Gender difference and the rise of neurosexism

Kellie Burns, The University of Sydney

Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, New York, W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2010 (338 pp). ISBN 9-78039334-024-2 (paperback) RRP $23.95.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, New York, Columbia University Press, 2011 (240 pp). ISBN 9-78023115-162-7 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

In 2011, a Canadian family was the focus of an international media furore, when they elected to raise their child, Storm, ‘genderless’ (Belkin 2011; Leonard 2011; McCredie 2011a; Poisson 2011). When Storm was born, his/her parents decided not to announce their child’s sex in an attempt to resist social stereotyping and to give their child an opportunity to discover whom she/he is, free from the constraints of gender norms. Debate raged around the ethics of what some labelled a selfish social experiment. In a world where you are born either male or female, what right did Storm’s parents have to deny him/her a healthy relationship with his/her ‘natural’ gender? How could they burden their child with the responsibility of determining his/her own gender—a task fit for an adult perhaps, but not for a child? What types of psychological harm would Storm and his/her siblings endure in forcing gender to be kept so secret? Those defending the family’s choice applauded their efforts to challenge the constrictive rules of gender, and argued that all parents make choices about how their children’s gender will or will not be constructed. It is society, they insisted, not Storm or his/her siblings, that is limited by such rigid and narrow gender rules.

Storm and his/her family became caught up in a classic nature versus nurture debate; that is, whether gender is inherently linked to one’s sex, or shaped by one’s social environment. In the past decade, neuroscience has been mobilised on the side of nature, with brain structure and function, endocrinology and neurotransmission used as evidence that gender difference is biological. There is an expanding field of (primarily American) bestsellers touting new ‘facts’ about the naturalness of gender difference. Most popular amongst them are: Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women (Moir & Jessel 1992); Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Gray 1993); Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women (Blum 1998); What Could He Be Thinking?: How A Man’s Mind Really Works (Gurian 2004); The Female Brain (Brizendine 2007); The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (Baron-Cohen 2007); His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage (Larimore & Larimore 2008); The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap (Pinder 2009), and Australian authored, Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex (McCredie 2011b). In different ways these titles situate gender difference (maleness and femaleness) as biologically determined and argue that relationships, families and work places would run much more smoothly if these differences were afforded more weight. According to these authors, women have a natural tendency towards emotions, nurturing and care, and are good at multi-tasking. Conversely, men are emotionally aloof and weak communicators, but have a natural aptitude for spatial tasks, strategising and leadership. These differences are believed to be ‘hard-wired’ and discoveries in neuroscience are offered as proof of this.

These books rupture a very powerful and popular line of thinking.

The science of gender has also filtered into educational discourses, with an interest in the relationship between gender difference and learning. Drawing on popularised understandings of neuroscience, titles such as The Dangerous Book for Boys (Iggulden & Iggulden 2007); The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life (Gurian & Stevens 2007), and Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (Sax 2006), propose that innate gender differences, the result of fundamentally different brain structures and function, lend themselves to different learning interests and styles. Understanding these differences is important for parents and educators concerned with maximising boys’ and girls’ cognitive and social development. Brain differences in boys and girls have also been a driving force for some proponents of single-sex education.

Despite their mounting popularity, emergent critiques of this work suggest that many of the neuroscientific studies reported by these texts as ‘truths’ are little more than sexism wrapped up in weakly evidenced studies. Two of the more salient critiques of this rhetoric are Cordelia Fine’s (2010) Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference and The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett (2010). The former challenges popular scientific beliefs that gender differences are evident in variations in men’s and women’s brain structure and function. This discourse, Fine maintains, is ‘neurosexism’ that reinforces existing gender inequalities in a very powerful way. Popular renderings of neuroscience legitimise longstanding cultural values and beliefs about men’s and women’s social roles, grounding them in ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. Neuroscientific knowledge, it has been shown, carries authority and shapes people’s perceptions of truth. In the oft-quoted psychological study by Skolnick-Weisberg and colleagues (2008), participants were less likely to spot incorrect psychological explanations to problems when impressive-sounding neuroscientific information was introduced.

Similarly, Rivers and Barnett challenge the biological determinism used to mount a case that brain-based gender differences necessitate gender-specific teaching and learning strategies. The authors dismantle popularised interpretations of neuroscientific literature by highlighting their gross over-interpretation and misrepresentation of scientific research. They offer what they consider to be more reliable interpretations of studies about gender, learning, brain and biological science. Sifting through this research, they conclude that the norms, expectations, customs and ideologies surrounding parenting and schooling play the most significant role in shaping the learning styles and classroom behaviours of boys and girls. The danger, therefore, of popularised (mis)interpretations of neuroscience is that they frame expectations and shape classroom pedagogies such that they become normalised and naturalised as everyday truths.

