Recently I have been reading a lot of literature linked to gender equality and feminism for a global gender studies course. The other day I was reading a piece by Cornelia Fine and came across the term “neurosexism”. It was in Chapter 15 (The “Seductive Allure” of neuroscience) of her famous book Delusions of Gender. My friend, who was in the class with me, read it first and said you will have stuff to say about this. She meant I wouldn’t be pleased with Fine’s critical comments about neuroscientists. Before I express my views on the topic, let’s define what neurosexism is.
Simply speaking, neurosexism is using (out of context) discoveries in biological sex differences to further sexist ideas. For example, if someone says women are bad at math you might dismiss him/her as being not enlightened. But if the same person says women have smaller premotor area that is important for math skills and hence women cannot do math, you are likely to believe him/her more. Addition of just a few neuroscience terms all of a sudden makes the same claim somehow more credible – even more so if it is accompanied with colorful fMRI pictures. Neurosexism has fateful societal impacts because hearing sexist ideas like men are less emotional and women are less logical being supported by “science” promotes stereotypes and self doubt in both the genders. I completely agree with Fine that in cases like this neuroscience is being misused to support claims of people promoting sexist thoughts. Even someone who has taken a introductory course in neuroimaging knows that most often fMRI and other brain scans are correlative and not causative. This means that variation in brain structures are due to many unknown reasons and one of these might happen to be sex. Also there is a huge amount of variation between two male or two female brains. Thus, showing red, blue dots in a brain does not lend support to gender stereotypes. I agree with Fine when she says neuroscientists have to be cautious while interpreting their findings for the general public.
However, I do not agree with her in all issues. Her stance seems to be that because there is a lot of interaction between biology and society in sex differences and no clear consensus, scientists should do away with the research of sex differences altogether. The rationale for doing any kind of research is to understand more of something that is unknown and not to shove it under the carpet because we don’t know about it. Why is her stance not to invest more resources to explore the neuroscience of sex differences by conducting more robust experiments that takes into account both environmental and biological nuances? Recently, I met with Dr. Margaret McCarthy, a well-known scientist studying the biological basis of sex differences. She explained to me even years after discovery of the different hormonal roles in sexes much is needed to be done. Dr. McCarthy is, however, one of the few scientists working in the field. Studying biological differences in sex will prevent research being conducted in male animals and the result being generalized to both male and female (this is most often the case now). Perhaps it would be better if books like Fine’s “Delusion of Gender” called for more research in the field to better understand the different evidence of sex differences seen in the literature.
I do think neuroscientists need to share more of their findings in simple lay terms so that popular newspapers don’t misuse their data and I would like to know more about how environment and gender interact to create sex differences. I would also like to see more discussion of terms like “neurosexism” in scientific database. If the search of the word “neurosexism” in PubMed yields only 3 hits how can we promote a interdisciplinary world of research?