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Julie Lynn: Accept it, feminists – women’s and men’s brains simply aren’t the same


In November 2016 an article in The Times reported a claim by scientists that researchers had been ignoring gender differences in the brain for fear of being labelled sexist. Neurobiologist Prof Larry Cahill, as guest editor of the Journal of Neuroscience Research, said: ‘The heart of the resistance is the view that if neuroscience shows males and females are not the same in brain function, we are showing they are not equal. That is false.’ He went on to add that the practice of studying male brains and then extrapolating those findings to female brains led to generalisations that put men’s health at risk when it came to the development of drugs, for instance in Alzheimer’s research.

In April this year another article, this time in the US publication Science, reported on how the largest brain imaging study of its kind had found sex-specific patterns in the brain. It was careful to point out immediately that ‘overall there were more similarities than differences’ but that the work did raise ‘new questions about how brain differences between the sexes may influence intelligence and behaviour.’ There was mention of how cortices were thicker in women and how this was associated with higher scores in a variety of cognitive and intelligence tests, and it stated also that men had higher brain volume than women in every subcortical region they looked at. These included the hippocampus (broad roles in memory and spatial awareness), the amygdala (emotions, memory, decision-making), striatum (learning, inhibition and reward processing) and thalamus (processing and relaying sensory information to other parts of the brain).

It is striking but perhaps understandable just how nervous researchers always are when it comes to interpreting any of their findings on behaviour or intelligence. It just feels too dangerous. Psychologist Stuart Ritchie, who led the University of Edinburgh team, told Science that his focus was on the differences in the male and female brain, not speculating on what they could mean. Quite. This is a controversial area, that much we can say. Cambridge neuroscientist Amber Ruigrok said the study’s sheer size made the results convincing but suggested that in future studies one other factor in particular should be addressed. That factor was menopause. She added that hormonal fluctuations have been shown to influence brain structure.

Right. So talking about hormones is not necessarily a no-go. Leadership performance does involve a leader’s psychology and psychology can be analysed on three levels: the biological (all that XX and XY and hormonal stuff), the cognitive (mental processes such as memory, perception, thinking, and attention) and the sociocultural (how environment and culture affect behaviour and/or thinking). Feminist orthodoxy would have it that the only thing holding women back from doing what they want, how they want and when they want to do it is patriarchal society (trigger warning: there are patriarchal communities that do need challenging in the unacceptable way they treat women, but that’s for another day).

There. Patriarchal society. End of. If we could only deal with that one overwhelming, rotten problem, the sociocultural one (high quality childcare, get dads to step up to the plate more, overhaul the House of Commons schedules, that kind of thing) all would be just tickety-boo for women in top, high-octane leadership roles. Then they could just go on and on in charge pretty unfazed, as do notable exceptions such as Mutti Merkel. Sociocultural factors have been an issue and many have been quite rightly addressed, but their pre-eminence now in the debate has all but buried the other two. Biology has become the B-word now that we have transgenderism. Hormones? That’s the H word. Anyway, that’s been dealt with by good old HRT. Menopause, the M-word? Ssh. Let’s just go back to when a woman in her forties or fifties could be whispered about as being ‘bad with her nerves’.

Most of us are not research scientists. The word ‘chemistry’, as in ‘brain chemistry’, suggests to the layman, however, pretty much what things are: hormones. Male and female bodies are subject to different exposures to hormones at different times of life and development. Testosterone, present in elevated levels in males, has been shown to be behind higher physical aggression in men and it might also be linked with greater competitiveness (though this latter might be on less secure ground in terms of scientific research); oestrogen levels are important to a woman’s reproductive potential; oxytocin is believed to be significant in bonding between mother and baby. We are all more than the sum of our hormonal parts but we are, if not driven by them, then at least affected by them psychologically. They’re there (or not there) for a reason and they play a not insignificant role in making us what we are.

Being a leader means being able to withstand certain kinds of pressure. If a woman can take it and get through it, great. If she can’t or won’t subject herself to what leadership demands and, for some headline writers inexplicably ‘throws it all away’, that doesn’t make her a failure. It might just mean that she is coming to terms with who she is and what is important to her (and why do we have to be perpetually lamenting that women often choose working lives that best fit around family life?). Here’s a thought: it might be that women, suggested sometimes to be better listeners and empathisers, are listening to their own voice, a voice asking questions constantly about how it’s going, how they’re doing, how others are getting on, how you can listen better, communicate better. In short, maybe there is just a lot of emotional noise in a female leader’s head when the pressure gets ramped up. That doesn’t mean crying or hysteria. It means having the kind of ultimately punitive attunement that can tip a woman from that ‘glass cliff’. That’s not a failure. It’s not something that makes women unequal to men but something that makes them different from men. Furthermore, we’re talking about women who do not have children to think about as well as those who do have those responsibilities and commitments.

Among the observations made about both Theresa May and Hillary Clinton on their election campaigns was that they appeared in public to be ‘stiff, wooden, uncomfortable and robotic’. Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump were perceived to be relaxed and just ‘being themselves’. Some prominent women in the world of politics, media and business thrive in high-stress leadership positions (though the current de facto leader of Myanmar doesn’t appear to be one of them) and are good at it. Others don’t. That might be down in some measure to things of which they are not fully in control.

It feels, of course, heretical to say it but it’s worth saying nevertheless – it could be something to do with biological and cognitive factors which make us react and behave in certain ways; care about certain things more than we care about others. It might be this that makes women wonder whether ultimately they’re really up for it. In the end, those prepositions – Up FOR it? Up TO it? – don’t really matter. They shouldn’t matter to women and nor should they matter to men because this is not a question about whether women are equal as human beings to men. That would be an idiotic question. Biologically different does not mean biologically inferior. The question is whether certain kinds of leadership (that ‘all’) make a woman tick. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, then it’s time to do what does. That does not equate to having ‘thrown it all away’. Any chance we might bin that fallacy?

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Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn
Julie Lynn, a former journalist, teacher and full time mother, currently tutors teenagers in English and French.

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