Parenting: Why boys should play with dolls, and girls be thrown off a pole
Updated: Oct 22, 2022
Oh, how tiring the old clichés when it comes to how men and women are supposedly 'hardwired' to be like! You know the drill: women portrayed as 'naturally' empathetic, sexually very choosy, and caring/ nurturing, whereas men are to be assertive, risk taking, sexually promiscuous, and obsessed with social status/ dominance to the point of competing for alpha position in any given situation. *sigh*
These clichés, sadly, are not only limited to behaviours. They spill over intelligence and the cognitive abilities involved in intelligence too, for instance when portraying boys and men as better suited for visuo-spatial tasks, while women are for that involving linguistic/ interpersonal relationships ones. It's a reductionist view, relying on a no less reductionist/ simplistic logic, that according to which they are 'innate' sex differences when it comes to brain structures (that is, already present in the womb), and that these brain structures will go on to affect behaviours, interests, inclinations and skills in later life, from our favourite toys to the career we choose.
In some parts of the scientific literature, this view has come to be dubbed 'the gendered brain' paradigm. Simon Baron-Cohen, for instance, one of its most popular proponents, asserts that women tend to be 'naturally' hardwired to be 'empathisers' (valuing feelings/ emotions, people, and relationships) whereas men are to be 'systemisers' (valuing, on the contrary, analytical thinking, systems, and tasks). In the entertainment and pop psycho-babble industry that came to echo it, it's known as the 'men are from Mars/ women are from Venus' model, a hint to John Gray's best-selling title and in which the same blunt yet unhelpful dichotomy is put forward (women are naturally talk-active and emotional, men stoic and problem-solvers).
Wherever: it's utterly bogus.
Now, of course (duh!) there ARE sex differences between men and women, for instance when it comes to reproductive organs. The issue, though, is that when it comes to hormones, genes, and brain structure in utero, such differences make no impact whatsoever upon our preferences, attitudes, and mindset. And, to understand how this work, we need here to disentangle a few fallacies.
First, there is a problem with the assumptions made to defend such dichotomy. For example, one of the commonest arguments found to defend it are the different career choices made by men and women. Men, we are told, go towards jobs strictly labelled as being 'systemising' (STEM, politics) while women, on the contrary, either go towards ones labelled as 'empathising' (nursing, teaching) or, chose the 'comfort' of domesticity and childrearing/motherhood instead. What is very striking here, and right from the get-go, is how this binary model makes but a caricature of the jobs in question.
Nursing, for instance, might conjure up images of a caring, compassionate, and nurturing figure, concerned about others' sufferings and feelings (an 'empathiser', then). Yet, a nurse would never be allowed to handle patients without having a solid understanding of medical sciences in the first place that is, a field and set of skills relying fully on what is a 'systemising' brain. Likewise, the 19th century French psychiatrists who revolutionised our treating of people with mental disorders surely were 'systemisers' based on their theoretical work, yet such work would have been impossible without their first-hand and frontline, compassionate, caring, dedication to the patients entrusted into their care (that is, an 'empathising' nature), especially at a time when such care was, elsewhere and otherwise, synonym with ostracism and abuse.
Why, then, would the empathising side of a nurse be magnified over her systemising one? Why, on the contrary, the systemising nature of some other practitioners would be pushed forth, as opposed to their no less empathising aspects?
The answer, of course, is that such cherry-picking in focus has nothing to do with biology. Nurses are usually women, and so will be judged (consciously or not) as per gender expectations when it comes to what it means to be a woman (caring, nurturing, empathetic) like men will be judged (consciously or not) by what it means to 'be a man' (analytical, system-builder, problem-solver). Put bluntly: this average neurological binary has nothing to do with nature, but everything to do with how femininity and masculinity have been culturally defined in the first place. It is, in other words, about looking only at what one wants to see (problem-solving skills in men, empathy in women) to serve a confirmation bias: men are more likely to be problem-solvers, and women to be empaths. That such traits run throughout both populations equally (and even within the varying professions they choose) is completely, and conveniently, brushed over.
But is such confirmation bias scientifically valid?
I am a man. It's common knowledge that men have been culturally encouraged (dare I say, 'socially hardwired') to embody some key values. Brett and Kate MacKey, for instance, have narrowed them down to what they call '7 manly virtues': manliness, from which flow courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, and honour. It's common sense, too, that such key values/ virtues are not, in and of themselves, 'innately' male. Women too, of course, can be courageous, industrious, resolute, self-reliant, disciplined, and honourable; the same way, in fact, that men can be gentle, kind, compassionate, sweet, nurturing, caring, and devoted, all key traits culturally associated with women and womanhood. When it comes to character, nothing is either/ or. On the contrary, and again, our predispositions overlap, regardless of gender.
