Tearing down the walls between “boy” and “girl”

Well, this is heartening: an opinion piece in New Scientist arguing in favour of dismantling the gender divide.

Yes, boys and girls, men and women, are different. But most of those differences are far smaller than the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus stereotypes suggest. Nor are the reasoning, speaking, computing, empathising, navigating and other cognitive differences fixed in the genetic architecture of our brains. All such skills are learned, and neuro-plasticity – the modification of neurons and their connections in response to experience – trumps hard-wiring every time. If men and women tend towards different strengths and interests, it is due to a complex developmental dance between nature and nurture that leaves ample room to promote non-traditional skills in both sexes.

The obvious place to start looking for behavioural differences between the sexes is infancy. Yet even here they are often in the eye of the beholder. In a classic experiment, researchers cross-dress babies to fool people that they are interacting with a child of the opposite sex. Volunteers tend to comment more on the physical strength and negative emotions of babies they believe to be boys, and on the beauty and positive emotions of babies they believe to be girls.


So should we abandon our search for the “real” differences between the sexes? Yes. There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired: every skill, attribute, and personality trait is moulded by experience. At no time are children’s brains more malleable than in early life – the time when parents are so eager to learn the baby’s sex, project it to others and unconsciously express stereotyped impressions of their child.

It’s a timely topic, brought into the public eye by celebrity gossip (what else?): Angelina Jolie’s decision to let her four year old daughter dress as she pleases – short haircut, traditionally “male” clothes – is a pretty good barometer for comparing the opinions of different demographics. For example, compare the Feministing headline for this story (“Angelina Jolie responds to gender policing of Shiloh“) with that from FOX Nation (“Angelina Jolie Lets Daughter Gender-Bend?“).

Sadly, essentialist views of gender differences are deeply entrenched in the conservative and fundamentalist worldviews, both of which tend to place adherence to tradition above and beyond the well-being and freedom of the individual; regular readers of this site probably don’t need reminding that I tend to see things quite the other way round. Nonetheless, it’s great to see this topic becoming a matter for public discussion; sure, it’ll stir up a whole lot of dumb uninformed invective (from extremist positions on both sides of the debate, sadly), but cultural change comes with friction as standard.

And who knows – maybe we’ll end up with a society that finds the notion of applying experimental hormone treatments to your unborn child in the hope of nipping any potential gender ambiguity in the bud to be a repugnant act of cultural eugenics. Fingers crossed, eh?

One thought on “Tearing down the walls between “boy” and “girl””

  1. At last sane science weighs in on the gender issue! I cannot tell you how tired I am of reading that I must behave certain ways and am unsuited for other things just because of that double X. Virtually all of the pop science that purports to show a huge gap between men and women turns out to be either the result of poorly done studies or a misunderstanding of the research (Language Log picks these things apart with regularity).

    BTW, the author of the piece is Lise Eliot, who has a book called Pink Brain, Blue Brain, which I’ve put on hold at my library. I look forward to exploring her ideas further.

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