The strength of both monographs is that they force a pause and rupture in a very powerful and popular line of thinking. Linking socially and culturally produced differences to biology justifies and legitimises social inequalities. If men and women are biologically destined to fulfill particular socio-cultural roles, then discrepancies in access and representation are less important; power and labour imbalances in the home are justified; and, those whose gendered identity or embodiment (that is, those who identify as transsexual, transgender or intersex) fall outside strictly defined gender binaries, have their own body (and brain!) to blame, not the society that produces and governs these norms.

The idea that girls and women innately lack technical thinking skills continues to
get airplay.

Both books caution readers that the use of neuroscience to link gender difference to biology is an old discourse wrapped in new language and technologies. Women’s exclusion from a range of social institutions including education, sport and public life, was historically justified by so-called scientific evidence of women’s irrational nature and physical fragility. Early brain science in the Victorian era was used to explain women’s ‘natural’ inferiority. Women were found to have smaller and lighter brains, which were thought to be the cause of their intellectual inferiority. It was later acknowledged, of course, that brain weight and size do not correlate to intellect; it was found that differences in men’s and women’s brain size and weight have more to do with the discrepancies in overall body size than varied intellectual capacities. However, as science historian Cynthia Russett (1989) points out, the search for gender difference at the level of the body persisted—with muscular mass, heart size and bone size all studied with the aim of explaining men and women’s natural differences. Further, early anthropometrics, which measured brain size and mass across racial and ethic groups, were bound to the violent projects of slavery, cultural genocide and institutionalised racism. While there is a particular allure in using science to explain everyday patterns of social organisation, there is much danger in hanging ‘truth’ on loosely assembled arguments based on misinterpreted scientific research. In an earlier journal publication, Fine maintains that:

popular neurosexism permits us to sit back and relax, with its seemingly neat explanation of our social structure and personal lives. The answer ‘Oh, it’s the brain,’ offers a tidy justification for accepting the status quo with a clear conscience (2008, p. 71).

In Delusions of Gender, Fine (2010) outlines her argument across three key sections. In the first she challenges the idea of the brain as a fixed and stable object. Drawing on the work of social and cultural psychologists like herself, she illustrates how the mind is shaped by culture and how the psychological permeability of the brain accounts for our observations and understandings of gender differences. Gender norms, produced by culture, have a ‘ripple effect’ (p. xxvi) on the brain, such that we learn and observe gendered behaviours and rules and subsequently change self-perception, alter interests, invest in particular strengths and abilities and trigger unintentional discrimination. This part of the book outlines how the social environment we live in influences who we are, our thinking and our actions.

In the succeeding two sections, Fine traces the ‘gaps assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith’ (p. xxvii) that underpin popularised claims that men’s and women’s brains are inherently different. What these works claim as cutting-edge neuroscience, Fine rearticulates as ‘neurosexism’, arguing that they limit understandings of the complexities of both gender and the brain. By recycling old ideas about gender difference through the lens of ‘brain facts’ this work reinscribes the rules and limits of gender difference and inculcates generation after generation of children into a society organised along a gender divide.

The results did not address issues
of access and participation.

Narrowing the critique of popular scientific accounts of gender difference, Rivers and Barnett problematise a series of scientific factoids about how gender shapes learning and social behaviours in school. Chapter by chapter, they tackle various assumptions about children’s gendered development and demonstrate how they are taken up in some pedagogies, policies and schooling practices. They begin by critiquing the idea that, from the onset, boys and girls develop different emotional and cognitive attributes. For example, there is some evidence that girls’ brains are bigger in an area that interprets events and triggers complex emotions, such as sadness and empathy. In popular magazines such as Parents, this difference is used explain why girls get upset more easily than boys. Rivers and Barnett argue that this explanation confuses correlation and causation; even if there is a notable size difference in an area of boys’ or girls’ brains, there is no concrete evidence that these differences result in certain behavioural outcomes. The discrepancy in boys’ and girls’ behaviours, they insist, has more to do with the expectations society has of boys/men and girls/women to behave in particular ways. They offer a provocative example: if a baby is crying, both boys and girls have equal levels of responsiveness to the cries, however, girls are more likely than boys to go over to the baby and comfort it. This is evidence, they insist, that children’s brains are not differently hardwired, or that one sex is more innately empathetic, but rather that social learning shapes and governs what constitutes an appropriate response for boys and girls differently. They offer equally meticulous critiques of ideas that boys are naturally the more aggressive sex, more likely to engage in rough play and risky behaviours. This mistaken belief is half of a tidy binary in which girls are cast as more caring, less aggressive and less likely to take risks. The concern, the authors insist, is that, based on these ideas, parents communicate and discipline their boy and girl children differently. Further, boys’ violent and oppressive behaviours get overlooked because they are thought to be normal ‘rough play’, and girls’ aggression is either heavily disciplined or simply rendered invisible because it is assumed to be against their nature.

