Why am I crap at Maths? Well, because I am a woman

Some writing about coaching women that I submitted for my certificate in coaching. I thought I would like to publish it in our blog.

Just a warning: A bit long!

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 Since Baron-Cohen’s book The Essential Difference[1] was published in 2003 there has been passionate debate on whether neuroscience can explain differences between genders; that is, whether men and women are different because they have different types of brain. In 2010, Cordelia Fine published her book Delusions of Gender,[2] which attacks Baron-Cohen and others’ main assumptions and labels them ‘neurosexism’.

The study of brain differences between genders started with several researchers, including Baron-Cohen, Becker[3] and Goldstein,[4] developing their theories in the field of disease pathology. These authors emphasize in their studies that sex differences exist in various chronic diseases such as schizophrenia, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s, among others.

However, the field moved quickly into another arena; that is, one of measuring different gender behaviour and innate skills associated with the female and the male brain. Some of the adamant supporters of these theories include Anne Moir, who proposes treating boys and girls differently in school based on their different skills and learning capacities.  According to this author, boys’ and girls’ brains mature at different stages to reveal different skills at different times.[5] Her theories have already had a certain impact on the British educational system with at least one school, Blackawton Primary School in Devon, adopting them.[6]

The question addressed by these researchers is whether male’s and female’s brains are really so different that they condition their behaviour and innate skills. If they are, what are these differences, and can they be proven scientifically?  According to Baron-Cohen they can.

Addressing the question of gender brain differences, Baron-Cohen says: ‘The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems’.[7] Reading this statement may lead one to think that Baron-Cohen follows a strict gender biological determinism in which there is no room for social or cultural constructions of gender, something that he absolutely denies:

‘Biological determinists don’t dismiss the importance of culture. They simply don’t deny the role of biology. It is a moderate position, recognising the interaction of social and biological factors. Nor, in my opinion, is biological determinism necessarily sexist. It can be sexist, if it is used to claim that all women do X and all men do Y (since sex differences don’t apply to all individuals of one sex) or if it is used to perpetuate social inequalities. Such sexist applications of biological determinist theories are abhorrent’.[8]

In his mild approach to biological determinism, not all men have a systematizing brain and not all women are endowed with an empathizing one. These are just tendencies. In fact: ‘A brain type that leans towards strong ‘systemising’, for example, is more common in males, but there are plenty of men who don’t have this profile, and quite a lot of females who do’.[9]

Not surprisingly, this statement can make one wonder about the truth of a scientific’ theory that tries to explain `differences between genders as valid in some cases but not in others. This field is full of controversy, as different researchers report different results in their studies.

For example, a study conducted among children at school shows that they are very sensitive to gender language and division, with children exposed to gender divisions more likely to present gender stereotypes, such as that only girls should play with baby dolls.[10] Other studies show that believing in stereotypes undermines girls’ performance in maths.[11]  Interestingly enough, it seems that not all verbal abilities in toddlers are gender-determined. A study conducted among 80 families in two small cities in Kansas revealed no gender differences in verbal interactions among toddlers.[12] And finally, a study conducted in the US between more than 450 children of different backgrounds, socio-economic status, gender and race found that young children think that certain attitudes or inclinations such as playing football or playing with dolls are innate to boys or girls.[13] 

These are just a couple of examples to illustrate how understanding of male and female brain differences is still very controversial and far from conclusive. As Barnett and Rivers put it ‘Baron-Cohen’s work on empathy is a distressing example of sweeping generalization based on almost no credible data. He doesn’t bother to ask whether women’s empathy is a product of their brain structures or (more likely) of the fact that society assigns them the job of caring for others’.[14]

 Supporting the lack of scientific conclusive evidence on brain gender difference theories, Deena Skolnik Weisberg affirms: ‘Remember that neuroscience, as a method for studying the mind, is still in its infancy [...] we should remember that it has this promise, and give it the time it needs to achieve its potential – without making too much of it in the meantime’.[15]

Accordingly, Fine tries to alert us to the danger of elevating speculation to the status of fact: ‘Once in the public domain these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture [...] they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain’.[16]

Taking this warning seriously into account requires analysis of how literature on social science has been exposed to and influenced by popular science, taking for granted certain assumptions that are still debatable in the scientific community.

 Natalia


[1] Baron-Cohen, S. (2003) The essential difference: Men, women and the extreme male brain, Allen Lane, London.

[2] Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions of gender: The real science behind sex differences, Icon Books, London.

[3] Becker, Jill B.; Berkley, Karen J.; Geary, Nori; Hampson, Elizabeth; Herman, James P.; Young, Elizabeth (eds) (2008) Sex differences in the brain: From genes to behaviour, Oxford University Press, New York.

[4] Goldstein JM. (2006) ‘Sex, hormones and affective arousal circuitry dysfunction in schizophrenia’ Hormones and Behaviour, Vol. 50, Issue 4, pp. 612-22.

[5] For more information see Dr. Anne Moir’s webpage at http://www.brainsexmatters.com/learn.php [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[6] See ‘Should boys be treated differently at school?’ (2011) at http://www.educationmatters.ie/2011/01/28/

should-boys-be-treated-differently-in-school/ [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[7] Baron- Cohen, S., Op. Cit., p. 1.

[8] Baron-Cohen, S. (2010), ‘It’s not sexist to accept that biology affects behaviour’ The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/03/biology-sexist-gender-stereotypes [accessed 2nd January 2012].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hilliard, Lacey J.; Liben, Lynn S. (2010) ‘Differing Levels of Gender Salience in Preschool Classrooms: Effects on Children’s Gender Attitudes and Intergroup Bias’, Child Development, Vol. 81, No 6, pp. 178-1798.

[11] Beilock, Silan L.; Gunderson, Elizabeth A.; Ramirez, Gerardo; Levine, Susan C. (2010) ‘Female teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievements’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, Vol. 107, No 5, pp. 1860-1863.

[12] Lindsey, Eric W.; Cremeens, Penny R.;  Caldera, Yvonne M. (2010)Gender Differences in Mother-toddler and Father-toddler Verbal Initiations and Responses during a Caregiving and Play Context’, Sex Roles, Vol. 63, No 5, pp. 399-411.

[13] Taylor, Marianne G.; Rhodes, Marjorie; Gelman, Susan A. (2009) ‘Boys Will Be Boys; Cows Will Be Cows: Children’s Essentialist Reasoning about Gender Categories and Animal Species’, Child Development, Vol. 80, No 2, pp. 461-481.

[14] Barnett, Rosalind C.; Rivers, Caryl (2005) ‘Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science’ Dissent, Vol. 52, No 3, p. 70.

[15] Weisberg, D. S. (2008) ‘Caveat Lector. The Presentation of Neuroscience Information in the Popular Media’, Science Review of Mental Health Practice, Vol. 6, No 1 , p. 56, quoted in Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions Of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Icon Books, London, p.  154.

[16]  Fine, Cordelia Op. Cit. p. 186. See also, Barnett, Rosalind; Rivers, Caryl (2011) The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes about our Children, Columbia University Press, New York.

2 responses to “Why am I crap at Maths? Well, because I am a woman

  1. I heart Cordelia Fine – she rocks! I recently finished reading The Mismeasure of Man, another fine example of dangerous and false assumptions leading to serious consequences for entire sections of society. This rubbish just keeps coming!

    • I will add this book to my list! I have just recently started reading again at night and I was looking for something to read that was both interesting and amusing, so here we go. She is also great fun. Thanks for the suggestion. It is amazing how neurosexim is still so popular and uncontested by academics!

      Natalia

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