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Sexism and the Brain

Sexism and the Brain

Over the past century, women have come a long way. From the women’s suffrage movement to #MeToo, women have gradually asserted their rights in society. Yet, the continuance of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the prevailing lack of women in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and government positions has shown that there remains a long road ahead for women to be considered truly equal to men. The question is: why are women constantly treated as second class citizens and does perceived biological differences play a factor?

In 2005, Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University and Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration, provoked a furor within the feminine community when he asserted that men outperform women in science and math because of genetic differences. He told the Boston Globe "research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren't due to socialization after all." After a significant backlash, Summers sent a letter of apology, which entailed a donation of “$25 million in new funds to avoid budget constraints on the appointment of outstanding scholars from underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.” However, during his presidency, the number of “tenured jobs offered to women fell from 36% to 13%.”

Summer’s remarks fueled Eileen Pollack to respond with a book: The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club.In it, sheexamines the common cultural and institutional barriers confronting women in STEM fields. According to Pollack, the statistics showed only one in five physics PhDs in the country are awarded to women and only 14% of physics professors are women. This led her to ask why? Why were women widely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math majors? 

She interviewed several women who pursued STEM majors and came across an eerily similar response. These women often felt that they had to prioritize the being a stay-at-home parent as opposed to pursuing a STEM career or risk falling under pressure from society. This outcome leads most psychologists to believe that women’s lack of progress in these fields is widely due to the “ stereotypization effect.” What this entails is that women and minorities are often made to feel that they do not belong in a particular environment, which greatly hinders their ability to focus and learn. Additionally, researchers from the University of Iowa did a study on 76 men and women of the same age, education and socioeconomic class. In this study, they found that women possess brains with predominantly thicker cortexes in the parietal lobe, which is typically associated with poorer mental rotation ability. Mental rotation ability is the ability to rotate mental representations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects. Contrastingly, men were shown to have a larger parietal lobe surface area, which is directly related to better performance on mental rotation tasks. This difference suggests that men have advantage over women when performing spatial reasoning tasks, such as understanding three dimensional objects spatial relations in respect to ourselves and space. However, Pollack says this finding should not discourage woman, as even if “small biological differences exist…they can be evened out by a brief course designed to make women and minorities feel comfortable in a lab.” Another contributing factor which deters women from reaching full capacity may be woman's own internal sexism. This perceived lack of confidence is ingrained in women as a result of social interactions, where they are consistently exposed to prejudice in the classroom or workplace. 


Yet, the results for women suggest that they, on average, perform higher on verbal memory tasks due to higher levels of temporal lobe glucose metabolic rates in their brains. This characteristic “represents a form of cognitive reserve that delays verbal memory decline,” which allows for many tasks involving storing memory and using that information when problem solving, to be performed better amongst women. 


The effects of allowing women to occupy a greater share of the workforce are staggering and uplifting.In a report by McKinsey and Company, they found that gender and ethnic diversity were closely correlated with higher profits. Women account for half of the United States population, yet only account for 37% of its GDP. The study showed that gender diversity in executive roles displayed the highest correlation to profitability as companies with more women in executives line roles result in above average financial productivity. If gender parity were drastically decreased, researchers say that by 2025 U.S. GDP could increase from 12 trillion to 28 trillion- the “equivalent to the combined U.S. and China economies today.” 


Though there are small biological differences between brain structures, this does notimpose a barrier on our intellectual capacities. Much of the disparity between genders in society can be attributed to one’s childhood, culture and education. In 1990, Janet Shibley Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, published a study which compiled the results of 100 different exercises on math performances. After collecting data from more than three million participants, the researchers found no overall difference in cognizance between genders. Interestingly, the study found that females in elementary and middle schools performed slightly better in problem solving, but, in high school, males did slightly better. The results of this study help us understand that biological brain structure only plays a small role in the overall ability of cognizance in males and females.

Furthermore, in a 2008 study on human cortical synaptic density, L. Alonso-Nanclares, J. Gonzalez-Soriano, J. R. Rodriguez, and J. DeFelipe stated that “neocortical activity is directly related with higher brain function, numerous studies have focused on the cerebral cortex when searching for possible structural correlates of cognitive gender differences.” In their research, they used electron microscopy to measure neuronal densities of various layers of the brain and found no major differences between the sexes. However, the number of synapses in each layer was greater in men than in woman. Though the study does state that although “gender appears to influence synaptic connectivity,” synaptic density may be stronger in men because society encourages men to engage in STEM fields and intellectual conquests while inadvertently causing women to stray away from it.  

The studies above directly tie into the concept of synaptic plasticity, which is the ability of synapses to weaken or strengthen over time in accordance to how much activity are imposed upon them. Through our understanding of this, we are able to gain a greater insight into memory. Memory is a vast array of connecting neural circuits, which connect using the neurotransmitter receptors on the synapses. The brain uses “memory” so that when we learn a new task or emotion, it prioritizes certain pathways over others. This process of rewiring the brain is neuroplasticity in action. As our brain ages our ability to adapt and learn new skills begins to decline. Thus, when women are discouraged from STEM at a young age, it tends to impact the rest of their lives. 

This is supported by a 2005 study by Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist at Harvard University. In it, she “reviewed 111 studies and concluded that gender differences in math and science ability have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood. Nevertheless, the studies suggested that men and women…possess an equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as six the months on tasks that underlie mathematics abilities.” Though genetics do create some differences between men and women, it does not seem to have an effect on intellectual capacity between genders. 

It can therefore be posited that gender roles within society are social constructs which dictate how we are generally expected to act based on sex. This inequality flourishes when females are typically confronted with an ideology that they should conform to the practices of the past few millennia. On the other hand, men are deemed to be dominant, intelligent, and the ones to provide financial stability. These judgements have been proven by science to not only be wrong, but also have a long-standing impact on society.  If we continue to rely upon the institutions of old, then we limit ourselves to the past as opposed to fully exploring the opportunities of the future.

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