Gina Rippon has spent her career trying to debunk the idea that men and women’s brains are different — yet she believes the “gender bombardment” we are subjected to is greater than ever. Why?
When I meet the cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, she tells me one anecdote that helps demonstrate just how early children can be exposed to gender stereotypes.
It was the birth of her second daughter, on 11 June 1986 — the night that Gary Lineker scored a hat trick against Poland in the men’s Football World Cup. There were nine babies born in the ward that day, Rippon recalls. Eight of them were called Gary.
Subtle cues about “manly” and “ladylike” behaviours, from the moment of birth, mould our behaviours and abilities
She remembers chatting to one of the other mums when they heard a loud din approaching. It was a nurse bringing their two screaming babies. The nurse handed her neighbour a “blue-wrapped Gary” with approval — he had “a cracking pair of lungs”. Rippon’s own daughter (making exactly the same sound) was passed over with an audible tutting. “She’s the noisiest of the lot — not very ladylike,” the nurse told her.
“And so, at 10 minutes old, my tiny daughter had a very early experience of how gendered our world is,” Rippon says.
Rippon has spent decades questioning ideas that the brains of men and women are somehow fundamentally different — work that she compellingly presents in her new book, The Gendered Brain. The title is slightly misleading, since her argument hinges on the fact that it’s not the human brain that is inherently “gendered”, but the world in which we are raised. Subtle cues about “manly” and “ladylike” behaviours, from the moment of birth, mould our behaviours and abilities, which other scientists have then read as inherent, innate differences.
Rippon’s writing bristles with frustration that this argument still needs to be stated in 2019. She describes many of the theories about gender differences as “whack-a-mole” myths that keep on arising, in another guise, no matter how often they are debunked.
“We’ve been looking at this whole issue of whether male brains are different from female brains for about 200 years,” she says. “And every now and then there’s a new breakthrough in science or technology, which allows us to revisit this question, and make us realise that some of the past certainties are clearly wrong. And you think that, as a scientist, you might have addressed them and put them right, and people will move on and not use those terms or conclusions anymore. But the next time you look at the popular press you find that the old myth has returned.”
First of all, if you just thought it was a ‘size matters’ issue, then sperm whales and elephants have got bigger brains than men, and they’re not renowned for being that much brighter,” says Rippon. Then there’s the fact that, despite the average difference in size, the overall overlap in the distributions of men and women’s brains is huge. “So that you get women with big brains and men with small brains.”
It’s worth noting that Einstein’s brain was smaller than that of the average male, and overall, many studies find that there is next to no mean difference between men and women’s intelligence or behavioural traits. Yet the claims continue to persist in the media.
What about our sex hormones? Surely they, at least, should have a very clear impact on our minds and behaviours? Yet the evidence has been misinterpreted to denigrate women’s abilities, Rippon says.
Women were initially barred from the US space programme, due to concerns of having such “temperamental psycho-physiologic humans” on board the craft
The concept of premenstrual syndrome, for instance, first emerged in the 1930s. “And it became well established as a reason for women not being given positions of power.” As she points out, women were even initially barred from the US space programme due to concerns around having such “temperamental psycho-physiologic humans” on board the craft.
While few today would hold this view, we still consider PMS to bring about a range of cognitive and emotional changes that are less than desirable. Yet some of the observed symptoms may be a psychosomatic response — the result of expectation rather than inevitable biological changes to the brain.
In one study by Diane Ruble at Princeton University, for instance, women were given false feedback about where they were in their menstrual cycle. “They could give an approximate date about when they expected the period to start — but you could give them a fake blood test saying, actually, you are now in the pre-menstrual phase, or you’re in the intermenstrual phase,” Rippon explains. And they were then asked to fill out a questionnaire on various elements of PMS.