These days, it’s taboo to suggest that the brains of men and women are in any way different. Case in point: A recent exhibit at the Science Museum in London that used an interactive quiz to display differences between male and female brains sparked public outrage in September, with the museum promising to renege on its content. Critics said the exhibit was based on gender stereotypes, qualified as “junk science” and was “out of date, to say the least.”
I can understand the backlash. Women are done with being told we’re supposed to like pink and lace, that we cry too much and that, at the core, we are the weaker sex. I am all for equality between the sexes, but we don’t need to blur science in order to get there. In fact, there are differences between men’s and women’s brains, but these differences in no way impede the fight for gender equality.
Last year, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences received a lot of media attention for proclaiming that you can’t distinguish a male brain from a female one. This study, however, only looked at static MRI images, and didn’t address previous research showing differences when it comes to how male and female brains function.
A team of sex researchers has since run new analyses on the same brain scans from that study and was able to correctly identify a male brain from a female brain about 73 percent of the time. That average is higher than what would be expected if the brains actually were more similar between the sexes.
Another new study from City University London found babies as young as nine months old show gender-ascribed differences in the toys they choose long before they’re able to even recognize gender as a concept. (This happens at around 18 months to two years old.) Girls naturally gravitated toward dolls and playing house while boys preferred cars and trucks.
You can see the same behavior in vervet monkeys, who aren’t socialized by other monkeys to choose certain toys over others. This is because greater exposure to testosterone in utero is associated with male-typical interests. This is the case not just for boys, but girls, too. Even if their parents encourage them to play with dolls, girls exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb will prefer toys typical to boys.
One recent academic paper widely celebrated by sex scientists showed that cultures with greater gender equity actually show larger differences between men and women when it comes to stereotypical traits, like higher extraversion and agreeableness in women and greater enjoyment of casual sex in men. The gender gap lessened only in terms of how much women preferred partners who could provide for them, which makes sense: In egalitarian societies, women are less dependent on men for survival.
While our society definitely places more emphasis on sex differences than it should, to deny at baseline any differences is denying basic human biology. Many research experts remain afraid to speak publicly on this issue because they are well aware of the wrath waiting for them on social media if they do. But the underlying problem is not rooted in saying women and men are biologically different. It’s that stereotypically “female” traits are seen as inferior and worthy of ridicule. This is the issue we should be challenging instead. Men and women do not need to be the same biologically in order to be equal socially. We need to be open to empiricism and fact, even if they go against political correctness.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. Her writing has been published in Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, and many other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.