Neurosexism –The Gender Bias in Brain Science: This article explores the gender bias in the studies of the brain, and how feminism has brought under scrutiny these bigoted opinions which are very conveniently circulated as valid facts under the garb of ‘science’.
Sexism is prevalent everywhere. In a world where a majority of the societies and cultures have historically been, and continue to be patriarchal, sexism serves the most crucial purpose of upholding the differences in roles, attributes, expectations–and almost every aspect within human lives–all on the basis of gender. The stereotypes thus created provide sustenance to and maintain patriarchy, and ensure that men are considered superior to women in every aspect. Even when there exist facets of human life where more control and worth are attributed to women, patriarchy and sexism make sure that these areas are not charted by men, which again reveals a latent tendency to consider women’s work inferior and not suitable for the more ‘powerful’ men. Science, among all the pedagogic streams pursued by academics and intellectuals, has been given the honor of being the most dignified of institutions in human history. More often than not, this dignity comes with a given condition that in the eyes of science, every individual is held equal. However, whatever we know as science today has been discovered and developed by humans themselves, and therefore, it can never be free from the biases of humankind. One among the several fields which fall under science is neuroscience, which in recent years has come under much criticism for engaging in biased analysis of the sexes and genders. Neuroscience in this context includes all existing subject matters that deal with the examination, investigation, and research of the human brain.
Neurosexism can be expressed as a gender-based prejudice in the discipline of neuroscience, specifically the portion within it that deals with a differentiated and comparative study of female and male brains. Such predisposition supposes that male and female brains are different not only anatomically but also in their mode of operation. In addition to the dissimilarities asserted within such a conception, there is also a presupposed notion that these differences are based on the sexes and/or genders of individuals. In other words, Neurosexism claims that a female brain works differently than a male one. Furthermore, the differences are considered to be inherent in nature, or biologically occurring, rather than something which people are socialized into as per their cultural orientation.
The term ‘Neurosexism’ was introduced first by psychologist Cordelia Fine, who is also the author of the famous book ‘Delusions of Gender’ published in 2010. It is in her book that the definition is found. She defines neurosexism as “uncritical biases in research (of neuroscience) and public perception, and their societal impacts on an individual, structural, and symbolic level” (Fine, 2010).
The central problem with the existence of such a bias in neuroscience is that it feeds into, and exacerbates the problem of stereotypes surrounding gender-based roles and attributes between the sexes. To make matters even worse, being a scientific field of investigation, sexist ideas within neuroscience provide empirical justification for such stereotypes, even when the designs of the research on which they make such claims are either flawed or unscientific. And since sexism in a patriarchal society discriminates against women, neurosexism finds a so-called ‘scientific’ pathway to legitimize the notions that women are inferior to men. This has been effectively summed up by neurobiologist Gina Rippon. “‘Neurosexism’”, she posits, “is 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” (Rippon, 2016). Neurosexists use ‘scientific’ methods to identify differences in the functioning of various regions of the brain. These include activities such as language acquisition and logical thinking. Neurosexists then proceed to designate them to the two sexes of male and female, while also conveniently ignoring the intersex. Females get that portion of the share which relates to empathy and emotions, while males are accorded logic. Not only does this divide human characteristics into binaries, but it also helps corroborate the fact that men and women are ‘inherently made different’ which is a false notion.
History of Neurosexism:
Attempts to somehow validate the differences between the sexes of males and females, and the superiority of males over females have existed for quite some time now. People have cited several reasons such as smaller frameworks of female bodies, the tendency to be more sensitive and emotional which apparently exists to a greater extent in females than in males, etc., to justify why men should run the world while women supplement their agenda, and serve merely as accessories to the men. With the advent of neuroscience and advancement in the field, scientists aimed to utilize their superior positions among academicians to prove the beliefs of society with ‘scientific facts’. The discovery of the ability of the brain to affect human behaviors became the foundation for finding sex-based differences in humans. This is reflected in the study conducted by embryologist and anatomist Emil Huschke in 1854 which found that men have slightly larger brains than women. The size disparity was shown in a much more enlarged and overemphasized manner, and even though differences in volume do not correlate to functional abilities, ‘female brains’ were automatically declared inferior, thereby fueling the social inequality between genders. The dissimilarities highlighted in how the male and female brains operate were put together in the form of a ‘checklist’ which could be referred to as and when necessary and became the single, reliable source. Further scientific research began to be conducted based on this checklist. Eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin, George J Romanes, Charles L. Landa, etc., have conformed to neurosexism. The situation is by no means better off today. Studies such as Shaywitz et al. (1995), Ingalhalikar et al. (2013), and Xin et al. (2019) show how neurosexism is still the norm for mainstream scientific studies.
