

    Thanks for your comments guys! It’s a very interesting area of debate.

    @lmarottta – I tend to agree with you. Equal and not the same for sure. But if we determine that there are differences, what are they and who has the advantage biologically, and can that really make for an ‘equal’ society? If women are not naturally as good as men at systems, does that make it okay for women to be underrepresented in certain professions? But anyway, I don’t think it’s helpful to lump men and women into categories – l don’t really believe in gender as a thing, just quietly…

    There probably are some (subtle) biological differences. But there are also subtle biological differences between identical twins after a certain time. The determined “born-this-way-and-can’t-change” mentality that is dangerous, and environmental influence is hard to measure and so often ignored. The problem is that researchers often go into their experiments with preconceived gender biases -which is harmful. The area needs to be handled with greater care.

  5. lmarotta says:

    Very interesting. I was happy to see that while you pointed out that so much of it is due to sexism and stereotypes that there is (most likely) a biological difference between men’s and women’s brains. I get so sick of people saying that men and women are equal by saying that they are the same, it is possible to be equal and not be the same.

  6. suyar says:

    Such an interesting read! Thank you for sharing! I don’t like sterotyping either.

  7. pdeleo says:

    I hate stereotypes, especially gender ones! thanks for sharing

  8. porbell says:

    Thanks for your comment Karen! It is frustrating and undermining of one’s confidence in their abilities to do whatever they like and whatever they excel at! I think we’ve come along way since fifty odd years ago in terms of gender equality, though there is still some work to be done. P.s. map making sounds like a really interesting thing to learn to do!

  9. karenm says:

    Great post, I agree! I always find it frustrating when people say women can’t read maps. Its sooo untrue (after all I did my undergrad in making maps!), but I have friends (who are girls) that just think they can’t read maps because of the stereotype. Also with physics, I had only three other girls in my class that studied physics in year 12, because it is a ‘boys’ subject!