It’s no secret that gender bias exists across virtually all industries, at all organizational levels, and in all types of institutions. Unfortunately, sexism is not a new phenomenon — women have been discriminated against for decades.
Even more disappointing is that in 2020 sexism is still far too common in the professional, political, and even medical worlds. But perhaps the most concerning part is that these inaccurate beliefs are held by ignorant individuals who don’t know any better and educated scientists who actually should know better.
As any woman trying to progress in her career or any woman who has had her medical complaints tossed aside knows all too well, gender bias can have significant and lasting negative impacts on a woman’s job, health, and life.
Women are often told they are too emotional for the role or, on the flip side, too tough and not likable enough. But even more damaging than the false impression that a woman would be less suited for a job simply because she is a woman (and therefore more driven by emotion and fear) are the scientists attempting to support these false neurosexism claims with neurological research.
Neurosexism is defined as “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.” Essentially, it’s the search for neurological differences in male and female brains that can supposedly explain gender stereotypes and outdated gender roles.
It’s a tricky concept because there is no denying that women and men are different. It’s not entirely shocking that our brains might work differently. It’s the classic “men are from Mars; women are from Venus” perspective.
Men and women are wired differently, and science shows that biologically we are different. But the real issue isn’t whether or not male and female brains are different, but the sexist belief that women are inferior because of how their brains are wired.
The existence of different brain patterns or unique neural functioning is not what is in question here. The issue is whether or not those differences actually have anything to do with capability based on gender. The real problem occurs when those neurological findings are used to perpetuate unfair and damaging gender bias.
Neurosexism legitimizes gender discrimination. It not only misleads and misinforms people using scientific data that has been extrapolated to mean something totally inaccurate, but it also empowers misogynists to continue believing that women are not equal to men based on their brain activity.
According to cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain, the hunt for female and male brain differences “has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster” in an effort to finally understand gender differences and to justify gender stereotypes.
Philosopher Robyn Bluhm continues to explain in her paper on sex-difference science, “the subconscious gender biases that have been ingrained in researchers can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which they skew their findings to support preexisting notions. Instead of questioning the validity of these age-old assumptions, they seek evidence that supports them.” These studies are hunting for proof that women are inferior.
Take, for instance, a 2007 German study led by neuroscientist Kathrin Koch, in which the authors prefaced their findings by stating that “women are generally regarded as ‘more emotional’ than men.” Or more recently, in 2017, when Google engineer James Damore published a memo suggesting that there are fewer women in the technology industry because they are biologically less equipped and ill-suited to work in that field.
There are serious repercussions of such neurosexism, and it goes beyond just the scientific studies and findings.
Every time a study inaccurately finds that female brains are wired differently than men, subconscious biases are supported and perpetuated, which leads to unfair discrimination against women, both in the workforce and the medical world.
Women often have their medical ailments discounted because they are seen as more emotional or more sensitive. Women are held back in their careers or told they aren’t qualified for leadership roles because they are too emotional or not tough enough. Women are often pigeonholed into positions or life paths that involve nurturing and multitasking because those are the skill sets they are harder wired to excel at, according to studies guided by neurosexism.
Even though women have made immense progress in recent decades in terms of equal opportunity in the professional and political worlds (hello — we have a woman of color as the next Vice President of the United States!), women still have a long way to go in terms of equal pay, equal recognition, and equal respect.
Neurosexism is not helping that case, which is why feminism is more important than ever. To combat these scientific attacks on female capability, women (and the men who support them) need to rise up and speak out.
While men and women may be different, we all need to abandon the idea that male and female brains are significantly different and homogenous. Rippon argues that “we are at the point where we need to say, ‘Forget the male and female brain; it’s a distraction, it’s inaccurate.’ It’s possibly harmful, too, because it’s used as a hook to say, well, there’s no point girls doing science because they haven’t got a science brain, or boys shouldn’t be emotional or should want to lead.”
In fact, science proves that the human brain displays neural plasticity, meaning it can be molded and adapted over time and experience.
So, what does this mean for women?
Well, for starters, knowledge is power. Get educated and teach others about how neurosexism exists and how it often unfairly attempts to prove women are inferior in one way or another. Remember that there is strength in information and strength in numbers.
Neurosexism is not new, but if we want to see any change for current and future generations of women, we need to embrace feminism in order to end gender bias in science.