Understanding the Sex-based Differences Accorded to Brains:
As stated previously, people have used neuroscience and the research that accompanies the discipline to identify how sex disparities determine brain functioning among people. Anatomically speaking, male brains are, to a slight extent, bigger than female brains. This is because within mammals it is a common feature that males are larger in size than females. Even this can have exceptions. Females can have larger brains (owing to larger bodies), while men can have smaller ones. The size discrepancies, however, do not equate to any extent of sex-based difference in how the brain operates and coordinates behavioral and bodily functions in reality. Despite this being an accepted fact, neurosexism is still prevalent, and very much potent in contributing to sexist, mainly misogynist ideas.
One myth is that because male brains have more white matter than female brains, as a result of which brains of males ‘function better’. Men are believed to handle single, focused tasks better, while women excel more in multitasking. Women have better concentration, linguistic abilities, memory, and cognitive abilities, while men are better at sensing and understanding their surroundings, and have better and faster motor functions. The female brain intercepts situations in a more enhanced manner than male brains, as a result of which they express more emotions which are also stronger than males. Females are more inclined to care for a newborn i.e., they are ‘better’ caregivers, while males are more suited for tasks such as map-reading, scientific endeavors, etc. Women value teamwork, while men, with more testosterone levels, are individualists who value competition. The list is endless.
Brains and their different mechanisms do tend to differ from individual to individual, across space, time, and cultures. However, these are solely because of the general uniqueness of humans and their conditions of life and have no correlation to the binary sexes, female and male. To accept otherwise is nothing but ignorance and a sexist viewpoint.
Examples of Neurosexism:
If one reads a few articles based on research in psychology, there is a high possibility of coming across a section where the distinction has been drawn between female participants and male participants. Many journal articles purposefully focus on that agenda itself. Within the subject matter, sexual dimorphism and neurosexism are galore.
First, there is the Prenatal Hormone Theory (or PHT), a hypothesis that contends that the presence of or exposure to certain hormones before the birth of a baby is the cause for the sexual orientation which the individual displays as an adult. The theory is still a work in progress. The ethical issues that might arise in such a theory revolve around hormone alteration in babies to ensure a particular sexual orientation. People of certain sexual orientations may also be stereotyped or discriminated against based on this theory if it is not developed properly.
Next is the Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, also known as PMS. Although menstruation affects moods, emotions, physical health, and behaviors, the PMS is used as leverage by people to exaggerate women’s symptoms before and during their periods and to use that as an excuse to hinder women’s participation in activities. Women are termed ‘temperamental’, ‘moody’, ‘aggressive’ owing to their menstrual cycles. Even when they are not menstruating, any act involving anger or even leadership by women is given the name of PMS. Also, conferring PMS only to women ignores the fact that a large number of non-women individuals menstruate as well.
Thirdly, we have the E-S Theory or Empathising-Systemising Theory by Simon Baron-Cohen. According to this theory, brains are divided into two types: the female brain and the male brain. Any individual, regardless of their sex, can have either of the two brains. However, the male brain is ‘primarily built’ for cognizance and system-building capabilities, whereas the female brain is ‘primarily built’ for compassion and empathizing with others’ emotions. The problem lies in this dividing of brains according to sexes. Brains are brains and will perform the same (differently in individuals notwithstanding their sex or gender) regardless of whether they are ‘female’ or ‘male’. Combined with toxic masculinity and other sexist ideas which exist in society, this male-female brain disparity can cause extremes of stereotypes and discrimination.
The study by Shaywitz et al. (1995) claims that language processing in the brains of males and females occurs differently. Similar studies, some of which are stated above, have tried to dichotomize brain functions into two sexes, succumbing to sexism and not taking into account the intersex spectrum.
The Reality of Brains:
The ultimate truth about the human brain is that it is different in different individuals regardless of their sex and that brains are flexible and open to change. Neuroplasticity renders the human brain malleable to a large extent. Neuroplasticity is defined as the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction” (Rugnetta, 2020). In other words, the brain is capable of intercepting and adapting to novel experiences as they occur throughout the lifetime of a person. As a result, the so-called ‘inherent’ differences in male and female brains, to whichever degree they might or might not exist, are a direct consequence of their cultural experiences and social standing. What is deemed inborn is in reality a result of the social conditions prevalent during a person’s time, most of which has been largely patriarchal, sexist, and oppressive towards women for the larger part of human history. Therefore, to assert that there is innateness to the gender bias in brain science is nothing but plain bigotry.
Moreover, as research and analysis progress, it is progressively becoming clearer to scientists that human brains are, in essence, androgynous or hermaphrodite. With the removal of the misconception that gender is bipartite and the introduction of the broad spectrum on which gender exists, the dichotomy of male and female traits and behaviors associated with their brains has also been shattered. The rejection of traditional binaries has rendered such ideas meaningless. It has now been revealed that human brains consist of a combination of the so-called ‘female-brain’ and ‘male-brain’ characteristics. This finding, along with several other studies undertaken in recent years, negates any previous study attempting to ‘verify’ social prejudices.
Literature on and debates around neurosexism have revealed the discriminatory nature of our societies and how they affect even that part of academia which is dubbed the most prestigious. As a rapidly progressing society, it is our duty that we step back, or rather step forward, from these prejudices, and instead of trying to rationalize them, work towards their effective elimination.
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