Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

Gender Defiance – The Female Brain is. . .what, exactly?

Posted on May 9, 2011 in Feminism, Gender | 4 comments

As an undergrad majoring in neuroscience, I participated in more than my share of psychology studies.  These were requirements for all psych & neuro students, ensuring our peers would have plenty of subjects for our various projects and papers.  These studies were pretty much what you’d expect: simple memory tests, lie-detectors, cooperative learning tests, spacial recognition, etc.

As a 101 student two of the first things you learn about gender are * Women have better verbal skills  * Men have better spacial skills.  This is nearly always presented as an “innate” gender difference.  Studies cite examples from early childhood development: girls start talking earlier and tend towards larger vocabularies; boys move around more and prefer playing with blocks and sports.  And while verbal skills for boys tend to catch up to girls with age, girls never seem to gain the spatial skills necessary to put them on par with boys.

This is such ubiquitous set of facts, it’s pretty much taken for granted in psychology.  Spatial recognition, too, because it is such a great divider, is often what the tool used to understand “gendered brains” in general.

If you control for sexual orientation, things get really interesting.

(Note: I’m not using data below because 1. I’m not interested in hunting it down and 2. I’d like to show you how I was presented with this information in my own classes, sans data.)

One of the most common spatial skill tests is that of object rotation.  A subject is presented with two pictures of unfamiliar objects, and must report whether, if rotated, the images match.  Like this:

A rotation testIn general, if you plot the correct responses to such a test on a scale of terrible to perfect, parsing out gender, you’ll see something like this:

Scale of performance on rotation test with women at average and men at above-average

Now, if you parse it further, according to self-reported sexual orientation, where you do think gay men will fall on this scale?

Any guesses?

Rotation test - gay men performing in between women and straight men

Ding ding ding!  Yep! Gay men tend to score a little better than women but worse than straight men.  Okay, so that may be expected based on our stereotypes, right?

Okay, so then what about lesbians?  If gay men are “something between” straight men and women, then lesbians must be too, right?

Rotation test - lesbians scoring worse than all othersWRONG.  Lesbians are typically dreadful at this test.

Using the social assessments so often thrown at gender studies it’s easy to come to simple conclusions like:

  • Men are masculine
  • Men are good at spacial reckoning.
  • Gay men are less masculine than men, but more masculine than women.
  • Women are more feminine than gay men.
  • Gay women are more feminine than women.

Weird, right?

Well, yes, it’s weird, but for plenty more confounding reasons than simple ones.

There’s this thing called “stereotype threat.”  It’s an anxiety, whether conscious or subconscious, that a person who belongs to a group, when tested, will confirm the social stereotypes about that group.  In this case, it’s pretty common knowledge that men are considered to be better at spacial reckoning than women.  So, understanding stereotype threat, it’s no surprise that men outperform everyone.

What about lesbians then? Well, it could be that lesbians don’t give two shits about whether they outperform men on these tests.  Or, maybe lesbians are even more susceptible to the stereotypes that condemn women’s skills in spacial tests.

So, knowing that I’m both 1) a woman and 2) pretty gay, where did I end up on these tests?

What in the hey?!

Yep, I rock so hard at rotation tests. I also rock at water line tests, puzzles, and pretty much all the other spacial reckoning tests I’ve taken.  And no, I was never a field-sport athlete, I’m not an architect, and I’m crap at physics.   So. . . what gives?

My hypothesis?  Defiance.

Growing up, I always liked to buck gender assumptions for the hell of it.  In my Catholic school, I was the only girl to wear pants (Those Ohio winters were cold. Why the fuck would I wear a skirt?!). I always chose the boys’ role in school plays and chose to play with the boys at recess.

Did I want to be a boy? Nah, not really.  But I saw from a very young age what male privilege looked like and I wanted it. Playing with boys’ toys, wearing boys’ clothes, talking like a boy, etc, these things were rewarded by society two-fold: 1) I got the ease of moving through the world with a little more authority thanks to my comfortable shoes and mental/emotional investment in things like science and 2) Society says tom-boys are cute.  Double win.

This stuck with me through college, so whenever I got a whiff of gendered studies happening (and I’m pretty good at detecting the purpose of a psych study too, which often made me an asshole-ish outlier) I decided I was going to ROCK at that shit.  I would double up my efforts at math, spacial reckoning, and dumb down my supposedly feminine traits like empathy.  Perhaps because of cold-blooded neuroscience-major disdain for psychology, I decided I’d be the chick who didn’t behave according to traditional psych rules.

Stereotype threat says that I’d be so nervous about confirming gender stereotypes, that I’d ultimately succumb to them.  Instead, I subverted them.

The point of this post isn’t about how great I am at noticing whether your cufflinks match.

