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Pink brains and blue brains

(157 Posts)
minniebear Thu 20-Apr-17 19:53:00

So everything in me believes there is no such thing as a girl brain or a boy brain, and it bugs me a bit when family stereotype based on gender (I have two girls: girls are better behaved and easier to raise, boys are more interested in playing with toy cars and better at throwing, as examples).

Can anyone hit me with some facts to back up what I intuitively believe to be true (that gender differences such as those listed above are down to socialisation rather than biology)? Or am I wrong? I just want to feel I have it right in my own head. Im confident in the way I'm raising my girls and am aware of (and trying to avoid) gender stereotyping, and I'm not planning to rant and rave at the next person to bring all this up. I just want to better educate myself.

IAmAmy Thu 20-Apr-17 20:17:54

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine is excellent on this!

Greypaw Thu 20-Apr-17 20:23:00

There's the Baby X study - have you heard of it? Shows that adults impose gender stereotypes on babies from at least the age of three months.

M0stlyBowlingHedgehog Thu 20-Apr-17 20:25:03

Also 'Pink Brain, Blue Brain' by Lise Elliot, a neuroscientist whose area of specialisation is the plasticity of the brain during early infancy/childhood. Her central point is that there aren't many robustly replicable studies of cognitive difference, where there are, the "d-values" (the measure of the relative size of the difference between the means of the two populations and their spreads) is tiny, and insofar as you can measure these differences at all, because we know that (a) adults treat babies differently according to their sex from birth onwards and (b) the brain is incredibly plastic, it is impossible to tell whether any measured small differences at a population level between older children or adults are due to nature or nurture.

For a more social sciences based approach I can recommend Deborah Cameron's "The Myth of Mars and Venus".

Greypaw Thu 20-Apr-17 20:32:06

BabyX in a nutshell:

The experiment involved researchers presenting a three year old baby dressed in a yellow baby grow to volunteers, telling the volunteer it was either a girl or boy, and asking them to play with the baby. They left a rag doll, a football and a teething ring in the room.

The researchers found that none of the male volunteers offered the football to the baby when they thought it was a "she", but 89% offered "her" the doll. 80% of the women gave the "boy" the football, and 75% gave the "girl" the doll. This experiment has been repeated and the results were almost identical.

Another similar experiment involved two female and two male babies, first dressed in pink and blue, then dressed in gender-neutral clothes. When the volunteer thought the baby was a boy, they responded much more to movements and praised physical ability. When they thought the baby was a girl, they were much more gentle and talked more to the baby. If they did not know the sex of the baby, the volunteer either asked, or assigned the sex to the baby based on the baby's character (quiet ones were assigned as female, physically active ones were assigned as male).

Greypaw Thu 20-Apr-17 20:32:45

Three months* not three years.

M0stlyBowlingHedgehog Thu 20-Apr-17 20:35:42

Elliot describes a similar experiment. Babies of about 9 months (i.e. crawling) in neutral baby grows. Put in a room with ramps of different steepnesses, supervised by nursery workers who didn't know the sex of the babies. Boys and girls could tackle the same steepness on average. Then put back in the room with their mothers in charge - the mothers correctly estimated the steepest ramp the boys could get up, and largely left them to explore, while the mothers of girls consistently underestimated what their daughters were capable of and intervened to "rescue" them if they thought they were trying something too difficult (which in fact they were perfectly capable of).

minniebear Thu 20-Apr-17 20:47:51

This is all so interesting and exactly what I wanted to believe, thank you for giving up your time to help me understand this better. It's so deeply entrenched isn't it?

Dozer Thu 20-Apr-17 20:50:44

I get pissed off with this too OP: people frequently saying it's "obviously nature"! I can't be arsed to argue though, I just say I think it's bollocks and do cats bum face.

BartholinsSister Thu 20-Apr-17 20:53:54

If you watch the Olympics, it does appear that male people are better at throwing things.

Xenophile Thu 20-Apr-17 21:02:45

The Baby X thing is really good, there's been further work done and it seems that gender stereotyping happens even before birth. I can't find the bloody study now, but one was done in which women who believed they were having male babies said they moved more, kicked more, and were generally more robust than women who believed they were having female ones, the control was women who neither knew nor cared what sex their baby was. When movement was monitored there was no significant difference in how mobile the male and female babies were.

minniebear Thu 20-Apr-17 21:09:46

That's so interesting Xenophile, I can't believe it starts in utero.

Dozer I never say anything either-I just think it all and stew. I just want to feel like I'm actually right in my stewing.

There are obviously size differences and strength differences-I guess I feel like that can't be generalised?

M0stlyBowlingHedgehog Thu 20-Apr-17 23:04:01

My favourite pic (which everyone in this section has been bored to death with a million times...). Insofar as some studies have measured cognitive differences, the d values are less than 0.5 - so as you can see, the two distributions are almost indistinguishable (and as explained above, due to brain plasticity, you can't tell whether they're due to nature or nurture). For height, the d value is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 (and I would guess things like speed, strength, etc - there's approx a 10% difference between men's and women's world records in running events at every distance from 100m up to marathon - but again you still have significant overlaps - a good woman club runner will clock a marathon time faster than a significant fraction of the men in the field). Hence the "throwing like a girl" thing being a bit of a myth - sure, men on average throw further, due to testosterone, but the idea that women are physiologically incapable of throwing properly is a myth (albeit one that is then turned into reality by girls being discouraged from participating in sports which involve throwing things a long way - social pressures are enormous - think about the number of girls versus boys doing physical things, skateboarding, football, tree climbing in the local park).

