No wonder, then, that reading Gina Rippon’s careful and prolonged demolition of the myth of the “female brain” left me with a powerful sense of relief. Here, at last, are things I’ve long felt instinctively to be true, presented as demonstrable facts... The science in Rippon’s book is complex and multilayered. But she looks, too, at the pernicious influence of psychobabble. Evolutionary psychology comes in for something of a kicking, as do adherents of Freudian doctrines. She is brilliant on baby brains: on the reasons why, say, children may appear to prefer gendered toys, baby girls recognise faces more easily, and baby boys walk earlier.
Rippon’s book goes into an extensive examination of the science related to our brain — from hormones and psychology to the malleable “plasticity” of babies’ brains, the effects of living in a gendered world and the chilly climate for women in areas such as maths, physics and engineering. The context and examples cited throughout are fascinating — from the Tomboy Index to how playing Tetris can easily change the results of a mental rotation performance study — and show that “brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners.”
It's poignant reviewing a book after it’s been debunked, but that’s the case, I fear, with Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain. She is a professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University and her gist is that there is no proven difference between boys’ and girls’ brains: sex differences come from our terrifically adaptable brains responding to social conditions... [E]ven after we’ve made every allowance for historical conditioning, on which Rippon is eloquent, there do seem to be general differences between the sexes which cause girls, say, to gossip about their friends and boys to play Warhammer. And the differences don’t all go one way: men are far more inclined to commit acts of violence (unlike Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I can’t see female violence as empowering)… is it conditioning, testosterone, neurology or a mix? This book doesn’t, alas, prove that these things are all in the mind, nor that they are in the brain: what it actually shows, in clunking prose, is that you shouldn’t subordinate evidence to argument.
This is not the easiest read, but it will reward those willing to put in the effort. My concern is that this means she will mostly be preaching to the converted: I’d like those dinosaurs in the labs offering John more money than Jennifer to read it. The book will put weapons in the arsenal of those trying to tackle sexism, though: allowing them to respond that there’s no such thing as a “female” or “male” brain: “it’s socialisation, stupid.”
The Gendered Brain is one of those books that should be essential reading before anyone is allowed to be a teacher, or buy a child a present, or comment on anything on Twitter, ever again … but my fear is that Rippon is preaching to the choir. That said, all systemising brains out there owe it to themselves to read this calm and logical collection of evidence and science, and all empathisers will understand its importance.