Two brains -- one pink and one blue -- show the idea of neurosexism

Understanding Neurosexism: Where Are We Today?

Understanding Neurosexism: Where Are We Today?

Are male and female brains different? Neuroscientists have spent decades researching this question. Conflicting neuroimaging studies have left the community in widespread disagreement. As the idea of a gendered brain remains contested, the issue has given rise to larger cognition-based gender stereotypes collectively contributing to what is now outlined as Neurosexism. The term was coined by scholar Cornelia Fine in 2008 and is defined by cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon as “the practice of claiming that there are fixed differences between female and male brains, which can explain women’s inferiority or unsuitability for certain roles.” This manifests itself in the preconceived notion of “men being more logical and women being better at languages or nurturing.” These rigid conceptions of male and female abilities remain critical roadblocks in dismantling set gender roles in our workplaces, institutions, and communities. 

Gina Rippon’s book, The Gendered Brain made waves in 2019 where she firmly argued that the differences between the male and female brain structure in various studies have been deemed as gender-based neuronal features while the data was inconclusive. Rippon found that studies claiming that males with larger distinct brain structures had unrepeatable findings and the differences in brain structure between the sexes are minuscule compared to the variability within the brains of individuals of the same sex. Further, Rippon reminds the reader of the nature of neuroplasticity and how the human brain is shaped by experience. She claims that a “gendered world creates a gendered brain” and that when society encourages women to assume positions as caretakers, the neuronal connections associated with emotionality are strengthened. In this way, the apparent abilities of the male and female brains are not innate, but rather are determined by society’s assumption that systematic work is better suited for men than for women.

Simon Baron-Cohen and other psychologists criticize Rippon’s point of view on the neuroscience of sex and argue that biology does play a larger role in male and female brain functioning. In a debate between the two scientists, Baron-Cohen claims that what is missing from Rippon’s argument is a focus on prenatal hormones and their effect on neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. He states that there is a strong correlation between prenatal testosterone levels and systemizing abilities as compared to a negative correlation with emotionality. These findings are important to the possible development of sex-based therapeutics and the treatment of neurological disorders. 

In considering both of these perspectives, we must acknowledge that the overarching second-class view of the female brain has been widely shared in the scientific community for several hundred years. The male brain's larger size on average allowed 18th-century scientists to affirm male intellectual superiority and tactile abilities. This stance was only questioned when the brains of several prominent male anatomists were found to be some of the smallest in an 1898 sample study. The reaction to these findings is a reminder that historically, female inferiority was hard-wired in every academic sector and is the basis on which we form gender-based stereotypes today. 

Regardless of whether we can conclusively claim that a male or female brain exists, Gina Rippon’s work challenges the status quo and sheds light on the importance of a woman's upbringing in developing skills that will allow her to enter male-dominated fields.