Cordelia Fine has an article in the first issue of a new, free, online journal, Neuroethics; it’s entitled, “Will Working Mothers’ Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism.”  We’ve blogged about neurosexism before in a post about single-sex education, and this  article  covers some of the same issues from a more general perspective. 

One book she discusses is Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2003 book, The essential difference: Men, women and the extreme male brain. (London: Allen Lane.)  This is one of  those books that celebrates the fact that, as a matter of biological destiny, men do important things with science and public life while women take care of social relations.  Too many people take it at its word, no doubt in part because Baron-Cohen has done a  lot of highly respected work on ASD, the autism spectrum disorder.  In his view, autism is a manifestation of an extreme male brain, and so…. .

(In thinking about this, I’m reminded of my son’s nursery school, which forbid the children from playing Mommy and Daddy (or: cook-comforter and consumer).  So the children played a form  of Bambi, with the  boys wounded deer and the girls nurses.  One suspects Baron-Cohen’s more literally adult fantasy is scientist and wife.  Children:  there are alternatives!)

One of the issues is the responsibility of journalists in writing about what various people are doing with supposedly “the results” in cognitive neuroscience: 

Mark Liberman has suggested that “misleading appeals to the authority of ‘brain research’ have become the modern equivalent of out-of-context scriptural fragments.” [18]. Noting, along with Rivers and Barnett [19], that baseless neuroscientific ‘facts’ about gender differences are already having an impact on educational policies, for example, he argues that journalists have a real responsibility to fact-check the accuracy of neuroscientific claims. The need for journalists to take on this responsibility takes on an extra import when one considers our susceptibility to poor neuroscientific explanations, together with the way that biological accounts of gender, and the stereotypes about male versus female abilities that they promote, can measurably alter our beliefs, self-identity and abilities.

In response to the earlier post here on arguments for single-sex schools based on alleged findings in neuroscience, smatty referred to a Language Log post, Blinding us with Science,  from which the Liberman quote above comes.  It contains a number of references that are very useful if you are trying to think through the issues involved in evaluating the claims in favor of single sex schools.

[Thanks to JW for the neurosexism reference.]

19 thoughts on “Neurosexism

  1. I would prefer schools be made to have options for all the different types of people. Even when there are generic differences between the average male and average female brain, there are many exceptions, such as with genetically effeminate males, etc. There’s no need to make schools gender-specific, but to make them specific to different learning styles and people can choose which ones they want to go to. This is especially important because there are more than two learning styles.

  2. SH, thanks so much for your observations. I think I agree, but at this stage, given the research, I’d scrap the idea that we know about genetic differences in a way that could inform wise choices.

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s true.

  3. Ideally, children could affect their own choice of education, and end up in an environement best for their own learning style. Some children are bored, some are overwhelmed, some have emotional or home problems that they don’t know how to deal with, some children are withdrawn. It is hard for a single teacher to deal with all of these in a classroom setting. Everyone, male and female, thrives when given indivudual attention. Parents are the best teachers, but are too busy, and aren’t qualified to teach all subjects. I don’t know the answer. Children are not the same, day to day. Hormones, emotions, illness, and attention span are not static in a child. Putting children into gender-specific classes is no more useful than putting them into enriched or remedial groups, as kid’s tendency to want to fit in makes them want to conform to the group they’re in. It may be useful in diagnosis of learning difficulties to recognize male/female brain differences, such as they are, but what of all the other differences between the way a kid thinks?

  4. men do important things with science and public life while women take care of social relations

    I really hope this is an accurate summary of (this aspect of) Baron-Cohen’s position. Because it displays, rather brilliantly, just how fundamentally distorted the position is. After all, what else is public life but interacting with other people in social relations?

    Science, arguing over policy decisions, managing an office, hunting woolly mammoths, and all the other things that men are supposed to be so much better at than women (at least according to Baron-cohen and his ilk) are all, like pretty much every other activity human beings do, essentially social activities. You have to be buried up to your neck in gender dichotomies while trying to make the identities boy’s stuff = science and politics, girl’s stuff = social activities, because the simple fact that science and politics are themselves social activities makes the whole division pointless.

  5. My question is…why do we need all this neuro scientific (latent) datum…they are attempting to qualify people as being genetically or neuroly’ presupposed, bipolar depressives, child murders, sex offenders…etc. etc. “all there scientific datum, only adds to the cesspool of faulty graduate studies in these areas of science, so that they can fit the disorder with a presupposed diagnosis.” Regarding the education of all children, and latent periods of men and woman in society, has been adequately and definitively addressed by some of the greatest recognized men and women in these fields respectively. Don’t these people know anything but a laboratory control group specimen?

