Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Female Brain, Not So Different From Male Brain

Amanda Schaffer has a very interesting article over at Slate that debunks some of the controversial “science” devoted to the differences between men’s and women’s brains. A prime example of this is Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, which caused uproar in the feminist blogosphere. Schaffer examines Brizendine’s claims that women are “more verbal” than men. When you look at the evidence, she notes, there is little difference between the sexes, even if you look at the tried-and-true test scores:

What is the scientific basis for these claims? Well-established literature suggests that girls tend to acquire language earlier than boys and are less likely to develop dyslexia (though the sex difference in dyslexia is less striking than some older research would suggest). But while adolescent girls may perform better on some tests of verbal ability, the gender gap is not large, according to meta-analyses assessed here. In the past couple of years, scores on the critical reading section of the SAT essentially show a dead heat for boys and girls: In 2007, they averaged 504 and 502, respectively. The new writing test on the SAT shows an advantage for girls, but it’s small: In 2007, those male and female averages were 489 and 500. Sex differences on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests also appear to be small or close to zero, when all ages are taken into account.

In other words, it’s just a case of finding science to back up stereotypes. All of the funding spent on research to discover “differences” between the sexes is about as useful as the research that shows taller people make more money. Okay… but so what?

Schaffer calls these scientists “evangelists,” saying that they purport these differences because it’s easier to explain the lack of women in science or the pay gap if there’s some kind of biological reason for it instead of facing the cold, hard facts that there’s still a lot of systemic and institutional sexism in society today. After all, if women are told all their lives that they should be “verbal” and “empathetic” they probably won’t be very likely to pursue a career in science or mathematics. Studies show that much of the spatial reasoning associated with technical professions like these improve vastly in both sexes with training. In other words, there’s no “natural” ability for the sciences–it’s just a matter of hard work. The cultural cues are disseminated to children early in life. Look at how even Legos are cued for boys.

So please, granters of research money, stop funding these silly studies about what boys and girls do differently. Time and time again, such studies do little to prove that there’s any kind of “hardwiring” in our brains just because of our sexual anatomy.

Cross posted at Pushback. Image by Flickr user hurleygurley.

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