There’s no such thing as a male or female brain – and why that matters – Management Today

Posted: January 3, 2020 at 10:52 am

Men are more confident, naturally dominant and prefer things. Women are kinder, more hesitant and prefer people. These differences, as received wisdom would have it, are biological. The female and male brain are different.

Except theyre not, says Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston University Brain Centre and author of The Gendered Brain. Over the last 200 years weve just been encouraged to think they are.

The lifelong "plasticity" of the human brain means that it can change and adapt as a result of experience, she says. And that means whats going on outside the head is as important as whats going on inside.

Rippon spoke to Management Today about the consequences of the male and female brain myth, why gender doesnt determine skill and the usefulness of IQ tests for recruitment.

"Mens brains are on average bigger than womens, but thats because on average men are bigger than women. Brain size is pretty meaningless in terms of functional significance."

"It links to the way in which our brain determines our behaviour. The brain responds very well to how the world expects people to behave.

"Theres a great phrase by Reshma Saujani, who founded an organisation called Girls Who Code: 'We raise our boys to be brave and our girls to be perfect.' Thats a fantastic summary of the different pressures on boys and girls from an early age."

"Im horrified by how much research is being misrepresented and misused. Scientists aresometimes less than responsible in how they explain what they find and the implications of those findings.

"The arguments they make are plausible because they "confirm" what peoplealready think beliefs that continue to shape the environment within which people grow up, are educated and employed.

"Just recently I was reading about a firm whose business manual explained how women should act in certain situations, how they should dress and what tone of voice they should use. I think its fed by a sort of accessible, but ill-informed self-help manual.

"Language is really important in terms of what people hear. Next time youre confronted with a claim such as at last, the truth that mens and womens brains are different, just look at what kind of arguments are being made: are we harking back to evolutionary biology as the reason?"

"One of the downsides of gender initiatives, even if theyre trying to solve a pay gap, is that you sustain the belief that there is a difference between men and women. If you measure their behavioural and neurological information, youll get classic bell-shaped curves and a huge amount of variability within each group. But if you put that data on the same axes, they overlap enormously.

"There are issues associated with saying that women have a particular set of skills that are missing from the boardroom. Just appointing people because theyre men or because theyre women is not actually going to change that. But clearly people with exactly the same potential are not achieving that potential in equal numbers.

"Thats why you should be looking at the longer-term issues that affect how people arrived at a particular choice point."

"Businesses are quite fond of their questionnaires and personality profiles. But one of the issues we need to look at is how good are the measurement tools that were using to gather the data? Theres a lot of promotion of quick and dirty tests without anybody asking whether they are actually useful.

"IQ tests are a classic example. They dont really measure anything useful with respect to individual skills. Research came out recently that suggests a link between particular genetic profiles and IQ, but the idea that there is a single common factor that will discriminate one individual from another is flawed. It ignores variability within groups."

"One of the more optimistic views that I hope comes out of this is that were not necessarily driven through life by the brains were born with, or the brains were stuck with because of how weve been treated at school.

"We know now that there are dramatic changes we can bring about in our brain and the skills we can learn. If there are particular skills your business needs, for instance, you dont necessarily need to look outside the organisation, there are things that your existing workforce can learn."

Image credits:John Greim/Contributor via Getty Images

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There's no such thing as a male or female brain - and why that matters - Management Today

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