The Gendered Brain: why boys will be boys and girls will be girls

Melanie Mcdonagh

It's poignant reviewing a book after it’s been debunked, but that’s the case, I fear, with Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain. She is a professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University and her gist is that there is no proven difference between boys’ and girls’ brains: sex differences come from our terrifically adaptable brains responding to social conditions. So, if the cues from a sexist society tell us it pays to be pink or blue, then that’s what we’ll be.

The trouble is there was a substantive study of infant brains undertaken at Cambridge in 2001 which suggests that newborn girls respond, on average, more positively to faces and baby boys to objects — and you can see where that takes us. At birth you haven’t been conditioned by society yet.

Rippon took exception to the way that the research was conducted — cue for one of its authors, Simon Baron-Cohen, politely to point out that the methodology wasn’t flawed, thank you. He also cites further studies which suggest that — again on average — there are quite basic differences between male and female brains in terms of the sizes of the areas governing spatial ability and empathy. In other words, he pretty well eviscerates her argument that biology is just one more social construct.

I am afraid that’s Gina sorted. But she does raise some interesting questions about the extent to which expectations about boys and girls frame the way they grow up and the way they’re treated.

Just because more boys than girls respond to objects rather than faces, it doesn’t follow that every boy is predetermined to like mechanical stuff or that girls must be good at relationships — we’re talking about a spectrum of traits. Lots of us, I’d say, are a bit non-binary.

Indeed some of the ways we differentiate between boys and girls are not just social constructs but commercial ones. The institutions with a vested interest in pink for girls and blue for boys are the companies that produce, say, toy pianos in those colours (they exist, alas) — it suits them if parents can’t let the boy inherit his sister’s but have to buy the blue one… ditto gendered babygros. Let ’em all wear tasteful cream.

As for pink for girls and maths for boys, it’s plainly cultural… the Virgin Mary, for instance, has for centuries been clothed in blue. In the 18th century maths was considered a very respectable occupation for girls — it made them useful for doing accounts.

But even after we’ve made every allowance for historical conditioning, on which Rippon is eloquent, there do seem to be general differences between the sexes which cause girls, say, to gossip about their friends and boys to play Warhammer. And the differences don’t all go one way: men are far more inclined to commit acts of violence (unlike Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I can’t see female violence as empowering)… is it conditioning, testosterone, neurology or a mix?

This book doesn’t, alas, prove that these things are all in the mind, nor that they are in the brain: what it actually shows, in clunking prose, is that you shouldn’t subordinate evidence to argument.

The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain by Gina Rippon (Bodley Head, £20)