Brains Part 1: Brain Agender

CW: Sexism and misogyny

By Eleanor McKelvey, Head of Online Engagement (Blog)

Don’t worry! It isn’t your girl-brain that’s letting you down…just the patriarchy.

In November 2018, The Times published an article entitled “Men and Women really do think differently, according to scientists”. The article was reporting on a publication from 2018 by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, based at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre. Baron-Cohen is regarded as a key figure in neurobiology and psychology. The 2018 publication was the latest instalment in a string of papers investigating his theory that relates brains, gender, empathising and systematising.

Following each of Baron-Cohen’s publications, there is usually academic retort, including criticism on both the suitability of data and its analysis. Nonetheless, some researchers still treat his theory as established, and his findings are regularly presented as fact by mainstream newspapers. Undoubtedly, the theory persists because it largely supports pre-existing gender stereotypes. It is not only “comfortable” but also “useful” for reinforcing the patriarchy.

Despite the recurring headlines, to this day, there is no definitive evidence for universal differences in the functioning of the brains of men and women.

For a start, there is no such thing as a “female brain” and “male brain”

At the core of Baron-Cohen’s theory is the idea that are 5 different “brain types”, which can be differentiated by their relative abilities at E (empathising, ‘the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to those with an appropriate emotion’) and S (systematising, ‘the drive to analyse variable in a system, to derive the underlying rules…’). He says that whilst women tend to have brains which enable them to be better at E than S (E>S), men tend to have brains which are better at S than E (S>E).

For some unknown reason, Baron-Cohen has decided that the labels “E>S” and “S>E” are too cumbersome, and that the brain types should be named “female brains” and “male brains”, respectively. Even by Baron-Cohen’s admission, these terms are imprecise – he repeatedly says that it is important to note that not all women have the “female brain”, and not all men have the “male brain” – a few of us have the “other gender’s” brain, or a balanced brain (E=S).

But people like journalists and internet misogynists seem to find it all too tempting to ignore the disclaimer. The language Baron-Cohen uses means that it isn’t technically wrong to say things like, “scientific studies show female brains are worse at understanding systems like cars”, which is only one “s’ ” away from irrefutable misogyny.

Furthermore, asking women to accept the term “female brain” constitutes a microaggression. Women are regularly subjected to offensive stereotypes that reference their intelligence/way of thinking (being less intelligent, hysterical, bad navigators or superficial) - telling us to “get over” terms that generalise, and thereby invite stereotyping, is hostile to our right to want to protect ourselves against sexism. The fact that there is “male brain” counterpart isn’t relevant; men traditionally haven’t had to defend their intelligence or behaviour as a consequence of their gender.

We also need to be careful to distinguish nature from nurture

In his 2018 paper, Baron-Cohen correctly emphasises that “the observed average sex differences [in brain function] likely reflect an interaction of biological and cultural factors”. Nonetheless, previous papers and even newspaper articles written by the scientist contain careless statements including “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy” (my emphasis) - suggesting that gender inflexibly constraints our intellectual abilities.

The idea that people are born “empathiser” or “systematiser” brains would undermine the pursuit of self-improvement and our responsibility to challenge misogynistic tendencies. Picture this: a school kid reads in the newspaper that, since she is a girl, she has a “female brain”, and female brains aren’t wired for being good at maths. A few days later, she starts struggling a bit with a particular maths topic at school. She leaves the class without asking her teacher for help. Why should she? She was just born the wrong gender.

Even more devastatingly, since Baron-Cohen uses the higher violence rate among men as evidence of the “male brain type”; the idea of the “hard-wired male brain” could be used to excuse men from acts of violence.

In fact, both systematising and empathising can be improved with training and we are not born with a limited capacity for either. For example, one aspect of systematising that men are traditionally thought to be better at is mentally picturing spatial layouts. In 2013 Uttal et al. showed that this ability can be improved with training. It is therefore possible that most of the difference in women’s and men’s ability to perform on empathising/sympathising tasks can be explained by differences in the ways they are brought up. For example, boys may tend to be better at picturing spatial layouts because they are more likely to be given toys (such as building blocks) that encourage them to practice this form of systematising.

Is it really true that men and women perform that differently on measures of empathising and systematising?

As we improve the design of studies to test these faculties, and analyse more data, it is becoming apparent that the differences in ability between men and women are minimal. For example, Baron-Cohen cites “Boys’ Higher Scores on Scholastic Aptitude Maths Tests” (between 1972 – 1988) as evidence for men being better at systematising. However, in 2011 Lindenberg et al. performed a meta-analysis of existing data, and concluded that ‘males and females perform similarly in mathematics’.

So, what can we be sure of?

It is true that when looking at brains, there are, on average, structural differences between men and women. However, there are two important things to note. Firstly, these differences are just trends – e.g.. men on average have larger brain volumes, but not all men have bigger brains than women. Secondly, it is definitively unclear to what extent (if any) these structural differences have functional affects (i.e. affect behaviour and abilities). For example, most organs tend to be larger in men, so perhaps men’s larger bodies need proportionately larger brains.

Bodies and humans are complex, and generalisation and categorisation can help scientists to make rough inroads into understanding behaviour. However, when it comes to sensitive issues like gender, scientists have a responsibility to present their data in a way that emphasises where generalisation has been used, and discuss how this limits the accuracy of their research. You cannot predict anything about a person from their gender, and our sex does not necessarily define anything about us, including our brains.