What It Means for Women: Gender Differences in Brain Research
Last summer, DoubleXEconomy was asked by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to do an assessment of the claims being made in the popular media about brain research. The reports claimed to intrinsic, biologically-based differences in female versus male cognitive abilities, especially in math and science.
IFC asked us to prepare the report because the belief might affect the financial inclusion program we were working with them to develop. Later, we talked about the issue with other professionals doing women’s empowerment work within other respected organisations. We learned, to our dismay, that this erroneous belief is standing in the way of progress on multiple fronts.
We decided it was enough of a problem that we wanted to publish the report and asked IFC for permission to do so. We are delighted that they have agreed.
Highlights are listed below. In the attached report, the full citations, as well as further explanation, are given.
This research paper was supported by the Financial Institutions Group (FIG) of IFC, a member of the World Bank Group in Europe Middle East and North Africa. The research is part of a larger library of resources that DoubleXEconomy had put together to support the “Gender Intelligence to Banks” training program which IFC produced under its Women Banking Champions program. The training program is a key component of IFC’s Banking on Women Advisory Services proposition and is used to help its partner banks instill the business case for lending to women owned enterprises. It also helps raise awareness on how their sales and service practices can be more inclusive of women.
Studies proclaiming innate sex differences in the brain are highly controversial on both scientific and ethical grounds within neuroscience.
The actual performance data for women on cognitive tasks, including mathematical skills, shows all but one of the gender gaps have been closed in the United States, the nation that once acted as the basis for most claims of female underperformance. The only remaining gap, spatial reasoning, has been shown to be responsive to training and is thus not attributable to innate differences.
Globally, math performance by females varies closely with the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, showing better performance in countries with high equality and poorer scores in nations where there is more inequality.
This variation in scores, across cultures and over time, is commensurate with the prevailing scientific understanding of the brain, which holds that most of the brain’s activity is guided by connections and pathways formed by learning, experience, and social arrangements.
By far, the main story is that males and females are more similar than different. And, average differences are usually only observable at the group level, in very large samples, and should not guide the treatment of individuals.
Other measures of attitudes, interests, behaviors, and preferences show a similar scheme: discernable average differences at the group level, probably due to socialization (and the resulting brain maps), but variation so high that these findings are inapplicable at the individual or small group level, such as in employment and education decisions.
Based on the trajectory of research to date, the chance is quite high that any study claiming a biological basis for discrepancies in cognitive performance due to sex will be disproven by subsequent studies.
Nevertheless, there remains a strong tendency for some scientists, the media, and the public to want a difference in biology present at birth to account for male and female performance or behavior. Consequently, isolated studies that purport to show such a difference are often highly publicized and they influence decision-making.
An ethical debate has arisen among neuroscientists over concerns that publicized, but dubious claims about brain differences will actually change the way that schools and employers treat females, thus reversing the gains—both in performance and in the brain—that have been documented.
Attention to this subject has caused the topic of stereotype threat to gain scope and urgency. Studies show that the best female candidates are the most affected by stereotype threat.
We advise that professionals in policy roles should be extremely cautious about allowing sensational findings about brain differences to influence large-scale practices and programs.
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