12 Angry Men’ by Reginald Rose, which is about a 12-man jury deciding the fate of a teenage boy from a city slum who has been accused of murder. Setting aside the dire sexism of the play (an all-male jury; it was made in 1957), it is a wonderful portrayal of human nature, leaders and followers. Over the course of the play, one member of the jury (Henry Fonda) convinces all the others, one by one, that they shouldn’t automatically assume the defendant is guilty. He unpicks every piece of apparent evidence, revealing it to be unreliable, while exposing the prejudices of the jury which underlie their assumptions.
Why is this relevant? After I watched it, I thought about the issue of the science of male and female human brains. Since time began, people have assumed that men and women are fundamentally different (not only physically and hormonally, but behaviourally as well).
For example, in the late 19th century, Henry Maudsley, eminent psychiatrist, said that “a woman does not easily regain the vital energy that was recklessly spent on learning”.
This assumption, which persists over time, has led to, reinforced and backed up stereotyping of male and female roles in society; for example, women are better suited to caring and empathetic roles, such as nursing; men are more suited to competitive and leadership roles, such as business leaders and politicians.
At a closer look at the scientific evidence, we find a different story. Although there are some studies that show there may be differences, there is no general consensus – and I wrote about here when the magazine Scientific American devoted a whole issue to the subject earlier this year. There are some excellent books written about this; Professor Deborah Cameron’s and Cordelia Fine’s – published just a few months ago.
Professor Cameron was a speaker at our Inspiring Leaders event in November (podcast here) and also at a fascinating controversial debate at King’s Place in London, which is podcasted by the Guardian here.
No one disputes the obvious biological differences. What are under dispute are higher cognitive differences. Some scientists do claim to have found differences but many scientists have found none. My concern about assuming that there are differences in cognitive abilities before they are actually agreed on is that this automatically leads to different treatment and expectations in society. For example, if women are assumed to be less good at maths, they will perform worse, and this negative effect of stereotyping has been demonstrated by researchers.
The scientists, such as Simon Baron Cohen, who do claim to have found differences have conducted many of their experiments on adults. In these cases, I would argue that we cannot rule out the possibility of the brain adapting over time and developing skills that are practised (and men will practise certain skills more, because that’s what’s expected of them).
Other scientists assume that, because differences have been shown to exist in animals, humans must therefore have them too. Navigational skills differences, for example, do indeed exist in animals. However, what has also been found is that the brain difference between males and females is proportional to the difference in size of territory or habitat. Therefore, in species where the male roams around alone and the female stays in a tight space, males are better at navigation. The brains are said to be ‘plastic’ and adapt over time to suit their tasks and lifestyles.
This plasticity has been shown in taxi drivers; they have a larger hippocampus - the part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals - compared with other people. The hippocampus grows larger as the taxi drivers spend more time in the job.
What if all gender differences in cognitive skills, in both animals and humans, are plastic? What if boys end up doing maths and engineering, climbing trees and the echelons of society, because that’s what society expects them to do? What if women fall into domestic roles because of all those toy tea sets and pretty pink dresses? And what if, when scientists try to test these 'natural tendencies', the results are influenced by not only the scientists' preconceptions but also those of the test subjects?
The argument against this stance – and I have begun to discuss with my neuroscientist friends – is the warning not to fall into what is known as the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ trap, which is to assume that anything other than biological equality (at a cognitive level) is bad, and that we should be thinking of positive ways to deal with the inequalities rather than insist they do not exist. I would argue back that I do not insist they do not exist – I have just not seen enough evidence to show that they do exist. And I’m concerned about thinking about ways to deal with differences (because this leads to discrimination), before they have actually been agreed on.
So I'm looking for more evidence, and very interested if anyone wants to discuss this with me. Until we have a consensus, I think it may be very dangerous to make assumptions.