Earlier this week there was a fascinating Horizon on BBC2 exploring whether there are basic differences between male and female brains. Horizon is sometimes a little thin on content and big on special effects, but this one was different—it was packed with fascinating and compelling information, and presented in a fascinating format. Michael Mosley, of ‘Fast Diet’ fame, presented the evidence that gender difference was biological in origin, whilst Alice Roberts of ‘Coast’ and numerous archaeology programmes, presented the evidence that differences were the result of conditioning and environment. And the fascinating thing was that both cases seem fairly robust.
Mosley first offered a series examples which both confirmed traditional understandings of difference, and showed that these differences were evident very early in life. Men are, on average, better at spatial tasks, whilst women are, on average, better at recognising and understanding emotion in others. But is this about ‘hard-wired’ brain differences, or are these behaviours learned? Mosley made the prima facie case that the significant differences in the levels of hormones in men and women must surely affect brain development, and we heard the ‘intuitive’ testimony from parents of young children that boys clearly preferred trucks and girls clearly preferred dolls. This was supported by a remarkable experiment with barbary macaque monkeys. When ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys were distributed in their territory, the male monkeys picked up the trucks and the female monkeys picked up the dolls. No chance of environment or conditioning affecting that choice!
Mosley then met Simon Baron-Cohen, who is Professor of Developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and a leading authority on autism. Baron-Cohen’s research has demonstrated that exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the womb leads, on the one hand, to the development of greater abilities in what he calls ‘systematising’ kinds of thinking, and, on the other, lower social skills. It has been demonstrated, for example, that boys develop social skills more slowly than girls—at one year old, boys make less eye contact with others than girls do.
The transition point in the programme came with the study of Ragini Verma from the University of Pennsylvania, looking at the different forms of connectivity in male and female brains. The differences are quite startling, and support many popular characterisations of differences between men and women.
[They] found greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males, suggesting their brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. In contrast, in females, the wiring goes between the left and right hemispheres, suggesting that they facilitate communication between the analytical and intuition.
“These maps show us a stark difference–and complementarity–in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others,” said Verma.
For instance, on average, men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women have superior memory and social cognition skills, making them more equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.
But these ‘connectivity’ differences are only present after the teenage years; they are not present in children. So the question is still open: are these biological, or are they the response of the ‘plastic brain‘ to environmental conditioning?
Alice Roberts then went on to present the evidence for the shaping of gender roles by the environment. Parents conform to stereotypes when offering babies toys, and systematically assume baby boys will be better at physical challenges than baby girls. Teenagers demonstrate how much their perceptions about careers and gender roles are shaped by expectations of society and their peers. And research by Gina Rippon at Aston suggests that gender differences are not as big as people often think, nor consistent across cultures.
So where does all this get us? There is no doubt that environment and cultural factors affect men’s and women’s behaviours, expectations, and roles in society. There is also no doubt that, in many contexts, women are treated in a worse way than men are. Research on language used in the workplace shows a shocking disparity between how men and women are treated in performance review. So far, so feminist.
But there is also little doubt that whatever differences are emphasised by culture or nurture, such differences already have a well-established biological basis. This comes back to Mosley’s opening argument: it is just implausible that differences in hormone levels do not have a significant impact on brain formation, and therefore on cognitive function. I think the most plausible explanation for the differences in wiring in adult brains is that it is the result of the surge of hormone levels during the teenage years—which brain development also explains teenagers’ need to sleep more.
This raises the question: why is there such reluctance in parts of our society to allow that men and women might be different? One of Alice Roberts’ opening statements gives us a clue:
“We live in a country where fewer than three out of ten physics A levels are taken by girls, where just 7% of engineers are women” she points out, before adding “and where men still earn on average nearly 20% more than their female colleagues.”
This statement conflates three things: difference; equality; and power. Roberts highlights differences in choice of subject, which leads to the possibility of difference in equal access to professions, which then leads to unequal distribution of power (measured here in earning power) between men and women. You only have to look at the gender mix of politicians in most Western countries to see evidence of this.
I think this presents us with two challenges. The first is whether we can accept and live with difference. I am constantly amazed, in discussions of gender difference, how often people make basic errors in understanding what ‘difference’ implies. To say ‘men are different from women’ does not mean that all men have one characteristic and all women have another. Even Gina Rippon made this basic mistake when she says to Alice Roberts ‘If I gave you a brain, you could not tell whether it was the brain of a man or the brain of a woman.’ Of course not—that is not what brain difference means. Let’s take the relatively uncontroversial question of height. Is it true that men are taller than women? Yes. Does that mean that all men are taller than all women? No, of course not, because there is a ‘bell curve’ spread of heights. If you told me someone’s height, could I identify whether that person was male or female? No! For the same reason, equal recognition of women’s leadership in the church does not imply we should see equal numbers of women in leadership roles.
It is possible to acknowledge gender difference without suggesting that all men and women conform to a narrow stereotype—and I think we need to recognise this. Is it necessarily a problem that 93% of engineers are men? They might well be better at it, because of male brain connectivity.
But here is the second challenge: how do we value the roles which women might excel in? One of the most striking things about the Apostle Paul’s discussion of life in the ‘body of Christ’ in 1 Cor 12 is the fact that it appears to be gender-blind. All who are in Christ have received the Spirit. And the Spirit equips all, regardless of gender, with gifts that contribute to the life of the whole. There is no requirement here for ‘sameness’—in fact, that other major theme is differentiation. Each has a different gift—but the Spirit enables all to contribute, and we need to value each contribution regardless.
This has real consequences for how we respond to gender differences. When faced with the possibility that men dominate certain roles in society, and these roles are paid more (our society’s way of giving value), why is the next assumption ‘We need equal numbers of women in that role’? Although that sounds, at first, like the ‘feminist’ response arguing for gender justice, it actually buys in to contemporary culture’s evaluation of different roles. Running a bank is ‘more important’ than nursing the sick, or than raising a family.
Here’s the other possible response: ‘We need to value the roles that women predominate as much as the roles that men predominate.’ I can’t help wondering that this—at present unarticulated view—needs to have a more prominent place in the discussion.
(If you would like an entertaining and, for some people, highly offensive take on gender differences, do watch The Tale of Two Brains!)
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