Also missing from the study is any mention of experience-dependent brain plasticity. Why?
As prominent feminist neuroscientists have noted, the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces.
Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.
This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.
These characteristics of the PNAS study are very common in neuroscientific investigations of male/female sex differences and represent two important ways in which scientific research can be subtly “neurosexist,” reinforcing and legitimating gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified. And when researchers are “blinded” by sex, they can overlook potentially informative research strategies.
Returning to the popular representations, we can now see a striking disconnect with the actual data. The research provides strong evidence for behavioral similarities between the sexes. It provides no evidence that those modest behavioral sex differences are associated with brain connectivity differences. And, it offers no information about the developmental origins of either behavioral or brain differences.
Yet the popular press presents it as evidence that “hardwired” sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this is tediously predictable, what is more surprising is for a study author to push along such misinterpretations, claiming to have found evidence for “hardwired” sex differences, and suggesting that this might explain behavioral sex differences not actually measured in the study, such as in “intuition” skills “linked with being good mothers.”
In the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, co-authors Rebecca Jordan-Young, Anelis Kaiser, Gina Rippon, and I argued that scientists investigating sex differences have a responsibility to realize “how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it.” We then called on scientists working in this area to “recognize that there are important and exciting opportunities to change these social assumptions through rigorous, reflective scientific inquiry and debate.”
The continuing importance of this message is only reinforced by this latest case study in how easily scientific “neurosexism” can, with a little stereotype-inspired imagination, contribute to inaccurate and harmful lay misunderstanding of what neuroscience tells us about the sexes.