  6. Noumena: Agreed!
    It’s very difficult to read him, but here’s what Publisher’s Weekly says, according to

    “His speculations on how binary brain types have evolved over the eons, which have the male brain co-opting traits like power and leadership, leaving the female brain with gossip and motherhood, may ruffle a few feathers.”

    Enough said.

  7. It certainly is true that reporters have a duty to “fact-check” stories, especially ones that may affect attitudes on public policy in such an important area as education. I used scare quotes around “fact-check” because realistically in these areas it’s not like there exists an encyclopedia somewhere that lists the actual facts… however, a reporter should at least search from some disputing opinions from equally qualified scientists. After all, don’t journalists love conflict?

    That duty, however, cuts both ways. When reporting on the continued existence of the so-called “gender gap” in professional salaries and career progress, we rarely hear about the fact that gap is much more narrow among younger professionals than older (implying that there is an important generational shift).

    Also, while we ought not rely on incomplete science in innate gender differences to exert undue influence on our public policy, neither should we let unsupported assumptions about innate sameness do the same. We should not be segregating students based solely on their gender and our beliefs about the implications of that, and neither should we so readily blame society when colleges turn out a disproportionate number of male mathematicians and engineers and female lawyers and linguists. Tons of effort and money are spent in the assumption that these sorts of results are necessarily due to social influence, even though that theory is even less supported than innate gender differences.

    The value of equal rights and equal opportunity does not rely on debunked theories of genetic sameness any more than they are hobbled by evidence of genetic differences.

  8. Prothonotor, your comments are really interesting, but I’m not at all sure about your claim that “Tons of effort and money are spent in the assumption that these sorts of results are necessarily due to social influence, even though that theory is even less supported than innate gender differences.”

    We’ve discussed social pressures/influences here, and there’s a lot more in the professional literature on women in science. For our posts, look at a startling result we uncovered here:
    And check out through the search function our discussions of stereotype threat.
    One interesting fact is that the proportion of women pursuing careers in the hard sciences is much, much higher in countries where science is not held in high regard. The proportion of women in science in the US is not at all found to hold universally.

  9. jj,

    Obviously “tons of effort and money” is a subjective statement, but certainly there are efforts to blame social stereotypes in general and specific institutions and persons in particular when the ratios in outcomes do not match expectations. Look at the consequences that Lawrence Summers faced for his comments at Harvard, and he wasn’t presenting a scientific study, just thoughts (and from what I can tell, was pretty clear that it was relatively speculative and required more study).

    Meanwhile, in terms of publicity, I’ve heard a lot of criticism in the media that relies primarily on the socialization theory for the gender gap, and I believe there are a number of gender-based programs, some no doubt some including public funds, to correct the gap through a variety of social-based ways (for an example of a past such program, see I don’t hear a lot of publicity for a similar but opposite skew among fields such as linguistics and law (as I mentioned previously). I don’t even hear much other than the occasional aside that women actually make up a disproportionate number of college students to begin with. Is as much being spent to get men into college, and to encourage more of them to enter linguistics?

    Interestingly, in the very blog entry you cited, there is an implicit acceptance of (innate?) gender differences:
    “Women who viewed the unbalanced video exhibited more cognitive and physiological vigilance, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference, than did women who viewed the gender-balanced video. Men were unaffected by this situational cue.” If it’s true that women react differently to a skewed-gender audience than men (and is that referenced study scrutinized as much as the ‘spatial-linguistic’ studies are, I wonder?), are we to believe that’s also caused by socialization? Furthermore, girls have been enrolling in middle and high school math and science classes more than boys, yet continuing to technical college programs at lower rates (especially for CS). One would think that the bias in females’ favor in high school classes would translate to increased confidence in entering such fields in college.

    As a CS graduate, I am fully aware of the dearth of females in the field, and trust me, we all bemoaned in in college. No one would be happier to see more female CS students than male CS students (well, most of us anyway). However, I also believe that at some level men and women *are* different. There are clear biological and hormonal differences which must involve neurology at some level. Instead of violently rejecting all notions of such differences, we should be looking for ways of exploiting them to make all fields as rich as possible, math, science, law, linguistics, sociology, everything.

    There are clearly gender gaps, and I’m sure there are social factors at play, especially in preceding generations. However, if we insist on blaming *only* socialization for undesirable results, and eschew all other factors, and it turns out there are indeed other factors we should be adjusting for, then we’ll never improve the situation, no matter how many chemistry kits we buy our daughters. Finally, at some point, we should be willing to test the assumption that many have that anything other than 50/50 egalitarianism is a problem in need of a fix.

