'The Gendered Brain' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain

By Gina Rippon, Bodley Head, 448 pages, £15

You might recognise Gina Rippon as the expert from BBC2’s No More Boys and Girls — a series which showed that, by the age of seven, girls hugely underestimate their own abilities, boys often don’t have the words to describe their feelings and that these trends can be reversed by removing the gender cues that surround children. For Rippon, gender stereotypes are neither innate nor inevitable, and reports of biological sex differences in the brain are not to be relied on. As a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, she is qualified to explain why.

In the 1890s, the French psychologist Gustave Le Bon pronounced women “closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilised man”. As Rippon points out, Le Bon’s focus was on demonstrating the inferiority of non-European races — a pursuit that has been discredited. But the notion of a divergence in the nature of the brain between sexes — something, according to Le Bon, “so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment” — is repeated to this day.

Rippon’s book joins an admirable history of work that aims to debunk the “biology is destiny” hypothesis. Recently, Cordelia Fina, Lise Eliot and Angela Saini have convincingly reviewed evidence and exposed bad science. But their work is not new. Rippon cites papers from the 1960s and 1970s by such neuroscientists as Naomi Weisstein, Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin, who “worked painstakingly through decades of studies” and found that gender differences in our brains had been grossly overstated. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1792, wrote “What a weak barrier is truth when it stands in the way of an hypothesis!” in relation to attempts to “give sex to a mind”.

Why do these myths persist? One problem, Rippon says, is that studies that find no evidence of difference go unreported. The mainstream media tend to precis the minority that do identify differences, not always accurately. Thus “pink brain/blue brain” ideas are repeated and reinforced, even after they have been discredited. One University College London study looked at 3,500 articles in the press about neuroscience in the UK from 2000 to 2010 and found that “research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments or support particular policy agendas”.

Also relevant is the nature of scientific language, and how much it is understood by the general reader. Rippon clarifies the distinction between a “statistically significant” difference and one that is meaningful in the real world. She explains the meaning of “effect size”, which measures the overlap between two “different” groups, and how the way we ask questions can prejudice the answers. Language matters.

One example is in her polite criticism of the work of Simon Baron-Cohen , who identifies two types of brain: systemising v empathising. The first type he calls the “male brain”, the second, “female” — although, in his book The Essential Difference, he points out that “your sex does not dictate your brain type ... not all men have the male brain, and not all women have the female brain”. Rippon asks, in that case, why use the words “male” and female” at all? “Describing a brain as ‘male’ means, for many people, that it is the brain of a man,” she suggests. This is particularly vexing when Baron-Cohen recommends that “people with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers and personnel staff”, while those with a “male brain” are better “scientists, engineers, mechanics, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers”. As Rippon drily observes: “No points for guessing who earns a higher salary in this scenario.”

This is especially important given how “plastic” we now know the brain to be. The famous example is the enlarged hippocampi of London black-cab drivers who have studied the Knowledge — but we can also measure brain changes in adults who play video games or learn origami or the violin. Babies and children are “tiny social sponges” with a “particular appetite for social rules”, and their environments and experiences clearly alter the way their brains develop. Interestingly, new techniques that allow us to examine the brains of newborns as they perform tasks seem to show a fairly consistent message: no sex differences were found. Therefore, the subtle messages that children receive — Lego or dolls; sport or chatting _ can change the way their brains form. To measure those changes, and then use the results to reinforce gendered play, is not scientific, or fair. “The message at the heart of this book is that a gendered world will produce a gendered brain,” Rippon states — which is important “not just for women and girls, but for men and boys, parents and teachers, businesses and universities, and for society as a whole”.

There is actually very little discussion of the effect of all this on men and boys, which is a shame, considering those seven-year-olds in No More Boys and Girls who couldn’t discuss their feelings, and given that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. This, as much as the female brain-drain from STEM subjects, is an outrage. The Gendered Brain is one of those books that should be essential reading before anyone is allowed to be a teacher, or buy a child a present, or comment on anything on Twitter, ever again ... but my fear is that Rippon is preaching to the choir. That said, all systemising brains out there owe it to themselves to read this calm and logical collection of evidence and science, and all empathisers will understand its importance.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd