Discussions on gender are a minefield of opinions, with gender too frequently the loser to agenda. This is not surprising, given the complexity of the discussion, but it is unhelpfully muddied by opinions which are not grounded in evidence and coloured by bias. Nevertheless, conversation which seeks to put evidence at its core helps to move the discussion onto a more useful level. Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain does just this, drawing on work in cognitive neuroscience and psychology to tackle the issues surrounding gender. Outside of the gender debate, neuroscience promises to push forward various stale philosophical discussions, and it is no different in this case.
Surprisingly, Gina Rippon turns to the history of science for the source of many unfounded conclusions, deftly outlining how science has been guilty of serving a sexist social agenda. She describes how science research has pushed the idea of a male and a female brain, in the past often based on outlandish experiments, such as skull volume measurements using bird seed. Even recently, despite the advent of brain imaging techniques, conclusions have been declared regarding male–female differences which are often unsubstantiated. However, her point is not that there are necessarily no differences between male and female brains, but that the evidence accumulated so far is inconclusive. Certainly, the kinds of differences we hear sometimes, like women are inherently worse at spatial tasks, therefore are less equipped for a career in engineering, are not robustly supported and are woefully unfair: we exist in a rule-based environment and our brains are extremely adept at identifying these rules, however biased. It is perhaps lacking in discussion on sex differences elsewhere in the animal kingdom, as surely this is important when considering our own, but generally it is a well-balanced book, with fascinating information about our social brain, babies’ brains, and the issues around binary gender identity.
A year on from publication, sociopolitical views are as polarized as ever, so it is crucial that we learn to identify our inherent biases and how they inform our world view. Reading books like The Gendered Brain, which is witty, accessible, and thought-provoking, is an excellent way to do this.