Why boys need barbies and girls need footballs

That’s the title of an article in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail. The article begins: “Are sex differences hardwired into children’s brains? Not according to neurobiologist Lise Eliot, who tells Anne McIlroy that small differences between girls and boys are magnified by parents – not to mention same-sex schools.” It’s an interview with Eliot who set out to write a book that would chart how the brains of boys and girls develop differently. However, she found surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in the developing brain. Instead, she found very small differences that were amplified by gender socialization. I’m looking forward to reading Pink Brain Blue Brain.

book cover
book cover

12 thoughts on “Why boys need barbies and girls need footballs

  1. I am a neurobiologist who works on the issue of sex influences on brain, and would like to make a few comments:
    1) of course dr. eliot found little evidence of sex influences in developing human brains– the field has avoided the issue like the plague, and continues in the main to do so! (i was literally told the issue was “career death” when i got into it about 10 years ago).
    2) animal research (largely avoided by eliot) makes unarguably clear that mammalian brains contain sex influences big, medium and small at essentially ever level of function, down to the molecular mechanisms of neuronal death. unless one wants to deny evolution, one has to accept that that must be the case for the human brain as well. whether and to what extent these omnipresent influences, clearly unrelated to human culture, are important questions, but in no way diminish the importance of this overwhelming fact.
    3) dr eliot is reacting against the numerous grotesque overstatements made about the issue, often by “experts” who publish books and are not even neuroscientists. she was right to do so. but she erred greatly in fostering the misimpression that sex influences on human brain are somehow negligible, and culture based.
    4) see my article in scientific american in 2005 if you’d like to know why this issue is so hugely important

  2. Wow, the comments on that article are pretty dreadful. Fortunately, next to each comment there’s a way to give it a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. Most of those deserved thumbs down, and I gave them.

  3. “that small differences between girls and boys are magnified by parents – not to mention same-sex schools”

    There’s also the issue of the entire society around your children. You may give your son a Barbie (which is really the same a GI Joe but taller), but when he gets to school, the other children will already know what to think and say about it and tell him so.

  4. We all used to argue this one out. until everbody started having kids and realised that boy-babies ang girl-babies are usually quite specific in what they like..

    Having said that, i didn’t like barbies as a little boy, but i like them now!

  5. bobette, but there is a real problem with generalizing from one’s own experience, along with that of one’s friends, and the whole human race over its ten thousand or so years.

    What I myself learned in changing countries with a toddler is that one cannot overestimate the power of culture and the desire of parents and teachers to enforce their version of it.

  6. Anne Fausto-Sterling has also been making this argument for years, excellently so (Sexing the Body, Myths of Gender).

  7. lary cahill: two things worried me in reading your comment. first, i wonder is it really ‘denying evolution’ to suppose that humans are different in this respect? (and here, i’m not claiming that they are. i just wonder about the evolution claim.) nipples came to mind: human males have nipples just like females. i’ve been told that this doesn’t happen in other mammals (? maybe this is wrong?). so, there’s one feature that’s sex-inspecific in humans where it’s sex-specific in other mammals. but, you don’t have to deny evolution to admit that men have nipples, right?

    then the second worry i had was that neuronal death isn’t the same sort of thing as preference for barbie. i mean, i doubt anyone will deny that women’s bodies work differently to men’s. as i understand these things, that’s why women can gestate fetuses, where men can produce sperm; why men tend to be taller and have more hair where women put down more fat; etc etc. but it seems like a substantive claim to say that, in addition to these physiological differences (which it sounds like there’s good evidence for), there are personality and preference differences that are biologically-based. and again, i don’t know so much about this. i’m just trying to get clear on exactly what we have evidence for, but is there evidence for the idea that if physiological functioning is different, so is preference for barbie, etc?

  8. If I may echo elp’s comment and add the following concern. Much of the research on supposed differences seem to yields this sort of argument:
    Region X of the brain supports some aspect of B.
    Men and women differ in the volume of X or connections of X.
    Men and women differ in B and that may show they should be educated differently.

    That’s not a very good argument. We just don’t know enough yet to know what difference the differences are making. Instead, the differences get interpreted according to the prevailing societal views.

    That the interpretations are driven by prevailing societal views is very worrying when we turn to results on 1 day old infants. The idea that female babies look at their mothers more than males do is drawn without the sort of testing that should be done. That is, we do not know what is being picked up visually in these very young eyes that are only just starting to experience daylight, etc.

    elp: one of my male cats has nipples. The other is long haired and I’m not going to investigate today. sorry!

  9. oh! i’ve been lied to about nipples! (i admit, i’m biased towards female pets, so i’ve never had a chance to investigate.)

  10. In response to this debate, it seems part of the problem is the way studies are framed, i.e. the article begins by saying “are sex differences hardwired”?–meaning, are the sex differences we currently recognize socially ‘actually’ hardwired? Stating, as Larry Cahill does above, that there may be sex influences in the brain is very far from saying “the differences we currently recognize, like preference for barbies, are hardwired.” It’s a pretty far leap from “sex influence in the brain” to “preference for barbies,” no? Of course it is the prevalence of just such leaps that makes people want to deny the possibility of sex differences in the brain.

    If anyone cares to keep talking about this, I wonder what people think would be some good ways to try to interpret data without jumping to societally-framed conclusions?

  11. It’s also important to remember that EVERY characteristic maps as a set of overlapping bell curves. When we say, “men are taller than women” we mean that the average man is taller than the average woman. It says NOTHING about whether an individual man is taller than an individual woman.

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