Biological explanations of differences in behavior between women and men or girls and boys are everywhere, from scientific articles to bestselling self-help books to parenting guides to diversity and inclusion workshops to Hollywood movies.[1] Often, the basic structure of such explanations is along the following lines: A study reports a difference between females and males in some neural measure (such as the size of a specific brain structure). The difference is often described as if it were binary – females are like this and males are like that – and a natural and inevitable consequence of being female or male, assumed implicitly or otherwise to be inscribed in our genes. Then, the biological difference is suggested to underlie a behavioral or psychological difference between females and males. This pattern of description and explanation can give rise to an “ah ha” feeling – now we finally understand why women and men are the way they are. But researching, understanding, and interpreting sex differences in brain and behavior is surprisingly complicated, and particularly so when humans are involved. To help everyone parse the next hot new biological explanation of female/male behavior differences, here are eight things to know, look out for, and ask, from the nitty-gritty of whether there even is a difference to the grand sweep of evolutionary explanations.

When it comes to this area of research, critiques are sometimes dismissed as “political correctness” and as interference with the scientific process. However, the point of critical inquiry is not to deny differences between the sexes, but to ensure a full understanding of the findings and meaning of any particular research report.

 

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Eight Things You Need to Know About Sex, Gender, Brains, and Behavior: A Guide for Academics, Journalists, Parents, Gender Diversity Advocates, Social Justice Warriors, Tweeters, Facebookers, and Everyone Else by by Cordelia Fine, Daphna Joel and Gina Rippon

Issue 15.2 April 2019