Challenging Neurosexism

Created with GIMP on a MacIn her brilliant Royal Institution lecture last week, Professor Gina Rippon from Aston University comprehensively trashed ‘neurotrash’ and the harmful gender stereotypes which it perpetuates. The term ‘neurotrash’ refers to the inappropriate application of neuroscientific findings to everyday life.

Gina Rippon works with neuroimaging techniques which represent brain activity and argues that they are very useful but can also create new problems of both method and interpretation. The problem is that minute effect sizes can be used to draw very broad conclusions about the differences between groups, including males and females. This can reinforce determinist ‘biology is destiny’ beliefs and can be used to support policies which accept and even promote social inequalities and discrimination such as sexism and racism.

Scientific sexism has a long lineage which reflects contemporary social attitudes to gender differences. Throughout recent history, scientific evidence has been used to ‘prove’ commonly held views about women being inferior, more fragile or more suited to certain roles than others. Attitudes may have shifted and the science become more sophisticated but research findings are still used to ‘prove’ what we all intuitively ‘know’ about sex differences. And often this serves to reinforce the ‘natural order of things’ which includes, you guessed it, persistent inequalities.

Gina Rippon outlined three of the ways neuroscience has increased our understanding of human brains:

1. Brain imaging: These techniques are increasingly powerful and they reveal valuable information about brain structures although they don’t do justice to the complexity of their function and there is a lot of scope for oversimplification of the structure/function relationship eg: ‘this bit of the brain is where this emotion or response is found’. These are still fairly static snapshots of a complex and dynamic system and can’t yet be associated with behaviours.

2. The plasticity of brains: The evidence is that our brains are remarkably plastic and remain so throughout our lives, so all talk of ‘hardwiring’ is a misunderstanding of brain development. This plasticity means that experience plays a very significant role is shaping the brain. The evidence is that people’s behaviours and responses are highly dependent on the expectations and reactions of others and ‘everyone’s brain is connected to the world’. Biology and society are completely entangled and it may be impossible to design studies which disentangle them.

3. Redefining sex: The very categories of the sexes are simplistic. Beyond the defining biological differences, very few other characteristics fall neatly into fixed universal male / female categories. Most research findings register a spectrum of difference rather than a clear dimorphism and neuroscience requires a more nuanced approach.

Some of the excessive claims of neuroscience require an enormous unjustified leap from the brain level to the social level with no explanation or mechanism proposed. This is similar to the ‘its in our DNA’ leaps from the level of the gene to complex human social behaviours we get in claims that there are genes for violence, criminality, intelligence, sexual orientation etc.

We are also driven by the search for difference and patterns. The essentialist view of the biological sexes as fundamentally different in almost every way (‘Men are from Mars…’) leads us to assume that male and female brains will also be fundamentally different. This assumption has such a strong hold on our imagination that it shapes the questions which are asked in research studies and can distort our response to the evidence, even when the findings show the sex of subjects is irrelevant.

In education we are regularly urged to make better use of neuroscience because it offers some profound new insights which could improve classroom practice. Based on Gina Rippon’s evidence, this would seem premature.

There are lively debates about the under-representation of girls in STEM subjects, their ‘greater empathy’ or ‘intuition’, the value of single sex schools, different aptitude for coursework, teacher bias, social and parental expectations etc. We collect a great deal of data about students, much of it about their performance in exams and tests and we often slice this by sex and draw big conclusions from small effect sizes which are not absolute. We need to be cautious about attributing such differences to essential sex-based characteristics when the more likely explanations are social; expectations, assumptions, test or material design, social conditioning and broader social attitudes. If we want to understand sex, race or class inequalities in education we should probably start at the social level rather than rushing straight ‘down the levels’ to brains or genes for answers. There’s little evidence that these inequalities are either ‘hardwired’ or ‘in our DNA’.

None of this is to downplay the importance of neuroscience as a field. Raymond Tallis, who champions contemporary neuroscience as one of our “greatest intellectual achievements” is dismayed by the claims made on its behalf in areas outside those in which it has any explanatory power, he calls this “neuro-hype that is threatening to discredit its real achievements.” He goes on to say:

“The fabric of the human world, the public space that is the arena of our lives, is woven out of explicit shared attention that has been infinitely elaborated in a way that has little to do with what goes on in the darkness of the individual skull, though you require a brain in working order to be part of it. If you come across a new discipline with the prefix ‘neuro’ and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.” (Raymond Tallis in New Humanist, November 2009)

So, beware of neuro-sexism – it’s still just sexism.

For those who want to read more about ‘scientific sexism’, Gina Rippon recommended the following books:

The mind has no sex by Londa Schiebinger (1991)

Biological politics by Janet Sayers (1982)

Mad, bad and sad by Lisa Appignanesi (2009)

She also mentioned the 17th century French priest and philosopher Francois Poulain de la Barre (1647-1725) who wrote an early defence of sex equality ‘On the equality of the sexes’ published in 1673. He coined the phrase ‘the mind has no sex’ (‘l’esprit n’a pas de sexe’). An interesting reminder that ideas about equality are not as modern as we sometimes think. The American equality advocate Judith Murray wrote an essay of the same title in 1790, predating Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A vindication of the rights of women’ (1792)

I would also recommend two other excellent books:

Delusions of gender by Cordelia Fine (2010)

Brain Storm by Rebecca Jordan-Young (2010)

See also:

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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