  10. Pro– (1) Really? We rarely hear about the pay gap being bigger later in life? That’s the standard way I talk about it, and a way that makes perfect sense given the influence of family structure. And here’s a recent post on the topic: (2) The video-viewing: I think you’ve missed the fact that the unbalanced ration was one with men in the majority. We don’t need an innateness hypothesis to explain why men would be more comfortable with that than women. (3) I don’t think any of here deny that there are biological sex differences.

  11. Jender,

    (1) I applaud you if you point out the generational issues with the pay gap, but when I say “we rarely hear” I’m talking about mass media and our politicians who use it, not necessarily blogs that devote themselves to those issues.

    I would like to point out, however that your comment “that makes perfect sense given the influence of family structure” is discounting an alternative factor. Ms. Barber (and/or the BBC article) makes an even wider accusation: ‘Despite girls outperforming boys at school and at university, too many employers are still failing to make use of women’s skills.’ They conclude this how? Because they found that the pay gap in an older generation (women older than 30) is wider than in a younger generation? I’m sure some of that can be explained by family structure, for instance women are more likely to take a break from their careers to take care of their children. One would expect that such a woman re-entering the workforce is not going to pick up right where she left off, as I would expect a man who pauses his career to face the same. Studies should be controlling for this, but something tells me that a trade union study is not going to be very reliable in terms of science.

    While I’m not privy to the TUC study referenced, the article itself does not mention how they draw the conclusion that because the pay gap widens for women over 30 that therefore the problem is companies not accommodating motherhood, as the story alleges (‘TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber says women are “paying an unacceptable penalty simply for having children”. ‘). If a scientific study were to look into the hypothesis that motherhood is the major factor, then it should be relatively controlled for age; however this story implies that the study has not done this because it talks specifically about ages. It also says “The wage gap is greatest between the ages of 50 and 59. ” Not many women aged between 50 and 59 are having children; so why would their pay gap be greater than those aged 30-40 if motherhood is the determining factor? I suspect this has to do more with generational differences, which are often not controlled in these sorts of pop science studies, which are usually just surveys.

    Women aged 50-59 who entered the workforce 30 years or so ago most definitely did face discrimination and a big pay gap. Starting with a big pay gap, it’s going to be unlikely that most of them are going to have made up that gap 30 years later as their raises are going to be based on previous salary.

    On the other hand, today we see women entering the workforce with a narrower (though still existent) gap. Even with no further policy action, would these women have the same pay gap 30 years from now as their older sisters do today? Perhaps… but I find it highly unlikely. This is the generational differences I say we rarely hear about.

    (2) I based my comments on that study from the abstract posted, which did not indicate which unbalances they tested for. I had to dig around to find the discussion about it at thesituationist, because the entry referenced here only pointed to their main page (the entry is at btw). The actual journal entry is not freely available. Based on thesituationist article, it does seem like they may have only shown one gender-unbalanced video (where men outnumber women). If that’s the case, then I think their study is somewhat flawed. How can you cite differences between men’s reaction to the unbalanced video and women’s reactions unless you also have an unbalanced video in the opposite direction? Would men show similar reactions as the women did if they were viewing a video that had a 3:1 imbalance of women? Would women shown similar comfort levels when their gender outnumbered as them men did when they viewed theirs? Both men and women showed a preference for the conference when viewing the balanced video… how would women’s preferences compare between a balanced video and a 3:1 women-unbalance? If they didn’t test this, then we don’t know the answers to these significant questions.

    Also, thesituationist makes some comments that I find somewhat unsettling for a scientific study (remembering that this is psychology, where science is sometime thrown to the wolves): “Women were able to recall more details about the video and the test room, indicating that they paid more attention to the identity-relevant items in order to assess the likelihood of encountering identity threat.” There could be many explanations for why women were able to recall more details, I don’t see how that fact alone indicates anything to do with “identity-relevant items”. I also don’t see how some science magazines that are situationally-relevant are construed to be “identity-relevant”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    ‘“It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward MSE-related cues,” write the authors. Thus, it is likely that this kind of attention allocation would interfere with performance and might help explain the performance gap between men and women in these fields.’ The article has taken the statement “it would not be surprising” from the study and reformulated it to mean “it is likely”, which is misleading. Furhter, I don’t understand how this hypothesis follows from the premise. If women are able to recall more details about the video and the test room, couldn’t that just as easily mean they were able to pay more attention to the content of the video and their environment? The allegation that “this kind of attention allocation” likely causes interference and performance degradation is quite a leap of faith. If they’re going to make that claim, they better have more to support it than the statement that it “wouldn’t be suprising”.

