Sexual Dimorphisms of the Brain and the Dangers of Discrimination
An Informal Perspective
Carol Hegstrom

I realize that there are sex differences and I am fully in favor of studying them - in fact I have done a fair amount of research on steroids and neuronal plasticity myself and I have no argument with the fact that there are differences between men and women (and vive la differance!).

The central finding on sexual dimorphisms of the brain is that individual differences (within each sex) exceed gender differences (between the sexes). If you randomly take a male and female brain and compare them, you cannot accurately predict sex based on a particular structure or function of either. It is also important to remember that although sex differences exist, the brain is an amazingly plastic organ and as well as women can learn to run businesses (as both of my grandmothers did), men can learn to nurture and care for children, for example.

The problem is not in the research, it is how certain people may use published data on sex differences to discriminate. I am not suggesting that such data not be published - I am wholly in favor of continuing with such studies. I am merely suggesting that researchers use caution when presenting their results to make it clear that although a sex difference may exist, that does not mean that differences in the means between sexes indicates that all women are different from all men. Care should be taken to point out that men and women overlap in whatever measure is taken. Even in something as clear cut as height, where obviously most men are taller than women, does NOT indicate that all men are taller than all women. Therefore if a particular job requires someone to be a certain height, the candidates for that position should be weighed on an individual basis - not by sex. Simply excluding all women because most women are shorter than men will result in discrimination against some women that would be perfectly capable of doing the job.

Therefore it is unfair to suggest that just because someone is male or female, that their brain will function in a particular way. Feminists are right to be concerned that evidence of sexual dimorphisms in the brain could be miscontrued to mean that ALL women are inferior in some areas, which is simply not true.

I am not saying that serious scientists claim superiority or inferiority for one sex vs the other. But, there are people in the world who need little excuse for their bigotry, and showing dimorphisms between brains of males and females could be used as just such an excuse. For example, I have an in-law who is in the Navy and who thinks women should not be allowed in the armed forces. Not just certain women, but ALL women. I'm sure there are plenty of examples like him, who would be delighted to use evidence of sexual dimorphisms of human brains (however much individual differences outweigh the sexual differences) to back up their claim as to why one sex is (pick your choice: more suited, better, worse, etc.) than another for any particular job or task. What I and others are concerned about is that evidence of sexual differences may give some credibility to using sex as a criterion for hiring, promotion, education, etc., rather than making decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of an individual.

Therefore it is critical that it be made abundantly clear that individual differences outweigh sexual dimorphisms and that therefore sexual dimorphisms should not be used as a basis of discrimination. We as researchers who present data for general consumption should take care in how we present our data so that it is not miscontrued or used as a basis for bigotry.

I do not suggest not doing sex research or even worse to pretend that sex differences do not exist (when clearly they do). But, as a woman I care very much that I be able to have the same opportunities open to me as men, based on whether I, as an individual, am worthy. Not based
simply on my gender, but based on my particular skills as an individual.

I would hate to see the freedoms women have worked so hard to gain over the last century and beyond be lost due to data being presented without regards as to how it will be used and interpreted. All I ask is that researchers take some responsbility in how they present data so that the results can't or won't be used in the interests of bigots to undermine gender equality.

Carol Hegstrom

Wed, 22 Sep 1999

Reproduced on CogWeb with permission.



Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles