We shall overcome


I spent last Friday afternoon at the first in a long line of Christmas lunches, which I spent (enjoyably) arguing about feminism with the PR guy beside me. People like to argue about feminism with me quite a lot, since we started doing The F Word on RTE Today every Tuesday.

Because it happens so often, I am always ready for a good debate on what women want. The glass of wine I’d just had didn’t hurt either. Off I went, citing statistics, worldwide studies and, of course, Twitter.

One of his questions, ‘Can we not just stop pretending men and women are the same?’, did strike a chord. Of course men and women are not the same, I said. Nobody ever said they were. This is a common misapprehension people have with feminism – it’s not that women want to be the same as men – we just want to be valued equally. Slight difference.

And lo and behold, on Monday, the University of Pennsylvania released the results of a new study which proves that men and women’s brains are wired differently. Shocker!

They examined the brain scans of 1,000 men and women aged between 19 and 22 to see how activity was mapped, and how the different functions interact with one another.

One of the researchers, Ragini Verma, told the Guardian that it was “surprising” how much the findings backed up old stereotypes. Now, I’m no scientist . But I’m not the least bit surprised. (That’d be the women’s intuition).

All these stereotypes, you see, haven’t appeared out of nowhere.

According to the study, “Males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills.”

So that whole thing about women drivers… unfortunately, there may be something to it. Motor activities doesn’t necessarily mean driving, of course, but spatial awareness is certainly important for road positioning and parking.

Likewise, there could be a grain of truth to the old trope of men not being able to multitask. They can multitask, but not across the cerebellum.

So they are not as good at activities that involve both logic and intuition, for example knowing that the socks are kept in the hot press (logic), and guessing that they may have been moved to accommodate the Christmas tablecloth that will just have been taken out of the attic and washed ahead of the festivities (intuition).

The reason for this is that women have more of an ability to connect functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. So logic and intuition – opposite sides – can interact. That’s fairly useful, you’d think, for most jobs, particularly people-orientated ones.

But it happens less for men, who are better able to link functions that happen within the same hemisphere – for example spatial awareness and motor skills. Also fairly useful – especially if you’re a pilot, a hairdresser or, in fact, a brain surgeon.

Because I’m not a brain surgeon, I don’t know if there are changes to how the brain operates as we age. Or if the type of toys we give small kids can help them learn to overcome biological differences – by giving Meccano to girls, for example, and toy irons to little boys.

I don’t know if you can teach the brain to have better spatial awareness.

What I do know is that my parking has improved with practice, and my dad’s ability to search the hot press has improved dramatically since my mother had surgery that temporarily stopped her going upstairs.

Surely, in an age of cosmetic surgery, gender reassignment, laser eye surgery and other medical miracles, this, too, we shall overcome?

From The Herald, 5 December 2013.

NB:  This piece was written for the Herald in the immediate aftermath of the study being released. I had read about it on the original website where it was published, as well as on The GuardianThe Independent, etc. Since then, I have seen this blogpost on ‘neurosexism’ (h/t @faduda). I had never come across this concept before but it has been written about rather a lot by Cordelia Fine at the University of Melbourne, and the post more or less confirms my hopes, expressed at the end of the piece, that we can overcome this alleged ‘hardwiring’ through socialisation, or ‘nurture’. Phew.

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