    Again, I’m under no delusion that there are many factors involved with this issue. However, I only ask that in the interest of good science, we leave ourselves open to many possibilities for explanations, rather than forming preconceptions which are personally comfortable to us, and then only seeing evidence that supports those preconceptions; and that goes for both the nurture and the nature sides of the debate.

  12. Getting back to the neurosexism issue: is it sexist to assert that there are average differences in cognitive profiles between men and women? Because as far as I know, no one has contradicted the basic fact that Asperger’s is 10/1 male and autism is 4/1 male. Unless you believe that autism is psychogenic, it’s pretty hard to deny that there are average differences in cognitive profiles along the lines of sex. These differences are difference in brain development, and they almost certainly begin in utero. (This is excluding people who have “autistic features” as a result of early childhood brain injuries or other developmental problems. They should probably be thought of differently.)

    People who point out that this is abnormal psychology don’t really have a legitimate point. Much abnormal psychology, including the study of developmental disabilities, is the study of a spectrum, and you still see these disparities on people who probably would not score as ASD on any standard tests.

    So to me, denying that there are average brain–> behavior differences that are sex-linked is pretty much denying the obvious, at this point. I think SBC probably “spins” it a little too much for the popular audience, and some of his claims (e.g., about fetal testosterone levels) are not yet confirmed, but I am a little impatient with some of the totalizing language involving the brain and sex differences.

    I think science and feminism are more than compatible.


  13. I agree that denying that there are any sex-linked brain differences is not promising. Where it becomes sexist is when in advance of fuller research people decided that they know what the differences are AND that these supposed differences really (a) explain unequal distribution of resources in the society and (b) show remediation is pointless.

    I’m just reading an alternative explanation of the connection between autism and ‘the male brain’, which I’m planning to post.

  14. Totally in agreement on the compatibility of science and feminism, and on the importance of taking seriously both social and biological explanations for differences. Ignorance of the facts is no recipe for success in a political movement. Unfortunately I haven’t got the time right now to get into details of studies! But I really do appreciate being pressed on these things–there are lots of flawed experiments out there on both sides, and we need to look at them all very carefully.

  15. Psychology Matters Homepage

    Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills
    Research debunks myths about cognitive difference

    What the Research Shows

    Are boys better at math? Are girls better at language? If fewer women than men work as scientists and engineers, is that aptitude or culture? Psychologists have gathered solid evidence that boys and girls or men and women differ in very few significant ways — differences that would matter in school or at work — in how, and how well, they think.

    At the University of Wisconsin, Janet Shibley Hyde has compiled meta-analytical studies on this topic for more than 10 years. By using this approach, which aggregates research findings from many studies, Hyde has boiled down hundreds of inquiries into one simple conclusion: The sexes are more the same than they are different.

    In a 2005 report, Hyde compiled meta-analyses on sex differences not only in cognition but also communication style, social or personality variables, motor behaviors and moral reasoning. In half the studies, sex differences were small; in another third they were almost non-existent. Thus, 78 percent of gender differences are small or close to zero. What’s more, most of the analyses addressed differences that were presumed to be reliable, as in math or verbal ability.

    At the end of 2005, Harvard University’s Elizabeth Spelke reviewed 111 studies and papers and found that most suggest that men’s and women’s abilities for math and science have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood but give men and women on the whole equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as six months on tasks such as addition and subtraction (babies can do this, but not with pencil and paper!).

    The evidence has piled up for years. In 1990, Hyde and her colleagues published a groundbreaking meta-analysis of 100 studies of math performance. Synthesizing data collected on more than three million participants between 1967 and 1987, researchers found no large, overall differences between boys and girls in math performance. Girls were slightly better at computation in elementary and middle school; in high school only, boys showed a slight edge in problem solving, perhaps because they took more science, which stresses problem solving. Boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any gender differences narrowed over the years, belying the notion of a fixed or biological differentiating factor.

    As for verbal ability, in 1988, Hyde and two colleagues reported that data from 165 studies revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless, despite previous assertions that “girls are better verbally.” What’s more, the authors found no evidence of substantial gender differences in any component of verbal processing. There were even no changes with age.