It’s that even the innocuous factoids, these taken-for-granted ideas of gendered brains, are largely bullshit. You can mold results by merely priming subjects with information (“By the way, it’s okay if you don’t do well on this test, most girls don’t.”)  or even by reminding people of the stereotypes associated with their gender (“Male or Female? Please check one box. Good now proceed to calculus problem #1.”).  I molded the results by refusing to put up with their bullshit studies. I don’t have a “male brain;” I have a brain in the body of a female who hates bad science so much she’ll try even harder to prove that your study is bullshit.  My defiance in the face of the stereotype threat made me an outlier.  And I’d be willing to guess it’d work for pretty much anyone.

It works the other way, too.  Men are bred to compete in our society and they’re pretty damn aware of how good they’re supposed to be at math, science, etc.  So, put them in front of a test that’s supposed to measure how “manly” they are, and you BET they’ll work hard to prove it.

Tests like these are so fraught with confounding variables, it’s nearly impossible to get a clean data set that represents anything like concrete facts.  Everything from self-reporting to the gender of the test administrator can spin simple psych tests into the ineffable zone of socialized behavior patterns. In short, most everything we know about gendered brains is wrong.

To learn more about studies like this and the terms I use, check out the fantastic book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.  I was fortunate to have first hand experience with the stench of bad pop-psychology, but plenty of folks take at face value everything that Psychology Today tells them is true.  Delusions of Gender will give you some ammo for destroying those hot-air balloons of bad science.



Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. jayparry

    “Women have better at verbal skills” eh? Easy for you to say. Where did you fall on THAT test?

  2. Allison

    har har. fixed it.

  3. Jessica Rabbit

    I rocked the spatial tests too 😉 I enjoyed this essay; brings me back to studying sex and gender in college. What’s interesting is that even within the studies people are citing the differences are only in the outliers. There is much more deviation between men alone than between men and women. It’s like the media, we want the story so we pick it out.

  4. Lisa Featherston

    Great post! I should point out though, despite your “cold-blooded neuroscience-major disdain for psychology”, every single issue you’ve mentioned here is pure psychology-based. Stereotypes are founded in social psychology, most people conform to stereotypes because of social psychology, and your insistence to resist those labels in defiance is definitely based on a conscious rejection to conform which is deliberate individual psychology and not genetics. (Though your tenacity might be genetic, lol)

    I’m in agreement with you and I am in the field of forensic psychology so I experience the belief that societal labeling can be found as an origin for most gender performance norms or presumptions.

    A study was done more than a decade ago whereby video cameras were installed in Jr. High classrooms to try and determine how kids learn in the classroom environment and a surprising result came out of it that showed overwhelmingly that the teacher’s own misguided belief that males were better at math and science than females dictated her attention toward her students.

    She systematically favored the boys in every course of study and especially in math and science while the females were left to their own devices. Even in the study of vocabulary and literature, the teachers favored the males. They were overwhelmingly found to “correct” the females mistakes while “praising” the males for their performances. They called on the males much more often, personally directed them one on one, and offered much more gentle correction while the females in nearly every area were again, left to their own devices on every subject. And yet in every study I am aware of, females always scored higher overall in intellect than males. No offense guys but there’s a lesson to be learned here.

    It seems very obvious to me that males are directed in areas of mechanical and mathematical problem-solving but the added attention overall that they receive in the classroom has a backfiring affect. Rather than helping to enhance their verbal skills, their aggressiveness and need for attention or reward is complimented and by the teachers/society, but ignoring females historically hinders their progress in areas they would otherwise excel in such as spacial relations. It’s not exactly unreasonable that females are much better drivers than males, a task that requires complex spacial reasoning and yet society tries really hard to convince us that women drivers are horrible. Ask any insurance agent why males pay a higher premium and you will find they statistically cause many more accidence, but is it because women are actually better at spacial reasoning? No… it’s because their aggressive nature (which has been nurtured) does more of the driving for them than their spacial-capable brains.

    One can see that even in the youngest ages, society nurtures the male spacial abilities. Compare the typical “boy-toys” to the typical “girl-toys”. I was pretty much a Tomboy growing up and my biggest and earliest complaint was that the boy’s toys did stuff while girls’ toys were boring. In spacial reasoning, being able to analyze complex movements, rotations, and visual measuring skills are paramount but just how much of these skills are required in using a doll (even a jointed doll) or a tea party? Boys commonly are given multifaceted action figures, puzzles, and toys with many moving parts. Its really no wonder girls are better at verbal skills because with such boring toys, all they have to occupy them is talking and singing. It’s reasonable to see why boys are quieter and yet better at figuring out mechanical devices…. they’ve been familiar with complex objects since day one and because of the toys complexities, who has time to talk?

    But before we decide girls are just as good as boys “if they are determined to be despite stereotypes”, we might want to use psychology to rectify the existing imbalance by eliminated the lie that boys are better than girls in any way, shape, or form and trian the teachers AND parents that to succeed, girls need recognition and attention too. My parents finally caught on to my misery with the dolls and dresses and started giving me the action figures and race tracks and I too score off the charges in spacial reasoning. Personally, I think they just finally tapped into an ability that was there all along.

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