Boys wear blue and girls wear pink

Does gender stereotyping cause differences in capabilities between the sexes?

The effects of nature and nurture have been a constant debate throughout the history of biology. Are we born a certain way or are we shaped by our environment? Generally we find the answer is somewhere in the middle but when it comes to the brain, things can be quite flexible. The buzz word associated with the science of the brain during the last few years has been plasticity. More and more research shows that, contrary to what researchers had previously thought, our brains change continuously over the course of our lives. Our external environment and our patterns of behaviour have the ability to change its structure substantially. Having said that, it is still widely considered that when it comes to the brain, our formative learning and developmental years are during early childhood.

This brings us to the effects of gender stereotyping on the capabilities of the sexes. Every person on this earth has different talents, yet quite often a distinct line is drawn between male and female in terms of understood capability. For instance, the stereotypes that men are innately better at maths and technology, or that women are more suited to childcare or nursing are widely perpetuated even today. We should ask ourselves, is there truth to these stereotypes and if so why does it exist? Men and women are born fundamentally different after all: perhaps this is also true for their minds. But what if the way in which we treat men and women is actually the primary influence on their capacity to perform?

A recent two-part BBC television documentary took place in Lanesend Primary School on the Isle of Wight, where an experiment was carried out on a class of seven year olds. It was conducted by Dr Javid Abdelmoneim to find out more about how gender stereotyping affects children in terms of their school performance, communication, empathy and self-confidence. Initial tests before beginning the experiment showed startling results. These included the boys lacking the ability to describe emotions except for anger, the girls having a huge lack of self-belief, and both boys and girls stating very polarised stereotypes of men and women. Many of the girls said that boys were better or cleverer than girls and said that girls were good at being pretty. The boys were similar and thought that men were more successful (because they got to be president) and that girls want to get married and have children.

One of the experiments in the documentary involved two babies, Marnie and Edward, who became Oliver and Sophie respectively. The babies were placed in a room full of different toys and strangers were invited in to come and play with them. It might not be surprising to you that Sophie (actually a boy) was given typical girl toys such as dolls and soft toys, whereas Oliver (actually a girl) was given typical boy toys which were generally more mechanical. You might expect this to be harmless but in fact when children are given games like Lego that require visuospatial skills to use, after only a short period of time this changes the structure of their brain. One study had a group of girls play tetris intensively for three months, with brain scans after this period indicated a thickening of their cortex. This leads us to make an association between those socially determined games children play and their brain development which later on may affect their life and career. This may explain why a minority of scientists, mathematicians and engineers are women. Women are simply not exposed to the activities that develop certain brain centres throughout their childhood, and as a result are more likely to struggle with science and maths in school.

Influences in children’s lives may also lead to explicit statements like those Nanci in the documentary who said “Boys are cleverer because most mathematicians are boys.” A seven year old holding this opinion is not likely to believe in her own abilities, and it may mean she is discouraged from trying in maths. It’s also no surprise that women are generally more involved in childcare and household roles because from an early age they are given dolls, tea sets, toy kitchens and toy cleaning kits to play with. In fact, according to the British Office of National Statistics, women do 40% more unpaid housework, including childcare, than men do.

Rippon informs viewers that the brain structure of a male and a female are not different, but rather brains are shaped by experiences. The brain is plastic and so the experience of playing lego could shape a boys brain to suit logic-based pursuits. The experience of making narratives for dolls could shape a girl’s brain to make her more competent verbally. It seems that these gender stereotypes may have been creating people who continue to fit them. Toys however are only one small factor. What about family members who advise on hobbies, who comend and criticise, who nurture children into adulthood? What if their gender stereotypes, implicit or explicit lead to an imbalance in potential capabilities and roles in adulthood?

A study by economist Dr Seth Stephens‑Davidowitz looked into our implicit bias towards our own children. It used google search data to estimate how regularly parents search about their children. It turns out that parents are two and half times more likely to google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Even though in America, where the study was conducted, girls are 9% more likely to be in enrolled in gifted schools than boys. Parents also more frequently search whether their son is stupid than their daughters too. More worryingly still, parents were twice as likely to google, “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”. This is despite the fact that more boys are overweight than girls. Parents are also one-and-a-half times more likely to ask whether their daughter is beautiful than whether their son is handsome.

The problems faced by men and women today differ. For example there is a sex divide in those committing suicide in Ireland: in 2015 365 men committed suicide compared with 76 women. This may be explained by the fact that from an early age, boys are lead to think that they must be strong and tough, which means not crying or talking about their emotions. If we put boys in t-shirts saying “trouble maker”,  what are we really telling them? That they must bottle up their emotions except for anger?

Or, for example, the few female CEOs in the top 100 companies. There are more CEOs called John than there are female CEOs.  So if girls are put in t-shirts saying “beautiful butterfly”, what are they being told? That they only serve to be pretty things in this world run by men.

Personally I hate that everyone is still constrained by the categories of their gender. It stops people reaching their full potential,  or simply being who they want to be. Gender stereotyping affects every aspect of our lives, from our brain structure and mental health to our occupations as well as family roles and relationships. I hope that soon we are all able to remove the constraints put in place by gender stereotyping.

I am also aware that there are more genders than just male and female. If you identify as another gender I apologise for not exploring the minefield that gender stereotyping must cause for you. And yet, I hope you would agree that if we release the gendered shackles given respectively to male and female people it would also benefit those who identify as another gender too.

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.