Educators will perhaps be most interested in the chapters ‘Math wars’ and ‘Word play’. The former dismantles the widely held belief that boys are naturally better at maths, and the latter that boys are verbally disadvantaged in co-educational classrooms and/or by being taught by female teachers. When given weight, these beliefs have real, material effects on parenting styles and schooling practices. The idea that girls and women innately lack technical thinking skills continues to get airplay. These chapters criticise the work of Michael Gurian, a social philosopher and founder of the Gurian Institute, which claims that it is the structure of girls’ and boys’ brains that explain this female deficit, and that only girls whose brains are ‘built’ like those of boys succeed in areas such as mathematics and physics. Although his theory is based on empty scientific findings, it is gaining momentum amongst parents and teachers, primarily in the United States, but also globally. Gurian’s theories are supplanting trustworthy, evidence-based research showing that while mathematical and scientific reasoning do have some biological foundations, there is no hint of an advantage for one gender over the other. Conversely, there is a growing body of research that shows how approaches to teaching and classroom expectations shape students’ mathematical identities and levels of confidence in approaching this content. Further, parents and teachers can help develop spatial skills, central to mathematic reasoning, by exposing both boys and girls to toys such as building blocks and giving them equal opportunities to take part in team sports such as basketball. It is practice, River and Barnett conclude, not biological abilities that develop the skills required to succeed in mathematics.

A concern for boys reading and verbal abilities has also been rearticulated through the lens of popular neuroscience. Labelled by some as a ‘boy crisis’, there is a call for educational resources and teaching styles that cater to boys’ natural interests and learning styles. In a ‘verbally drenched’ curriculum, boys are seen to be disadvantaged and their disadvantage has been linked to chemical and brain-based differences. Boys are said to inherently lack verbal skills, are less able to sustain attention, are unable to sit for long periods, are more likely to act up when bored and require more physical activity. Curriculum and teaching approaches must cater for these differences and single-sex schooling is positioned to provide specialised learning for boys. The real crisis, Rivers and Barnett insist, cuts less across gender, and more so across lines of race and class. They show how in the United States, it is inner-city and rural boys who are significantly falling behind in reading and verbal skills. Moreover, academic achievement and verbal skills are much lower amongst minority children, regardless of their gender. Black and Hispanic students are falling behind at rates that require urgent attention. Despite this, the media continues to insist that boys are falling behind, sidetracking efforts to invest in inner-city and rural schools where resourcing and support is most needed.

Challenging the norms of gender is about messing
with gender’s ‘naturalness’.

In the mid-1990s, a similar rhetoric emerged about how Australian schooling fails boys. In New South Wales, these concerns were sparked by the 1993 examination results for the hardest mathematics and science subjects in the Higher School Certificate (HSC). For the first time, the mean score for girls in these high-ranking subjects was higher than that of their male counterparts. This sparked what Martin Mills and Bob Lingard (1997, p. 51) describe as a ‘masculinist … backlash against feminism’. Asking ‘What about the boys?’, concerns were raised that equity policies in the 1980s had back-fired, resulting in a feminisation of classrooms, curriculum and the teaching profession. Demand was made for strategies and policies tailored for boys’ needs, similar to those that had been successful for girls, and a national inquiry into boys schooling ensued (O’Doherty 1994).

A number of scholars and commentators attempted to interrupt the ‘mythopoetic “What about the boys?” discourse’ (Mills & Lingard 1997). On this side of the debate was concern that the ‘boys issue’ would subvert many of the achievements of girls, the result of equity frameworks focused less on test scores, and more on how schooling shapes different identities and futures for girls and boys. Lyn Yates argued that the HSC test results that sparked the boys debate ‘very much narrowed and abstracted the focus on gender and inequality’ (1997, p. 340). A very small set of year 12 results was being held up as an indicator of how schooling was doing right or wrong by boys and girls. Further, the results did not address issues of access and participation; that is, while girls suddenly had parity with boys, almost three times as many boys sat these particular examinations. Fewer girls were being directed into these subjects, and the oversubscription of boys to maths and sciences signalled that boys’ diverse interests and learning styles were not being met (Foster 1994; Yates 1997). Further, result reports failed to interpret the spectrum of boys and girls: Aboriginal, working class, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds. As such, ‘marginalised boys [became] complicit in ensuring that the interests of the most privileged boys [were] protected from the incursions into their privileged positions by (privileged) girls’ (Mill & Lingard 1997, p. 52). Echoing the sentiments of Rivers and Barnett, those on the critical side of the ‘What about the boys?’ debate in Australia insisted that school funding, policies and teaching practices should intervene in ways that acknowledge the complexities of gender, but also of race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and social class.