RufusTheRenegadeReindeer Thu 20-Apr-17 23:06:50


Thats really weird

Ds1 didnt bloody move...number of times we thought he was dead!!

Dd didnt bloody stop....worst evening when i went to a theatre production of Staying Alive, ive never been in so much pain

Its all myths and legends though isnt it

Ikillallplants Thu 20-Apr-17 23:18:46

My DD had a fiestness that my boys didn't. She wanted to do everything herself from an early age, her favourite phrase was "I do it". My boys would have had me dressing them into secondary school if I would have been mug enough. I've seen similar with other families.

sticklebrix Thu 20-Apr-17 23:25:46

If you watch the Olympics, it does appear that male people are better at throwing things.

Well, yes. But Olympians are adults. They have gone through puberty, with its generally different outcomes in terms of physical strength for males and females. And boys are often encouraged in their thing-throwing from early childhood, so are likely to get more practise over time.

I bet that there is little difference in throwing ability in pre-pubertal children. But admittedly have no research to back this up...

minniebear Fri 21-Apr-17 06:40:31

That's so interesting about the differences being so slight! And it's puberty anyway-that's the thing that's been bugging me. There are physical differences after puberty.

Lessthanaballpark Fri 21-Apr-17 06:57:11

Yes the problem is that whilst the cognitive differences are a lot smaller than the physical ones people tend to lazily think of them as the same, even mainstream reputable sources.

The largest cognitive difference lies in spatial skills however this is the area that boys get most practise in (from the heavily gendered lego to videogames) but even here after a short training period for the girls in the study these differences disappeared.

I often ask myself why? Why are people so intent on proclaiming that there are differences?

Datun Fri 21-Apr-17 07:12:31

Hormones play a part after puberty - libido, strength etc.

I believe there are other physical differences, like eyesight. I can't remember the science, but women discern pattern, colour differently (better).

So looking at a swatches for upholstery, curtains, for instance women will be studying two similar patterns, seeing them differently when a man will think they're identical - "They look exactly the same to me, they're both beige!" (leading to 'women care more about this stuff').

Small, very insignificant differences that lead to a whole heap of assumptions.

PoochSmooch Fri 21-Apr-17 07:27:05

There are a depressing amount of people who buy into the gendered brain theory. I've had a number of set-tos with people insistent that it's scientifically proven that they have a man brain or a lady brain. I've given up with one of them - she can cling to her lady brain if she likes, but it's ironic that she does so in the name of science, which obviously lady brains are less good at grin

As to why people like it, I think it's somehow comforting. My ladybrained friend likes the thought that she's wired better for empathy. I imagine that many men are quite pleased with the idea of themselves as logic machines built for spatial awareness. In a gendered world, many (most?) people are probably quite driven to fit with the expectations of their gender. They're happy to take their Ought from their Is, and go along with the idea that all this just happens naturally.

ChocChocPorridge Fri 21-Apr-17 07:28:17

My boys would have had me dressing them into secondary school if I would have been mug enough. I've seen similar with other families

I have two boys - the first one is 6 and would still have me dressing him and wiping his bum given half a chance - I still laugh at the day he announced he was too tired, and I should hold his penis for him while he did a wee (he'd recently learned to wee standing up, but felt that it was a lot of effort), the 3 year old is an 'I'll do it myself' kinda kid.

If you took a survey of all the personalities and interests of my and my sisters children you would not be able to tell which were boys and which were girls - colours, favourite animals, inclination to sit still or run about, it's a total grab-bag.

annandale Fri 21-Apr-17 07:33:41

The outcome of the pressures results in people with genuine differences as older children and adults, albeit ones that in many cases can be altered again quite quickly. I think people prefer to believe they were born a way rather than guided/educated into it.

PoochSmooch Fri 21-Apr-17 07:45:47

There is often a massive resistance to the idea that one has been socialised into anything, isn't there? The very idea makes some people very angry. It's something I've seen a lot when threads about feminism escape onto to the main board, and socialised, gendered expectations are mentioned. Invariably, a number of posters will jump on about how feminists tell them they've been brainwashed into liking makeup or whatever, and THEY ARE NOT, they just like it because they LIKE IT and they CHOOSE to like it.

I am guessing that it feels like you're telling them that they have no free will or self-determination, and that upsets people. But I think they may have misunderstood what socialisation is and does. We all go through it - we have to, or we would be unable to function in adult human society. And it is gendered. There's nothing "natural" about it.

Datun Fri 21-Apr-17 07:56:36


Excellent post. And I agree wholeheartedly.

venusinscorpio Fri 21-Apr-17 08:44:28

I imagine that many men are quite pleased with the idea of themselves as logic machines built for spatial awareness.

Just a bit! grin

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