culture · gender · psychology

Gender in the brain

Scientific American recently published an article suggesting that boy brains and girl brains were not as biologically different as one might think.

Excerpt: “At first glance, studies of the brain seem to offer a way out of this age-old nature/nurture dilemma. Any difference in the structure or activation of male and female brains is indisputably biological. However, the assumption that such differences are also innate or “hardwired” is invalid, given all we’ve learned about the plasticity, or malleability of the brain. Simply put, experiences change our brains….

“…[For example] If the sex difference in the straight gyrus (SG) is present early in life, this strengthens the idea that it is innately programmed. Wood and Nopoulos therefore conducted a second study with colleague Vesna Murko, in which they measured the same frontal lobe areas in children between 7 and 17 years of age. But here the results were most unexpected: they found that the SG is actually larger in boys ! What’s more, the same test of interpersonal awareness showed that skill in this area correlated with smaller SG, not larger, as in adults.”

Here is Rafe‘s response to the article:

This article is terribly written, with ridiculous assumptions.

The first one – “On the other hand, sex differences that grow larger through childhood are likely shaped by social learning, a consequence of the very different lifestyle, culture and training that boys and girls experience in every human society.”

This is patently ridiculous. Virtually all sex differences grow larger with age as males and females diverge hormonally. Obviously we wouldn’t use culture to explain the accelerating gap in height and mass, or bone structure or secondary sex characteristics. Even gaps in things like aggression and neuroticism increase with age to peak in the early twenties before coming more in line with each other as we age beyond the 20’s.

Secondly, “Individuals’ gender traits—their preference for masculine or feminine clothes, careers, hobbies and interpersonal styles—are inevitably shaped more by rearing and experience than is their biological sex.”

This is just wishfull thinking. There is no experimental evidence to support this; essentially we are just talking about two sides of the same coin the masculinity or feminity of the body vs. the mind. Both are largely genetic, we just don’t fully understand all the mechanisms.

It pisses me off that they have to frame every story about this like somehow culture is the good guy riding in, that we can’t write it off, it might just save us from the big bad genetic bad guys after all. It’s editorializing and literally twisting the actually meaning of the study backwards, the important lesson of that study is yet another consistent and persistent cognitive difference between the sexes but they try to make it seem ok by implying it really all might be cultural.


Women’s cultural role in physical exursion

A woman tried to invade a sumo ring in Japan today, which if she had succeeded according to custom would have made the ring unclean. In the article it says Japanese women were also once not allowed to climb mountains or enter mines. Maybe it’s just because I had just read this blog about the Masai people (where women really get the short end of the stick), but it just makes me sad how women are considered unclean, tainted, not as good as men, in so many cultures, and how that is reflected in what chores are traditionally assigned to them in different cultures.
Most women were banned across the board from sports until recently, but it was expected of them to do back breaking labor in the fields, or with livestock, or simply building shelter for their families. They have to do all the hard, boring stuff, but men get to have all the fun activities. It is still an issue in some places to allow women to join the country’s military (see my earlier post).
Yes, traditionally men go out and hunt for women and children. They go to war. They put their lives on the line for their families. But that shouldn’t make women automatically second-class citizens, especially in a culture where food is provided primarily by agriculture and/or livestock (something both genders can do equally well), and war is no longer a common problem.
For the Masai this is not the case. Even though they are technically pastoralists, the men still go on cattle raids regularly and are gone from home a lot risking their lives. But in contrast, even though the Japanese (and the U.S.) have been in major wars in the past 60 years, they’ve moved beyond their traditional gender roles in so many other ways one would think they’d be able to move past restriction of women in certain arenas or activities as well, and especially using the “cleanliness” of a person’s gender as the main criteria.
At the same time, I believe in upholding and preserving traditions and customs. It’s also true Japan had very strict gender roles until much more recently that the U.S. or U.K., and really in the end the act of excluding women from the Sumo wrestling ring isn’t a huge deal. It’s just the overarching trend of looking at women as second-rate when it comes to physical abilities or activities that irks me.


Women want girly men?

Lynda Boothroyd came out with a study that finds that women think more feminine-featured men make better dads:

While this is nothing new, the conclusion that she makes, that women don’t like macho men at all, is a bit overstated. She even goes on to say that we shouldn’t look at masculinity as an indicator of genetic fitness. The article doesn’t state whether a certain question was asked of the study participants, but it is an important question: Just because these people in the study think the more feminine-looking man would make a better father, which type of man are they more likely to want to have sex with? One is not exclusive to the other. It is entirely likely that women would want to mate with a masculine man but have a feminine man help raise the kid, if they could get away with it. There are cultures where women mate with their husbands but their brothers help raise the kids, so these women don’t need to worry about whether their husband will be a good dad, they just have to make sure he’s got strong swimmers (so to speak), and a powerful position in society.

I think that she needed to go deeper than she did and not frame her conclusions with such a Western frame of mind.


Cultural barrier adds to women’s lower pay

Studies by Linda C. Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, show that not only do women not negotiate for better pay and better positions as often as men, but that women are often frowned upon and penalized if they do:
So basically a Catch 22, unless women don’t mind being hated. :/ My problem with the article at least, since I didn’t read the studies, was they didn’t offer an answer to this dilemma, they just sort of said, “Yup, women are screwed, good luck with that.” Maybe they think that just by becoming aware of the issue people will not judge women as harshly for asking for what they want, but that just seems unrealistic to me. To me this falls into the same category as actively promoting Math and the Sciences to girls and being more tolerant of different cultures in schools.

Speaking of math, science, school, and girls, there was also an interesting article on MSN about Danica McKellar’s (yes, from The Wonder Years) book that tries to teach middle-school aged girls that Math is cool and ways that it is applicable in their lives, apparently with lots of lip gloss: Now, while I appreciate the effort, I question whether writing it in the style of a teen magazine is really the answer. McKellar acknowledges she wrote it with a specific audience in mind, but, not to sound crass, is that audience going to voluntarily read a book like this, even if it’s written in the style of Seventeen? I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does either, so it’d be interesting to me to see how this book sells.


rules and regulations

A psych study found that women actually have dominant roles in marriage relationships when it comes to anything involving the family unit or couple, including vacations:
This of course flies in the face of a bunch of other studies, but as the article points out most other studies looked at how much money each couple made and used that as a main variable, whereas in this study they asked each couple who makes the decisions on what subjects and used that as their main criteria. I’d like to see this study repeated several times, but at the same time anecdotally it makes sense, or to quote a very amusing movie: “Yes, the man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck. And the neck can turn the head anyway it wants.” (Bonus points to whoever recognizes that quote).

An interesting commentary on how race is perceived in Brazil and how goverment regulations there might actually be reverting the national mentality back to the way it was in the 1880s:,,2124080,00.html


We all talk good

Okay, this took me forever to get to posting, but I still thought it was interesting. A collective study done showed that men and women actually use approximately the same amount of words:


If only women here knew it was that easy

On Orango Island, Guinea-Bissau, the women propose marriage to the man by serving them fish, and the men are culturally bound to accept:

I know a couple of women who would have done this to their boyfriends (or now husbands) if that actually worked in the U.S. Lucky for Rafe I am not interested in getting married anytime soon, and red palm oil is hard to find around here. 😉