Gender on the Brain: Neuroscience, Stereotypes, & Science Communication

brain-gender-stereotypeCliodnha O’Connor and Helene Joffe out of the Division of Psychology & Language Sciences at University College London have conducted an interesting analysis of how public audiences have responded to research on neurobiological sexual dimorphism, Gender on the Brain: A Case Study of Science Communication in the New Media Environment.

Using a 2013 PNAS article titled Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain as case study, the authors “tracked the journey of the PNAS research from its initial scientific publication, through a university-issued press release, into its reception in the traditional news media, online reader comments and blog entries.” Acccording to the abstract, their analysese “suggested that scientific research on sex difference offers an opportunity to rehearse abiding cultural understandings of gender. In both scientific and popular contexts, traditional gender stereotypes were projected onto the novel scientific information, which was harnessed to demonstrate the factual truth and normative legitimacy of these beliefs.”

In a London School of Economics and Political Science Blog post, O’Connor elucidates the highlights of their piece: 

  • In spite of the fact that neuroscientific research on gender dimorphism can continue to interrupt biomedicine’s adoption of the male body as the norm, which historically has disadvantaged women, such work has also routinely presumed a simplistic gender binary in research design and interpretation; ignored large within-sex variation in favour of emphasising small differences between the sexes; and privileged determinist biogenetic explanations for brain differences over the equally plausible explanation that plastic brains are shaped by systematically different sociocultural experience.
  • These biases in the scientific conduct of many sex difference studies tend to become compounded when the research enters wider society. All too often, as this research moves through the public sphere it becomes not just descriptive, but prescriptive.  By framing gender differences as biological inevitabilities, this type of neuro-discourse can sanction and sustain prevailing gender hierarchies.
  • For instance, although the original scientific article did not report any behavioural data, within it the authors speculated that their neuroimaging results underpinned a host of gender differences in cognition and behaviour (e.g. explaining men’s supposedly superior sensorimotor skills and women’s ‘intuition’).
  • In the realm of public uptake of such interpretive bias, the analysis suggests that a press release can be a ‘point of no return’ in dictating the direction of media coverage of a scientific study. In this case, as the press release was often journalists’ sole source, information that was lost between the scientific article and its press release rarely resurfaced, while topics that were newly introduced in the press release could develop into focal points of media coverage. In the traditional media in particular, dependence on the press release gave rise to highly standardized coverage across media outlets.
  • The press release and subsequent media coverage went further than the original research in explicitly describing the research as a validation of existing gender stereotypes, and linking it to behaviour differences never mentioned in the PNAS article (for example, women’s purported affinity for ‘multitasking’ and parenting, and men’s greater powers of rationality). Thus, the authority of science was harnessed to portray traditional gender stereotypes as factually true, biologically inevitable and socially legitimate.
  • However, the analysis also illustrated the importance of the internet in diversifying public discussion of science, including both the circulation of pejorative or reactionary statements that would not satisfy the editorial restrictions of more formal media outlets, and more nuanced and inclusive debate about the social implications of the research, and its potential to perpetuate gender stereotypes and inequalities
  • “Finally, the analysis highlights the limitations of conceptualizing science communication in terms of a ‘pure’ science that is set against a biased media. The scientific paper itself and its university-issued press release contained numerous instances of unwarranted extrapolation from the data collected. It was also notable that some of the more dubious features of media coverage, such as the claim that the data explained women’s greater affinity for parenting, were apparently fuelled by quotes the researchers themselves provided to journalists. Cultural models of gender do not vanish when a citizen puts their scientist hat on: these cultural understandings persist in the presuppositions that guide the selection, pursuit and interpretation of scientific questions. We need to begin cultivating awareness of how gender stereotypes become reified by these constant feedback-loops between the understandings of science and society.”