Since the dawn of time, humans have been obsessed with the workings and machinations of the human brain. Rightly dubbed the core essence of mankind, the workings of our minds are what set us apart from animals and other living creatures. They’re what make us the superior being right? Because once we start to understand just how the brain works, we also begin to understand, say, for example, why in some cases such as degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimers, the brain does not function properly.
However, this superiority complex has turned into a literal battle of the sexes that has not only become a pop culture phenomenon but has also left a lasting impression on gender equality and gender roles that might not go anywhere for centuries more to come. The idea was first promulgated by Darwin to laud the white man’s superior brain and therefore justify why non whites were somehow lesser. However, it also affected another part of the population who were not only barred from receiving formal education but were (and are still) undervalued and largely ignored in the world of STEM and beyond.
The idea that men and women’s brains are “different” has always been a heavily contested debate from the time that it became increasingly popular and perhaps profitable for them to be. Since men are from Mars and women are from Venus or alternatively, since men’s brains are supposedly logical and rational whereas women’s brains focus more on emotions such as empathy, the products aimed at that or rather created for them rely heavily on these two assumptions that have little or no backing. This might be why women’s magazines feature, horoscopes, gossip columns and seemingly “trivial” information as compared to men’s more serious and systematic car and sports ones.
There have been several studies that have tried to prove that there are definite differences between the male and female brain but what really sparked worldwide debate around the topic was now ex- Google employee, James Damore’s memo to his fellow colleagues which stated that although he did not endorse sexism he felt “that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
His arguments and “Scientific” observations have since then been debunked by many but that does not change the fact that across the board scientists and researchers are still quite divided about what really goes on in our minds. This is where the epic battle of Nature Vs Nurture comes in. The idea is simple for those on Nature’s side, findings such as Larry Cahill, Professor of neurobiology and behavior found out in his research where it was found that on average, “a woman’s hippocampus, critical to learning and memorization, is larger than a man’s and works differently. Conversely, a man’s amygdala, associated with the experiencing of emotions and the recollection of such experiences, is bigger than a woman’s as per a report by Stanford Medicine.
For those on Nurture’s side, these differences are not biological but rather, are the product of learnt social and cultural behaviors and practices. According to Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, these inherent “biological” differences are cited as being the main reason why there are significantly less women in prominent and leadership positions in STEM fields. However, as Eliot points out “it turned out women were being discouraged from pursuing STEM. Once more programs were put in place to foster this type of learning, the ratio dropped to three to one.”
In the infamous psychological study on cognitive preferences predicting whether men and women opted for physical sciences or humanities by Baron Cohen et al, the findings did show a significant sex difference, however “whilst males were more likely to enter physical sciences, and females were more likely to enter humanities subjects, sex was the least significant predictor, indicating that an individual’s biological sex is not a strong determinant of academic career choice.”
This was reiterated in Kirdon’s 2018 study which sought to find a correlation between Cohen’s Empathizing and Systemizing Quotient and an individual’s sex and choice of degree. As the researcher points out both social factors and prenatal biology were involved.
“It is possible that other psychological and social factors play a role in the choice of majors beside the drive to systemizing. For example, one’s self efficacy to perform in a certain field may influence one’s decision. Level of identification with the subject might also play a role. In addition, efforts to promote the Sciences to females might be fruitful in attracting females higher on systemizing to the Sciences.”
Therefore in conclusion, yes men and women’s brains might be genetically wired to assume different roles over a long long period of reinforced gender roles, but as Cohen’s study argues, once women are given similar opportunities and allowed to grasp traditionally systematic notions, they weren’t left far behind.