For generations, people have been discussing the cognitive differences, or lack thereof, between a woman’s brain and man’s brain. For many years, under patriarchal social systems, the received wisdom was that men and women thought in quantitatively different ways and, quite simply, that men had naturally greater intellectual prowess. This widely held view (together with the idea that academic achievement could damage women’s fertility, and similar notions) was used to justify the exclusion of women from most education and the vast majority of professions, with the result that poor women were only qualified for menial work, and wealthy women did not usually work at all. Of course, the fact that women were typically much less educated than men only enhanced the view that they were naturally less inclined to deep thinking. The few women who managed to acquire an education, like surgeon James (Margaret) Barry, often had to literally disguise themselves as men to do so.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, women gradually started to gain access to greater levels of education, and now it is perfectly clear that women are in no way the intellectual inferiors of men. In fact, in the UK today, more women than men graduate from university. So where does that leave the idea that women’s and men’s brains are radically different from one another?
Research shows that there are broad general tendencies between how men and women process knowledge, think, and arrive at conclusions. While that indicates that there may be some general differences between women’s and men’s brains, research also shows that differences are far greater within each category of biological sex than between women and men per se. Moreover, unlike other organs, the brain is ‘plastic’, which means that it continues to grow and develop throughout the course of our lives and doesn’t stop growing once we reach adulthood. This in turn means that it’s very difficult to tell if observed differences between women’s and men’s brains are because of their sex, or because of the different types of experiences they have had as they go through life.
So, can we really say that there is such a thing as a ‘man’s brain’ or a ‘woman’s brain’? The answer is both yes and no. If you are a man, you have a man’s brain, just as you have a man’s liver and a man’s set of kidneys. If you are a woman, you have a woman’s. Differences between the way you and other people think are more individual than anything else—your biological sex or feelings of gender are not the most important influences on your brain’s function by a long shot; no pathologist can look at a brain and tell if it came from a man or a woman. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what ‘sort’ of brain anyone has. What really matters is how they use it!
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