Throughout history, much attention has been paid to the perceived differences between men’s and women’s brains – but are these differences real or imagined?

One scientist overturning the myths of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain is Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging in the School of Life & Health Sciences at Aston University.

When asked: “Can you sex a brain?”, the emphatic response from Gina, is “No, certainly not at the moment. Decades of research has shown that there is no one area of the human brain that consistently distinguishes female brains from male brains.”

The historical debate

“Look back at the 18th Century and you see lots of attempts to explain the social inferiority of women on the basis of their ‘inferior’ brains. As time went on the debate became a little politer, now claiming that men and women had different skills that were complementary, but still based on an assumption that these differences were the result of biology.”

Look a little closer and it soon becomes apparent that much of the literature purporting to be about brains over much of the last two centuries or more was not based on the study of human brains at all. Think first of craniology (the study of skulls) or phrenology (the study of bumps on your skull).

“In the 21st century, it may not manifest itself in the same way, the terminology may have changed, yet the underlying beliefs are much the same and we still sometimes see outbursts that reflect a belief that men and women’s brains are inherently different,” explains Gina.

Infamous examples in recent years include the internal memo by former Google employee James Damore in which the company’s diversity efforts were criticised. Whilst the comments of the then President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers regarding the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering alluded to the ‘different availability of aptitude at the high end’ between men and women, reigniting the debate.

The search for difference

Yet the continued search for difference draws attention away from the many similarities between men’s and women’s brains. It also negates the variability found in the brains of people of the same sex – which is much wider than any differences found between the brains of men and women.

The belief that there is a simple dichotomy between male and female brains is based on an argument that these differences are driven by a genetically determined template that is fixed and unchangeable from birth – hence these differences can’t or shouldn’t be challenged.

The danger in this assumption at best leads to inertia and can mean that no attempts are made to address the inequalities we know exist, in areas such as education, healthcare and the workplace – including the underrepresentation of women in science.

“For a long time, it was assumed that your biology was your destiny and that your developmental endpoint was dictated by a biological blueprint set out right at the beginning of your life,” explains Gina. “It was assumed that the brain you are born with would be the brain you will always have. We know now that this is not the case.

“Yes, there are average differences between men and women in many aspects of behaviour, but how do we explain these differences? There are factors, in addition to biological factors, that we should be taking into account. ‘Sex influence’ is a better term, reflecting that sex is one influence, but one amongst many and by ignoring those other factors we are missing a lot that is interesting.”

Discovering neural plasticity

“In the 21st Century we have new ways of looking at the brain and the more sophisticated imaging equipment available to us reveals that brains are malleable and mouldable, changing over time, rather than remaining static. There is a growing understanding of neural plasticity.

“We can see that people’s brains are affected by the world in which they function, factors such as education, occupation and pastimes make a difference. The experiences you have can change your brain; and these changes wax and wane throughout your life. We know now the world in which we 

operate has a much greater impact on our brains than was ever thought to be the case.

“A good example of this is London’s black cab drivers. We know that structures in the brain change in taxi drivers who pass The Knowledge, in which they’re tested on the whereabouts of 25,000 streets in London. Those drivers who fail or drop out of training don’t show the same changes, whilst in those drivers that have retired their brains change once again.

Education and science

“The brain generates rules from the world in which it operates, so understanding the role of socialisation is important. Stereotypes can be a threat at brain level and understanding this is helpful in addressing the inequalities or differences that many people see as fixed – these differences are nothing of the sort.

“It’s crucial that all children know their biological sex does not solely determine their abilities or achievements. I’m very concerned about the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and that’s why I do a lot of work in secondary schools.

“There are too many girls who genuinely believe they can’t do science, both because of existing stereotypes instilled from an early age and because science is still viewed as a male domain. That’s why it’s important they have successful female scientists as role models. The loss to science of girls who don’t do science is enormous.

“One of the worst things about the education system in this country is the specialisation that’s required from so young an age. The adolescent brain is particularly malleable and driven by social demands such as peer pressure and belonging to the right in-group, meaning it’s about the worst possible time someone could be asked to make an academic decision that will affect the rest of their lives.”

Intertwined influences

“There are differences between the sexes, looking at these differences is important, but the social and cultural consequences of how these differences are researched, interpreted and communicated are immense and that’s why it is so crucial this work is done well. If we understand these differences solely in terms of biology, we are missing many other factors that should be taken into account.

“Biological and social influences are entangled. Brain development is not wholly down to either society or biology. There are many factors involved in how our brains come to be how they are and which influence how they operate in the world.”