Quirks & Quarks

Women's brains ARE built for science. Modern neuroscience explodes an old myth

Persistent arguments that women lack particular abilities valuable for science are based on bad evidence

Persistent arguments that women lack particular abilities valuable for science are based on bad evidence

Dr. Gina Rippon says there's no difference between boys and girls in terms of their aptitude for science, based on the large number of psychological skills surveys over the years. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson-Pool/Getty Images)

Originally published on September 21, 2019.

Historically science has served to prop up traditional ideas about sex roles and women's intellectual capacity with studies that claim to find inherent biological differences between male and female brains. These biologically determined differences, the argument goes, explain why women aren't cut out to reach the higher echelons of science. 

In her new book, "Gender and Our Brains: How new neuroscience explodes the myths of the male and female minds," neuroscientist Gina Rippon busts that myth, and offers a new perspective based on modern neuroscience that focuses on how our brain is moldable by our life experiences, and it's those experiences, rather than our biology, that have the biggest impact on our interest and aptitude for science. 

Rippon is an expert on brain-imaging techniques and a Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging from Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. Here's part of her conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald: 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob McDonald: You really engage strongly with the idea that biology is destiny, that our biological sex determines what we can do in life. Why is that important to you?

Gina Rippon: I challenge quite a lot of what's called the biological determinist perspective that we have the brains that we're born with and they are what determine our skills, personalities, temperaments, etc. My thesis is very much to say that brains are very important, but they are also very flexible and moldable by the world that they're functioning in, by the stereotypes they encounter and the attitudes they encounter.

Neuroscientist Gina Rippon's new book is called "Gender and Our Brains: How new neuroscience explodes the myths of the male and female minds" (Pantheon)

BM: So what do you see as the main lingering misconceptions about women's aptitude for science compared to men?

GR: I think the key focus is very often on a cognitive skill called spatial cognition — our ability to actually understand the relationship between objects either as two dimensionally represented or three dimensionally represented. Being able to envisage different objects changing in relationship to each other is very important in understanding all sorts of aspects of science, and it has been claimed to be one of the most robust sex differences in that men on average tend to perform better in the kind of laboratory tasks which measure this skill than women. We also get the classic men being map readers and women being multitasking type dichotomy. So there is the thinking that there is some biologically based spatial skill, which is essential for success in science, and women are less likely to have sufficient quantities of that particular skill.

BM: Well, walk me through some of the issues you have with the studies that led to those conclusions.

GR: I think there's a whole range of things. First of all, if you look at the different ways of measuring that particular skill, sometimes women do just as well if not better. So I would challenge the idea that there's a kind of universal ability called spatial cognition that women are less well endowed with. But it's also the case that it's a skill that we know is trainable. So if you get individuals who are poor at those kinds of tasks, you can give them a range of different training opportunities and they will improve over time and their spatial cognition will improve.

Also, we've been able to show that their brains change, so it's not something which is predetermined at birth,  which is quite often claimed. It's something which may well reflect the kind of training opportunities that individuals have. So if you've had a lifetime of playing with construction toys, moving on to perhaps hobbies and sports which are to do with spatial manipulation of objects, then you've had many more training opportunities than other people who've not been given those kinds of skills. Very often, those two groups are actually divided along gender lines, so it's much more likely that boys will play with Lego and construction toys.

BM: So you're saying that it's the type of test that is the problem, or that they're not taking into account things like cultural differences, or occupations or things like that?

GR: I think that's absolutely right. There was a big survey done in the States about two years ago where they were interested in spatial cognition in college students. They found as expected that on average, the boys did better than girls. But when they took videogame experience into account and asked individuals questions like  'do you play video games?' 'how long have you played them?' 'how long do you play them for,' which gave them a very good measure of the kind of video game experience the individuals, the sex difference disappeared. So girls who'd had as much video game experience as boys were doing just as well on the spatial cognition task.

BM: So other than spatial cognition, what other issues do you have with studies that have shown differences between male and female brains?

GR:  I think one of the things that's important to realize when we talk about differences and the kind of everyday use of that term makes you envisage that you know a male brain is like this and a female brain is like that when we actually look at the data that we have on brains from men and brains from women, you can see that there's a huge amount of variability within each population and that the two sets of data are hugely overlapping. So there's very tiny differences between the groups but very large differences within the groups, but the history of science has been such that we've always focused on those tiny little differences rather than the source of variability within each group.

BM: So you're saying that there could be just as much difference between two boys as there would be between a boy and a girl or two girls.

GR: Yes, that's absolutely right.

The entire audio interview is available at the top of this page

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting