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Sex Difference Research: Neurosexism or Necessary?

“A gendered world will produce a gendered brain,” Gina Rippon, a British neuroscientist, proclaims. Famous for her books, The Gendered Brain and Gender and Our Brains, Rippon claims that there is no validity to the research on the biological basis for differences between male and female behavior. Yet, researchers continue to pursue sex difference research — why?


Since the 19th century, research results, such as the “missing five ounces” of the female brain, are used to tout the narrative of female inferiority [1]. Scientists used neuroimaging to argue that women have higher emotional processing, in turn saying that men have more white matter than women, allowing them to better focus on one single task and women to better multitask [2]. Every year, dozens of papers are published on the sex differences between men’s and women’s brains. Researchers often use these findings to make arguments in favor of an unequal society, that women are better fit for certain behaviors than men are, perpetuating stereotypes about women, also known as neurosexism. Neurosexism is a term employed to inaccurately justify the differences between men and women using biological factors. Given how easy it is to manipulate scientific research to promote harmful stereotypes, is there even a need for sex difference research?


In the aftermath of such claims, others began to study whether there truly is a difference between traditionally male and female brains. In 2010, Cordelia Fine, a British psychologist, published a book criticizing the idea of an innate difference between male and female brains, arguing instead that societal expectations and values have socialized us through the years, leading to these gendered behavior differences that we see [3].


However, while science and neuroscience research has historically been used to undermine and perpetuate harmful stereotypes against minorities, studying sex differences can be crucial. For instance, the presence of certain hormones, such as estrogen or testosterone, during development can have different effects on gene regulation in various animals [4].

The sex of the patient could affect their prognosis, which can shape the treatment they receive. For example, research on multiple sclerosis (MS) in mice found that pregnant females had protection from the disease because of a biological disease modifier of pregnancy, a key finding the researchers wouldn’t have noticed if their research was only conducted in male mice. Sex differences, if studied with the right intentions and presented in an objective and factual manner, can be beneficial in understanding more behind these differences. It could allow for research to be conducted as accurately as possible [5]. MS is just one example among countless diseases where males and females have different prognoses. For instance, stroke is another good example of how scientists have found that drugs that work in women don’t always work in men.


This type of sex difference research focuses on understanding the difference in the biological basis of disease rather than the difference in behavior. This is a key distinction to be made. Biological focus makes it easier to separate sex differences from the gender norms placed by society — as Fine argues, the reasoning for the behavioral differences between the two sexes.


Ultimately, an underlying biological difference between the two sexes leads to the different effects of the same disorder [6]. Medicine cannot follow a one-size fits all approach, as every person is different, including on the biological level.


Women and men are not the same, but a difference doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. Difference should not and does not mean inequality.


While this is true, scientists must be cautious about the language they use to describe their research and the results they find, because it can be very easy for those results to be misconstrued and represented. This issue extends beyond discrimination against women; the process and portrayal of scientific research can directly affect the transgender community [7]. The language used to associate certain traits with a particular sex or gender draws attention away from the true biological mechanism. We have to realize that many of the traits associated with one sex or the other and the categorizations of genders are largely socially constructed. Precise language must be used when researching sex differences “that focuses on the variables themselves” while “acknowledging that people express these variables in ways that may not conform” [7]. Scientists in the past have allowed for societal norms to cloud the way that they interpret and present their research, which is what led to the sexist spin of sex difference research.


The dangers that studying sex differences can pose — including the opportunity for misuse — often permeate much of the work in the scientific field. It remains important for the researchers to identify the differences between each person and the potential impact of their sex while still being careful with how their research is presented and the language that they use. Sex difference research can easily be warped to fit the narrative that members of society would like to promote; it is imperative that scientists be vigilant in their research, while also presenting their findings clearly to avoid harmful misinterpretations.


References

  1. Eliot, L. (2019). Neurosexism: the myth that men and women have different brains. Nature, 566(7745), 453–454. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00677-x

  2. Hoffman, G. A., and Bluhm, R. (2016) Neurosexism and Neurofeminism. Philosophy Compass, 11: 716– 729. doi: 10.1111/phc3.12357.

  3. Dionisos, Christie, "Neurosexism: The Extent to Which Sex and Gender Differences in Mental Illness are Neurologically Explained versus Socially Constructed" (2019). Honors Theses. 2288. https://digitalworks.union.edu/theses/2288

  4. Gegenhuber, B., Wu, M. V., Bronstein, R., & Tollkuhn, J. (2022). Gene regulation by gonadal hormone receptors underlies brain sex differences. Nature, 606(7912), 153–159. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04686-1

  5. Golden, L. C., & Voskuhl, R. (2017). The importance of studying sex differences in disease: The example of multiple sclerosis. Journal of neuroscience research, 95(1-2), 633–643. https://doi.org/10.1002/jnr.23955

  6. Galea, L., Choleris, E., Albert, A., McCarthy, M. M., & Sohrabji, F. (2020). The promises and pitfalls of sex difference research. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 56, 100817. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2019.100817

  7. Miyagi, M., Guthman, E. M., & Sun, S. D.-K. (2021). Transgender rights rely on inclusive language. Science, 374(6575), 1568–1569. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abn3759

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