'Mars and Venus' obstacle to education, writer says

By Robin McKie

Boys can develop verbal skills and empathy as well as good rugby tactics. Photo / APN
Boys can develop verbal skills and empathy as well as good rugby tactics. Photo / APN

It is the mainstay of countless magazine and newspaper features.

Differences between male and female abilities - from map reading to multi-tasking and from parking to expressing emotion - can be traced to variations in the hard-wiring of their brains at birth, it is claimed.

Men instinctively like the colour blue and are bad at coping with pain, we are told, while women cannot tell jokes but are innately superior at empathising with other people.

Key evolutionary differences separate the intellects of men and women and it is all down to our ancient hunter-gatherer genes that programme our brains.

The belief has become widespread, particularly after bestsellers such as John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which stress the innate differences between the minds of men and women. However, a growing number of scientists are challenging the pseudo-science of "neurosexism", as they describe it, and its implications.

These researchers argue that in telling parents that boys have poor chances of acquiring good verbal skills and girls have little prospect of developing mathematical prowess, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children's education and development.

In fact, there are no big neurological differences between the sexes, says Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender, which will be published by Icon next month.

There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, said Fine, a researcher at Melbourne University, but the wiring is soft, not hard. "It is flexible, malleable and changeable," she said.

In short, she argues, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.

It is a case backed by Lise Eliot, an associate professor at the Chicago Medical School. "All the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong," she said.

"Yes, there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children's intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture.

"Children don't inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be."

Thus boys develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and are encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing.

Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative and so their verbal skills are emphasised by teachers and parents.

The latter example, on the issue of verbal skills, is particularly revealing, neuroscientists argue. Girls do begin to speak earlier than boys, by about a month on average, a fact that is seized on by supporters of the Mars and Venus school of intellectual differences.

However, this gap is really a tiny difference compared with the vast range of linguistic abilities that differentiate people, Robert Plomin, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, points out.

His studies have found that a mere 3 per cent of the variation in young children's verbal development is the result of their gender.

"If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them.

"Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild," said Professor Plomin.

This point is backed by Professor Eliot. "Yes, boys and girls, men and women, are different," she states in a recent paper in New Scientist.

"But most of those differences are far smaller than the [Mars and Venus] stereotypes suggest.

"Nor are the reasoning, speaking, computing, emphasising, navigating and other cognitive differences fixed in the genetic architecture of our brains.

"All such skills are learned and neuro-plasticity - the modifications of neurons and their connections in response experience - trumps hard-wiring every time."

So should we abandon our search for the "real" differences between the sexes and give up this "pernicious pinkification of little girls", as one scientist has put it?

Yes, Professor Eliot insisted.

"There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience."


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