Is there such a thing as a male or female brain?

I was interested to watch Horizon on this subject last night, I highly recommend you see it. It is repeated on TV tonight or you can see it here:

It is a subject that has always fascinated me for many reasons, here’s the shortlist:

  1. As a young child in the 1970s I was repeatedly told that as a girl I would be a wife and look after children and the home, I couldn’t be an X,Y or Z (all the things that I actually wanted to do). I never wanted to play at being mum or play with dolls.  Big disappointment to get a doll as a present.
  2. In reality having children and being a housewife didn’t appeal to me as a child, as a teenager or when I was in my 20s (doesn’t appeal much now either but don’t tell Mr TP or my 3 children).
  3. I was always good at maths, not just good but outstanding, top of the class.
  4. I could always map read and do all those sort of things…

The case Prof Alice Roberts presented was compelling both she and Prof Gina Rippon showed us that the differences between male and female brains are very small such that the difference within the two groups, male and female, are greater than the differences between the groups.  Prof Rippon said that it is not possible to determine whether a brain is male or female.   We are equally as good (or bad) at map reading, maths  and 3D problem solving.

Without doubt there are significant differences in behaviour and aptitude between men and women but are these differences a result of socialisation – i.e.our life experiences, or inherently part of our nature?  In other words, as I am the mathematical map reader and Mr TP is the tidy-up fanatic are we a family of  deviants?

Prof Roberts points to the toys children are given and the way they are encouraged to play as toddlers.   Without doubt the gender stereotyping and difference between entertainment aimed at aims and at boys is greater now than when I was a child because we simply had fewer toys, less choice, there were no electronic games. There was little children’s TV, no DVDs, so we watched whatever was on without any notion of programmes aimed at just girls or just boys.   Despite advances in equality legislation in my lifetime the pressure for girls to conform to a gender type is now greater than ever.

My experience – I have girl- boy twins, now aged 6.  Throughout their short lives they have always wanted to play together, any game, any kind of toys, just together.  All the toys hold equal entertainment for them regardless of being “girls” or “boys” toys. OTHER people have repeated bought gender specific toys, when they were younger this particularly led to tears, they both want to ride the bike or play with the baby in the pram.  As my older son is 12 I am aware that between 6 and 12 the difference in toy marketing continues. Science, science-fiction (Star Wars), construction (lots of lego) and action toys are aimed towards boys whereas the pink isles have much less lego, the emphasis is on dressing up, home making and being artistic.

In recent months my twins have got scooters, lots of girls have scooters, but when my twins go to the scooter/skatepark it is dominated by boys.  The ratio may be 20:1!  Either parents of boys are more likely to think of taking their sons to these places or is it that only boys are asking to go?

Shooting places (lazer, paint ball, soft ball) are all male dominated, again I don’t know why as I think girls are just as likely to enjoy these places (I do).   All of my child go to golf lessons, my eldest is 12.  There is no reason why there would be less girls than boys at these lessons and school holiday golf clubs but they are male dominated, again I estimate at a ratio of 20:1.  My conclusion is that most young girls have a VERY different life compared to boys.

Adult male and female brains are different and two pieces of scientific research suggest there may be a biological link.

Professor Ruben Gurr and Dr Ragini Verman have been involved in mapping the network of connections in the brain that shows dramatic differences between men and women, post puberty.  It is most interesting that in children, however, this difference does not exist.  Our boys and girls do not have different brains so why treat them differently?   Furthermore, the more important question is not answered by this research – why are do our brains develop in different ways in our teenage years? It could be biology, our adolescent hormones,  but it could just as easily be to do with the very different life experiences we have.

Simon Baron-Cohen’s  theory suggests autism is an extreme form of the “male brain” because those with autism are better at spatial problem solving and poor at empathy, i.e. the stereotypical male behaviour but taken to an extreme.  About 1% of the population has autism and of those there are more males than females at a ratio of 2:1.

There was an obvious huge flaw in this as evidence for a biological difference between male and female, perhaps that is due to how it was presented as just a short segment of a longer documentary.  Elevated levels of foetal testosterone and sex steroid hormones are linked to autism or the “male brain.”  Undoubtedly this is interesting stuff about how prenatal hormones affect our abilities in later life but there was no connection between this research and its relevance to the 99% of the population who do not have autism, those who did not have elevated prenatal sex hormones, perhaps that just wasn’t explained in the programme?

If the male brain does not exist (see  by Roberts and Rippon) then the label of autism as the extreme “Male Brain” is in itself a sexist stereotype which if anything just reinforces the myth of the male brain and men having different abilities to women.  I am aware that SB-C is an extremely eminent expert who has studied in this field for decades, I have seen him discussing his research on TV many times so it would have been good to hear more about this.

Whether there are real differences in our brains due to our biology or not I think all of those scientists who presented evidence on the programme would agree that that the differences are small, there is no biological reason to prevent girls studying maths, science and engineering in higher education.  There is no reason for women to under achieve at work and take all the responsibility for home and childcare.








2 Responses to “Is there such a thing as a male or female brain?”

  1. 1 Robert Shields October 2, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    The programme was interesting and I thought reasonably balanced-despite what many of the Mumsnetters on the forum ( have said.-often putting their comments up live during transmission without looking at the programme as a whole. Their claim seems to be that there are no innate differences in the brains of males and females and that all male female differences are the result of socialization.

    If you consider other animals, even non mammals who do not experience maternal care whose behaviour cannot be leaned by copying (fruit lies or nematode worms for example) there are differences between the sexes in behaviour which cannot possibly be due to socialization. This is seen throughout the animal kingdom-and humans are after all animals. Why must it be so surprising that there might be innate differences between males and females-the rejection of such a possibility has more to do with a political than a scientific stance.

    This is not to deny that socialization plays a very big role in human male and female differences-the film showed some good examples of this (the baby crawl test and play test for instance). Why is it so impossible for some people to accept that both biology and socialization might play a role, their relative contributions being a matter of scientific debate?

    • 2 mrstaraplumbing October 2, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      I agree that it was an excellent programme (like the others in this current series), well balanced and a great shame it wasn’t twice as long to look at more evidence in more depth.

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