The thing is that such overlapping is not limited to character, but to intelligence too, and, especially, brain development. It has indeed been proven, time and again, that none of the preferences, skills, and abilities we associate with specific brain structures are 'gendered', let alone 'fixed', because 'innate'.
When studying a foetus, for instance, you can look at brain structure for as long as you want, not only it won't allow you to determine whether it will develop as a boy or a girl (we don't rely on neuro-imagery to find out the sex of a baby, and that's for a reason...) but you won't find any average predispositions either that would allow you to claim that 'this future baby is geared towards action and logic, this one towards relationships and feelings' either. Sex differences in the brain, in fact, are so ungendered in utero, that to rely on them to do so would be as useful as to rely on craniometry to determine what career or not one is better suited for.
The scientific literature, of course, fully acknowledges so. Rebecca Jordan-Young, for instance, is one of these tireless neuroscientists who has painstakingly combed through it, only to find that the vast amount of research does *not* support the 'male brain vs female brain' hypothesis. Gina Rippon, who has also delved into vast amounts of research to also find it overwhelmingly unsupportive of such reductionism, came to call such model nothing but 'neurotrash'. She echoed Cordelia Fine who, also on the lookout, found nothing either to seriously substantiate it, but, on the contrary (and unsurprisingly maybe) plenty of gender stereotyping and prejudices to back it up, what she calls 'neurosexism' (remember our 'she' empath nurse and our 'he' mental health practitioner...). Acknowledging that there are more variations *within* male and female populations than *between*, both in temperament and cognitive skills, another neuroscientist, Daphna Joel, came in fact with a far more realistic metaphor, that of us all being part of a 'gender mosaic'.
Of course, trying to look for psychological, 'gendered' differences by relying on physiological ones (as if physiology determined psychology) is far from being new. Because men have on average a higher body mass than women, it was commonly accepted that they were, therefore, more likely to be aggressive and assertive, women to be coy and submissive. This was debunked only to be replaced by the idea that, since men have on average a bigger size brain than women, then they must be more intelligent as a result, hence more suitable to lead from their household to society at large. And, oh but lo and behold! The leading proponents of such views were, also, no other than men themselves, reflecting how science was, but until recently only, the prerogative of men, reflecting thus, consciously or not, deliberately or not, men's own self-serving underlying bias and prejudices (a point which was brilliantly put through by Angela Saini). Looking, now, for such differences in brain structures in utero, or in variations between hormones, or, in genetic markers (where's Wally? Keep looking!) is nothing but a modern-day version of such gender essentialism, and which smacks of past biological determinism. It is, also, clinging at straws.
The problem with the 'male/female brain' paradigm is not so much that it grossly overlooks variations within, and overlapping between, female and male populations respectively; lumping most of us, instead, into narrow gendered boxes defined by cherry-picked behaviours based, again, on nothing else than cultural expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman. The problem is that it relies on sex differences to explain cognitive abilities, and choices and behaviours, otherwise fully dependent upon cultural factors. Simon Baron-Cohen, for instance, has claimed that testosterone level in-utero can explain the better abilities of boys to understand maths, whereas Louann Brizendine (another best-selling author peddling such nonsense) claims that women have a higher rewarding dopamine system for... gossiping!
Funny? Well, when closely scrutinised, not really...
Such assertions, of course, are bogus to start with. Boys are no more likely to be better at maths than girls (in fact, girls are now outsmarting boys at it, both at GCSE and A-levels...), and, if the image of women as being gossipy is a nice pop cliché, it is, also, bogus too. At a time when a whole quack industry has developed around the Mars/ Venus nonsense, though, the mere facts that such tenets tap right into our own gender prejudices and stereotypes has also, sadly, made them very easy to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker especially by the mass medias, them never very wise when it comes to matter of scientific interest. Do you remember their fearmongering about MMR supposedly causing autism? Well, presumptuousness has now shifted, and if the 'extreme male brain theory' has done nothing to help women and girls on the spectrum, it hasn't prevented them to peddle it anyway...
If you truly want to understand the science, though, then you ought to put that copy of The Guardian or what-not aside and stop giving too much credibility to self-help gurus just because they appear on Oprah. When peer-reviewed, not only one of Baron-Cohen's most famous experiments has been shown to be crippled with flaws, but, when replicated, it has also not yielded the definite and conclusive results one would expect. As for Louann Brizendine's mumbo jumbo, here's what 'Nature' had to say about it: click here and enjoy.
