Gender Differences in Cognition Is Not Black And White

female-male-brain-differencesMale and female brains are not the same, yet they are not so drastically different. Believing that “male brains” and “female brains” exist is extremely difficult to argue, as there are certain aspects of gender that are influenced socially, rather than innately.

Drawing on the research in Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science of Sex Differences, Dr Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield argues how he believes that sex differences in cognition are something that is much more complex than what it has been perceived to be.

Dr Stafford, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science, believes that there are intellectual and pedagogic challenges of teaching this controversial and emotive topic. He feels that the current discussions and debates surrounding sex differences in cognition are poor, and believes that Fine rightfully argues in her book that the evidence on sex differences in cognition does not support the strength of the claims made about sex differences in cognition.

The idea of male and female brains is a concept Stafford feels is unsatisfactory in explaining cognitive gender differences. He believes that Dr Simon Baron-Cohen’s idea of an extreme male brain theory for autism is not an easy way to describe the gender cognitive differences. Overlapping distributions and features that are common in both sexes are reasons why Dr Stafford believes this theory is not the best for explaining the differences.

“You can tell the difference between male and female brains,” Dr Stafford said. “You can classify them, but it is not a type classification like the genitals. It is more like overlapping distributions that are statistically discriminable. It gives pause to the idea of there being a male brain.”

In her book, Fine talks about how expectations and experiences can influence how males and females become good at certain things, such as maths and vocabulary. What influences these expectations and experiences are not innate characteristics depending on their gender, but traits we have experienced socially in everyday life. It was believed in the 1950s that males had a larger vocabulary than women, but was this only because women were discouraged from pursuing education? Current research in Europe has found that when more women stay longer in education, the difference in vocabulary scores between the genders changes and balances out.

Fine further believes that researchers tend to fall back on a biological explanation when there is ambiguity in any gender research. “to look at it simply, yes, men and women have different hormones, and these hormones can influence different developments in the brain, but we do not understand all the factors that influence this development,” Dr Stafford speculated.

Research was carried out on male and female rat pups to determine if there were any innate gender differences in their brains. It was discovered that male rats do produce testosterone in the wombs, but this testosterone does not directly affect the development of the male rat brains and bodies. The sex differences found was in the behaviour of the mother of the rats, who would smell the testosterone in the male rat pups’ urine, and lick the genital areas of the male pups more so than the female pups. By licking the genital areas, a sensation was caused that started to affect the brain and body development of the male. Therefore, there were factors in male pup growth unique to their gender, but this unique factor was influenced by the behaviour of another: the mother.

“This research disproves the idea that sex differences in cognition are biologically inevitable,” Dr Stafford stated. “Those who believe otherwise are using a different model. They would say there are small differences and these small differences can add up. Whereas Fine’s implicit argument is that small differences can wash-out.”

“If but the social world today was different, we do not know what the power of these biological differences is. We don’t have any privileged insight into how large an effect that is, so we should not try and emphasise that there are any inevitable biological differences when other things are equal.”

Jan Lewis

PHOTO Georgia State University

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