Six critical notes on the current sex/gender research.
According to the dominant ‘hardwiring’ paradigm of sex/gender research in contemporary neuroscience, there are some important sex differences in brain structure and function. Men are neurologically hardwired to develop more male characteristics, whilst women are neurologically hardwired to develop more female characteristics.
Scientifically proved differences between men and women have always appealed to the imagination. Many neuroscientific studies add to an ever-growing catalogue of male-female differences: what are they, and how do they arise? But how should we see the differences between the female and male brain?
Six critical notes on the assumptions of sex/gender research.
1. Scientists tend to use the binary sex difference to look at brains. But the brain simply cannot be ‘sexed’ as genitals can. The analogy from genitals to brains is extremely misleading. If we would put a person to the test, he could probably get a 99% score on deciding whether the genitals of a group of individuals are male or female. To make that distinction between male and female brains is much harder. This is because the brain is far less dimorphic than genitals in virtually all species studies, and behavior even less so.
2. The differences between male and female brains are averages of groups. These differences are only perceptible at group level, rather than being distinct forms that can be identified in individuals. The average outcome of the “ typical” male brain doesn’t necessarily count for every individual within the male group.
3. We don’t know to what extent the differences between the female and male brain are influenced by gendered patterns of social roles and behavior. The input that a brain receives from the environment is an important factor that influences the shape of the brain. For example: if neuroscientific research shows that the female brain is more empathic and in touch with emotions than men’s, to what extent is this innate? Is the female brain not also shaped by social (environmental) expectations, where women are expected to be more empathic than men?
4. It is hard to see how early hormones could direct the brain towards masculine or feminine cognitive or affective phenotypes, when the masculinity or femininity of the phenotypes in question is a moving target.
5. Scientists frame their work with the help of assumptions about the binary differences between male/female. They too are brought up in a world with prejudices about what male or female is. These social and cultural assumptions (unconsciously) influence the way a scientist approaches the object of study. Although it is inevitable that scientists bring their subjective prejudices to their work, it is important that in true scientific research they are aware of their own assumptions.
6. Even if we could divide the brain into two distinct forms, female and male, does this mean that “not typical for males” should be read as feminine, and “not being typical for females” should be read as masculine? Are holebi’s and transgenders just an intermediate cross-sex form? They seem to be the living argument that a binary division of the male and female brain can’t be made.
People have always appealed to the idea of typical male and female characteristics. The binary division of sex/gender now seems to be moving to the neuroscientific field. The critical notes above have problematized the idea of a binary division between the male and female brain.
Jordan-Young, R. & Rumiati, R.I. (2011). Hardwired for sexism? Approaches to Seks/Gender in neuroscience Neuroethics DOI: 10.1007/s12152-011-9134-4
Wexler, B.E. (2011). Culture and Neural Frames of Cognition And Communication Springer Ebooks DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-15423-2_1
neuroscience, male brain, female brain, sex difference, gender difference, gender