    What the Research Means

    The research shows not that males and females are – cognitively speaking — separate but equal, but rather suggests that social and cultural factors influence perceived or actual performance differences. For example, in 1990, Hyde et al. concluded that there is little support for saying boys are better at math, instead revealing complex patterns in math performance that defy easy generalization. The researchers said that to explain why fewer women take college-level math courses and work in math-related occupations, “We must look to other factors, such as internalized belief systems about mathematics, external factors such as sex discrimination in education and in employment, and the mathematics curriculum at the precollege level.”

    Where the sexes have differed on tests, researchers believe social context plays a role. Spelke believes that later-developing differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but rather cultural factors, such as subtle but pervasive gender expectations that really kick in during high school and college.

    In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What’s more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

    Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility — Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.

    How We Use the Research

    If males and females are truly understood to be very much the same, things might change in schools, colleges and universities, industry and the workplace in general. As Hyde and her colleagues noted in 1990, “Where gender differences do exist, they are in critical areas. Problem solving is critical for success in many mathematics-related fields, such as engineering and physics.” They believe that well before high school, children should be taught essential problem-solving skills in conjunction with computation. They also refer to boys having more access to problem-solving experiences outside math class. The researchers also point to the quantitative portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which may tap problem-solving skills that favor boys; resulting scores are used in college admissions and scholarship decisions. Hyde is concerned about the costs of scientifically unsound gender stereotyping to individuals and to society as a whole.

    Sources & Further Reading

    Hyde, J. S., & Linn, M. C. (1988). Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 53-69.

    Hyde, J.S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 139-155.

    Hyde, J.S. (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-592.

    Spelke, Elizabeth S. (2005). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science?: A critical review. American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958.

    Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999) Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.

    American Psychological Association, January 18, 2006

    Glossary of Psychological Terms

    © 2009 American Psychological Association

  16. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. By Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 473 pages.

    Spanish Translation: Cuerpos sexuados. Editorial Melusina: Barcelona, Spain, 2006.
    Professor Fausto-Sterling’s most recent work, entitled Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, was published by Basic Books in February 2000. It examines the social nature of biological knowledge about animal and human sexuality.

    Sexing the Body received the Distinguished Publication Award in 2001 by the Association for Women in Psychology. In 2000 it was chosen as one of the Outstanding Academic Books of 2000 by CHOICE Magazine, Published by the American Library Association. It was also co-winner of the Robert K Merton Award of the American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology.

    From the back cover:

    “Why do some people prefer heterosexual love while others fancy the same sex? Do women and men have different brains? Is sexual identity biologically determined or a product of social convention? In this brilliant and provocative book, the acclaimed author of Myths of Gender argues that the answers to these thorny questions lie as much in the realm of politics as they do in the world of science. Without pandering to the press or politics, Fausto-Sterling builds an entirely new framework for sexing the body-one that focuses solely on the individual.”

    r e a c t i o n s

    “A fascinating and essential book, at once vigorous, erudite, amiable and sly.”
    – Natalie Angier

    Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men And Women appeared in a second edition in 1992 which includes two new chapters on brain anatomy, sex differences and homosexuality.

    In Myths of Gender, Biology Professor Fausto-Sterling examines numerous scientific claims about biologically-based sex differences between men and women. Is there evidence–biological, genetic, evolutionary or psychological–to support the notion that our brains differ physically and that this, in turn, causes behavioral differences between the sexes? At once a scientific and a political statement, Myths of Gender seeks to reveal the politics involved in science.

    “In this book I examine mainstream scientific investigations of gender by looking closely at them through the eyes of a scientist who is also a feminist… This book is a scientific statement and a political statement. It could not be otherwise. Where I differ from some of those I take to task is in not denying my politics. Scientists who do deny their politics–who claim to be objective and unemotional about gender while living in a world where even boats and automobiles are identified by sex–are fooling both themselves and the public at large.”

    -Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The biological connection: an introduction,” Myths of Gender.

    Evelyn Fox Keller writes that the book “demonstrates in case after case the inadequacy of the evidence, and the abundance of alternative explanations, and the presence of circular reasoning…”

    Writing in the New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould called it “A fine contribution to the empirical literature on human gender differences…a courageous book”, while Robert Attenborough, in a review of the book for Nature wrote “This book is closely and intelligently argued, well documented factually and carefully referenced…”

    Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, 2nd edition (with two new chapters). New York: Basic Books, 1992

    Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, New York: Basic Books, 1985

    German translation: Gefangene des Geschlechts? 1988

    Japanese translation: 1990

    Brown University Providence, Rhode Island 02912 401.863.1000
    Last update: 8/20/2007

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