30 July 2007

Gender in the brain

There are fewer women physicists or architects or neurosurgeons in the world than their male counterparts. And, women chess grandmasters or video-game fanatics are hard to come by. Why is it so? Well, according to research, one reason is that male and female brains differ genetically.

According to a Discover Magazine article (‘He Thinks, She Thinks’) I had referred in my previous post, the human brain functions differently for men and women. For instance, while men have greater ability in focusing intently on work and tuning out distractions (ideal for winning at chess), women are more capable than men in handling languages and at verbal and memory tasks.

Although this may explain aptitudes in specific professions that men and women excel in, genetic coding in the brain is not the only reason for gender bias or stereotypes. According to psychologists and social scientists, environmental – i.e. societal and cultural – coding is as important as our genetic make-up. In fact, our culture actually sensitises us to certain belief systems which reappear at the workplace.

Consider, for instance, belief systems which we have all grown up with: ‘a woman’s place is at home’ or ‘men are better at maths and science than women’. Or, take the matter which was commented upon in one of my earlier posts: women losing out in job negotiations due to their non-aggressive nature. These belief systems actually affect our behaviour and performance even in benign situations.

Here’s a case in point as discussed in an article, ‘Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills’ from www.psychologymatters.org:

“In a 1999 study, Steven Spencer and colleagues reported that merely telling women that a math test usually shows gender differences hurt their performance. This phenomenon of “stereotype threat” occurs when people believe they will be evaluated based on societal stereotypes about their particular group. In the study, the researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equally to men. What's more, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.

Because “stereotype threat” affected women even when the researchers said the test showed no gender differences – still flagging the possibility -- Spencer et al. believe that people may be sensitized even when a stereotype is mentioned in a benign context.”

The moral of the story is, wherever these belief systems exist, and are predominant, we tend to, automatically, go on the defensive. Particularly, in situations in which we are being evaluated: job interviews, appraisals, school and college exams, or the sports field. Sometimes, we are so sensitised by these belief systems that, although untrue, we prefer to conform to these systems than to challenge them. It is as if our brains are hardwired to perform in a predicated manner.


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