Sex in the brain: do men and women think differently?

Sunday 30 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

Contemporary thinking about gender differences is confused, with often contradictory attitudes emerging from tradition, science, feminism and identity politics. When Harvard President Larry Summers suggested in 2005 that biological differences in the brain might account for women’s relative absence from the peaks of mathematical achievement, there was an outcry, and he resigned not long after. But publish a book asserting that brain scans show boys and girls to be hard-wired with different aptitudes, and you probably have a bestseller on your hands, and a reorganisation of primary education around your theories. Earlier this year when two Sky Sports presenters joked that women can’t understand the offside rule in football, they were roundly condemned for their sexism. But when government minister Harriet Harman suggested during the financial crisis that ‘Lehmann Sisters’ would not have behaved so recklessly, many felt she had a point.

Newspaper headlines may go too far in claiming women evolved to enjoy shopping or prefer pink, although studies have found greater male aptitude for spatial rotation (or ‘playing Tetris’) and higher female interest in faces in infants as well as adult humans. Nobody denies men are, on average, taller than women, so why should we be squeamish about biological divergence in brain development? Now social equality has more or less been achieved, some scientists say it’s time to accept men and women are differently endowed. But in a world that’s still divided according to gender, critics argue there’s no neutral ground in which a human mind can grow. Slight aptitudes at birth become significant differences in ability by adulthood, thanks to the very plasticity of the human brain. Assume boys are more interested in sport and let them spend hours playing ball, and their brain will indeed show enhanced spatial skills.

Some writers predict that sweeping statements about female linguistic superiority and male scientific abilities will one day seem as ludicrous as the old arguments that women’s smaller brains or more delicate brain fibres rendered them unfitted for political life. Raising the question – why are we so keen to look for the roots of human behaviour inside our skulls? Have we truly reached the limit of what social change can achieve in bringing equality between the sexes, forcing us to seek explanations in science? Or, by asserting natural differences, do we risk limiting the potential of all of us to a narrow fraction of what we might become?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Ellie Lee
reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

Dr Maurizio Meloni
research fellow, Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham

Dr Anne Moir
neuropsychologist; TV director and producer; author, Brain Sex: the real difference between men and women

Dick Swaab
professor of neurobiology, Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, University of Amsterdam

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Produced by
Timandra Harkness journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?
Recommended readings
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Derbyshire and Powell, spiked, 21 October 2011

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Margaret M McCarthy and Gregory F Ball, Biology of Sex Differences, 29 April 2011

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Simon Baron Cohen, Penguin, 4 March 2004

Rebecca M. Jordan-Young speaking about her book, Brain Storm

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