The critique offered by the authors in both Delusions of Gender and The Truth About Girls and Boys return us to the debate about Storm, the ‘genderless’ child who created such huge media frenzy. Like the authors, perhaps Storm’s parents were forcing some reflection on the socialisation of children’s gender from infancy. Perhaps they were attempting to raise their child above the stifling binaries of gender difference that, as both books point out, frame development and shape experiences of family, play groups, sport and schooling. Having already started to rear two boys, perhaps they want to free Storm from the limitations they have already witnessed played out around their other children. The authors of the two books reviewed here also assist in reframing the almost desperate scramble to name what Storm is (a boy or a girl) and the moral and ethical concerns raised by so many. At a time when popular scientific writing and the popular press are reframing outmoded gender stereotypes with a veneer of scientific authenticity and credibility, it is no surprise that a private decision made by two parents became such a publically charged debate. Reactions speak to society’s enduring investment in gender difference and its ongoing efforts to anchor this difference in ‘real, hard facts of science’. Challenging the norms of gender is about messing with gender’s ‘naturalness’, muddying the rules that link biology (sex) to a clear set of social norms and roles (gender). The moral panic incited by Storm’s ‘genderlessness’ is a panic that becomes a personal and political tool for maintaining gender inequalities, the hegemony of the nuclear family and the heteronormative social order (Robinson 2008).


Baron-Cohen, S. 2007, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain, Penguin, New York.

Belkin, L. 2011, ‘Is this baby a boy or a girl?’, The New York Times, 24 May.

Blum, D. 1998, Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women, Penguin, New York.

Brizendine, L. 2007, The Female Brain, Morgan Road Books, New York.

Fine, C. 2008, ‘Will working mothers’ brains explode? The popular new genre of neurosexism’, Neuroethics, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 69–72.

Foster, V. 1994, ‘What about the boys!’: Persumptive equality, and the obfuscation of concerns about theory, research, policy, resources and curriculum in the education of girls and boys, paper presented to the Australian Association for Research in Education Annual Conference, Newcastle.

Gray, J. 1993, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, HarperCollins, New York.

Gurian, M. 2004, What Could He Be Thinking?: How a Man’s Mind Really Works, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Gurian, M. & Stevens, K. 2007, The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Iggulden, C. & Iggulden, H. 2007, The Dangerous Book for Boys, HarperCollins, New York.

Larimore, W. & Larimore, B. 2008, His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage, Zonderman, Grand Rapids, MI.

Leonard, T. 2011, ‘The baby who is neither boy nor girl: As gender experiment provokes outrage, what about the poor child’s future?’, MailOnline, 28 May.

McCredie, J. 2011a, ‘Indulgent idea that puts parents before child’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May.

McCredie, J. 2011b, Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex, New South Books, Sydney.

Mills, M. & Lindgard, B. 1997, ‘Reclaiming the ‘What about the boys’ discourse for gender justice in schools and society’, Social Alternatives, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 51–54.

Moir, A & Jessel, D. 1992, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women, Laurel, New York.

O’Doherty, S. (Chair) 1994, Challenges and Opportunities: A Discussion Paper: Report to the Minister of Education, Training and Youth Affairs on the Inquiry into Boys’ Education, NSW Government Advisory Committee on Education, Training and Tourism, Sydney.

Pinder, S. 2009, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap, Scribner, New York.

Poisson, J. 2011, ‘The “genderless baby” who caused a Storm of controversy’, The Toronto Star, 26 December.

Robinson, K.H. 2008, ‘In the name of ‘childhood innocence’: A discursive exploration of the moral panic associated with childhood and sexuality’, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 113–129.

Russett, C. 1989, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Sax, L. 2006, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, Broadway Books, New York.

Skolnick-Weisberg, D., Keil, F., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. & Gray, J.R. 2008, ‘The seductive allure of Neuroscience’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 229–477.

Yates, L. 1997, ‘Gender equity and the boys debate: What sort of challenge is it?’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 337–347.

Kellie Burns is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. Her research interests include gender, sexual citizenship, schooling and health.