The issue, though, is that such gender essentialism, no matter how much part of the zeitgeist, entertaining, and/ or profitable (Baron-Cohen has always been a darling for the medias, Brizendine's work was turned into a documentary, and there is no shortage of psycho-babbling in the vein of 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus') goes beyond misinformation. It is toxic, and harmful.
The fallacy is easy to spot. While such paradigm focuses on brain development before birth, it completely underestimates and neglects the biggest part of what makes you 'you' that is, what happen after birth. And, here, there is a key concept to be introduced: brain plasticity -the ability of the brain to change and adapt in response to learning and experiences.
Babies, of course, are not blank slate. No matter how under-developed their brains are at still an early stage, they nevertheless are 'biologically programmed' to cry, to sleep, to be hungry. What they are not 'biologically programmed' for yet, though, is how they will end up socially interacting with their surroundings, how they will emotionally develop, and what preferences and skills they will show in later life. These, because pat of learning and experiences, will come in fact from environmental inputs that is, how they will be raised, and how society will treat them. It's the reason why children growing up in bilingual/ multilingual households will develop different cognitive skills than those that don't; the reason why children being abused show different brain structures than those who aren't; the reason why, even when adults, the brain of a classically trained pianist won't have the same structure as that of a London cab driver; or why people engaging in certain activities are less likely to develop dementia that those that don't. In other words, the differences in brain structures that can be seen from individuals to individuals, or, grossly, between men and women, are not innate, but acquired, throughout a lifetime of learning and experiences.
Why does that matter?
It matters because, in our gendered society, the environmental inputs that people are put through vary widely, depending on their gender.
Nature? There is no difference between infant boys and infant girls when it comes to express distress (crying) or frustration (temper tantrums when toddlers). Nurture, though, is another story altogether.
We know that parents, consciously or not, treat their baby boys differently than their baby girls. Such differences, at this early stage, are subtle, but on such tiny, malleable brains, they make a cumulative impact indeed. More to the point is the fact that 'subtle' will vanish altogether as boys and girls grow up, and it's not only parents who are at fault, but, as Lise Eliot has shown, society at large. Anyone who has raised a child, for instance, can attest to how our tots can go through massive changes in behaviours and interests once they confront themselves to the outside world. My daughter used to play with cars, trains, fluffy toys, and diner sets with no preference whatsoever. After barely two weeks at a nursery, still aged under 2, her favourite toy became... a baby doll. There is nothing wrong with little girls playing with dolls (there is with little boys not allowed to; not only it doesn't prepare them for life skill such as fatherhood, but it doesn't foster some of the cognitive skills associated with such form of play either, yet that we, hypocritically, later claim that they were 'naturally' lacking on average in the first place... -*sigh*), but to claim that such behaviour was 'a choice', which can be somehow explained by supposedly varying hormonal levels while she was still at foetal stage is, quite frankly, baloney.
Brain plasticity, here, is what explains why, as such environmental inputs vary, so will how the brain developments of boys and girls. When boys are encouraged to roughhouse, play hand-on, dirty, and be active, we are doing wonders for their gross motor skills, proprio-reception, visuo-spatial skills, and confidence and self-confidence. Likewise, when they are discouraged to cry, to verbally express hurt, or to play with dolls, we are doing everything but helping their emotional and language development -for the issue is not only about what our children are encouraged to do, but what they are discouraged to do as well.
'Boys don't cry' and 'be a man' (the three most toxic words every man has heard ever since he is a boy, dixit, rightly, Joe Ehrmann), let alone being mocked as being 'weak' or 'pussies' should they show any vulnerability, will ultimately translate into how they deal with emotions -violence (against others and/ or themselves), mental health, suicide rates. And, worryingly, it culturally starts very early. We know that men are still four times more likely to kill themselves than women, with suicide being the first cause of death for men under 50. What is concerning, is that such worrying trend starts at age 9 already. Likewise, and as Jo-Wimble-Groves rightly reminds us, when girls are rewarded for being 'a good girl' but reprimanded for being 'bossy' or 'a madam' should they display any signs of assertiveness, it does absolutely nothing for their confidence and empowerment. This, too, translates into attitudes and how people perceive themselves, and, here too, it culturally starts worryingly early indeed-the girls feeling 'less smart' than boys at age 6 are the ones who, once grown-up, won't put themselves forward for promotions even when better qualified than a male counterpart. But...
But... rewind the tape. There was nothing 'innate' about such differences in attitudes, mindsets, perceptions, preferences, and, ultimately, cognitive skills and abilities to start with. Girls are no less pre-determined or pre-disposed to be less assertive, active, or systemiser than boys, any more than boys are more likely to suffer alexithymia or be less empathisers than girls. They are, only insofar as we, as a society, created them so.
At this point, of course, many of those still clinging to the view that such traits can be seen pre-birth, in utero, will claim that there is nothing 'deterministic' about such 'natural' perspective; that one can still subscribe to the view that such traits are innately gendered on average while reckoning that it's not because something is natural that it ought to be accepted socially. If there is anything human beings are capable of indeed, is to go against nature to set their own ethos and behaviours (and from monogamy to vegetarianism/ veganism the examples abound). This naive line of reasoning, though, seriously underestimates how prejudices and biases truly operate.
The problem with dominant, established narratives (here, that boys and girls are 'naturally' hardwired differently, ultimately impacting from attitudes and behaviours to career choices and values -e.g. who is more likely to have more empathy for others?) is that, even if you don't subscribe to them, they will still affect how you behave on a day-to-day basis. It's one thing to be aware, on an intellectual, rational, conscious level that something is false, yet it doesn't mean that it will translate on how you behave on an emotional, irrational, subconscious one. And how much of our behaviours are in fact motivated by such underlying subconscious biases?
Claiming that girls and women are, even if on average, less likely to be hardwired for STEM subjects than boys and men might be bogus, but because it has been fully internalised by us all it has led to women in STEM, themselves, being as likely to discriminate against other women as their male colleagues. Narratives matter, and, so, when they are false, it matters no less to uproot them. Accepting that boys and girls are endowed somehow with innate abilities while, in fact, it is the environmental inputs being fed to them ever since birth that will mould their brains in all areas of cognitive development (physical, emotional, social, linguistic) is no longer acceptable.
It goes beyond idiotic statements made by some snake oil sellers and profiteers like Jordan Peterson (sorry, but I fail to take seriously a guy charging the gullible to tell them what sorts of men they are) taking offense at an anime such as 'Frozen' for (gasp!!) showing a woman with consciousness and in no need of rescuing.
It strikes at the core of how we parent our kids. We can no longer afford to raise our girls to conform and be timid, over-protecting them and doing our outmost to prevent them for taking risk, and then, turn around and blame 'nature' when women turn out to be just that, that is, ending up being (on average or so we think) 'hardwired' to be more risk-averse and less assertive (for lack of a better word) than men. It is disingenuous. It is hypocritical.
It strikes at the core of the messages we constantly, relentlessly, irresponsibly, bombard our children with, from the toy industry to the popular culture (movies, cartoons, music...) and, even, the clothing industry, all reinforcing the narrow gender boxes we are trapped into. Here too, it is disingenuous -and hypocritical- to claim that our children have any sorts of choice when it comes to their interests and inclinations, when such gender expectations (the pretty, obedient girl raising a dolly, while the stoic 'boys will be boys' play superheroes) are so strongly enforced. Which girl hasn't been branded a 'tomboy' for showing interest in what marketeers defined as 'boyish'? Which boy hasn't been punished, mocked, or discouraged to play with what the same marketeers defined as 'girlie'?
It strikes, above all, at the core of social inequalities, from the lack of men in childcare and the educational sector to that of women in the corridors of Westminster and the boardrooms of corporates. Make no mistake: I have personally worked with children (including in a EYFS setting), I currently am a care support worker, and I fully support organisations defending fathers' rights. The view that men on average are innately hardwired to be less likely to be 'empathisers' than women is exactly the kind of neurotrash/ neurosexism that leads, from ignorant and prejudiced statements as that made by Andrea Leadsom recently to how men, as dads, are being prejudiced against as being less competent with raising a child than a mother (wrongly), when not framed as abusers when they want to (men, in fact, are no less likely to be domestic abusers than women -here too, another field where pseudo-science has hijacked the popular and mediatic narrative).
It strikes, in other words, at the whole sexist, obnoxious thread that runs all throughout our society, and that hurt us all.
The 'male/ female brain' paradigm surely makes for good entertainment. Its origins can be traced back to a whole gender essentialism movement that runs all the way down to us, and, from the mass medias to the whole Mars/ Venus industry there is no shortage of such shallow and flimsy 'gendered' reductionism to cater to our already deeply ingrained prejudices. The bottom line, though, is that there is nothing innate about our cognitive abilities and preferences in terms of activities. Brains develop according to the environmental inputs they are put through (learning, experiences) and career choices have nothing to do with hormonal levels in utero, but by how social pressure and socialisation nudge us towards certain fields over others. Any stance claiming otherwise is, either very presumptuous indeed (e.g. claiming a link between testosterone in utero and mathematical abilities), fraudulent (e.g. Brizendine's work as criticised by 'Nature' and elsewhere) or nothing but plain psychobabble and quackery. You want to do us all a favour? Well: 'Let it gooooo, let it gooo...'.
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