Gina Rippon: I have always been fascinated by the brain

Neuroscientist and feminist, Prof. Gina Rippon, has recently become famous for her work on and critique of  the misuse of neuroscientific research and outdated gender stereotypes. Her scientific efforts culminated in her book The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain, which investigates the role of life experiences and biology in brain development. In the interview for the Center for Gender and Science, she spoke of stereotypes in neuroscience, their causes and consequences. 

What has brought you to neuroscience? What was the appeal, or what sparked your interest?

I have always been fascinated by the brain. I originally hoped to study medicine to pursue this interest, but got diverted into psychology.

You are publicly known for your book “The Gendered Brain” which addresses neurosexim. Would you please give an example of a neurosexist research?

Taking Cordelia Fine’s definition of neurosexism, you could say any research that assumes that gender gaps can be explained solely in terms of biologically determined, hard-wired, fixed and inevitable differences between males and females.

More specifically, this would include any research that makes unchallenged assumptions that sex differences in brain structures can explain alleged differences in cognitive or personality characteristics, possibly not even measured as part of the research protocol.

History of neuroscientific research is rather full of peculiar remarks on women and their inferiority. Who is in youropinion the greatest neurosexist in history? Is he/she known for that?

French polymath Gustave Le Bon often described women and people of colour as “the most inferior form of human evolution.”

Well, I have several quotes from Gustave LeBon in my book, so I think he would probably be top of my list. But it should be noted that Charles Darwin was an out-and-out misogynist – powerfully reflecting the thinking of his time.

Which stereotype is the most persistent in neuroresearch?

I think the spatial cognition story – that women are unsuited for science careers due to a ‘deficit’ in this particular set of skills – is pretty persistent. It certainly demonstrates the ‘whack-a-mole’ characteristics that I outline in my book The Gendered Brain.

(Editor’s note: The ‘whack-a-mole’ myth is that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain, where the male and female refer to a brain from a man and a brain from a woman.)

Is there a stereotype that you are, let’s say, “fond of”? One that makes you laugh?

I’m not really fond of any stereotypes, given the downstream consequences of their effects. I guess the Mars/Venus stereotypes best characterise the absurdity – but the most ‘hilarious’ example is LouAnn Brizendine’s The Female Brain.

Among your long-term topics belong neurosexism, but also autism. What is “trending” in these fields at the moment, if there is a trendy topic?

A ‘trending’ issue in the autism field is, in fact, bringing these two topics together and that is that we need to rethink the notion that autism is primarily a male ‘problem’. It is clear that many girls and women on the spectrum have gone undiagnosed because of this belief that you can’t be autistic if you are female.

Which topic or field would you like to explore in the future?

Related to above, that the difficulties of girls and women on the spectrum may be expressed differently, due to differences in both biological and cultural influences.

When I was back at school, one of the first things my professor of Gender Studies told us was the story on women’s brain size. He said that there was a hypothesis that women are intellectually inferior because their brains are smaller than men’s. When it was found that the size relates to body and head size, and that this ratio actually makes women’s brains bigger than men’s, the hypothesis that brain size matters disappeared. Do such narrative-changes happen these days too?

This ‘size matters’ issue has been present throughout the history of this debate. There is an ongoing debate as to how brain researchers should correct for male-female differences in brain size/volume and, as yet, a lack of agreement as to the most effective way of making such a correction. So perhaps this is a contemporary version of the dropping of metrics if they don’t come up with the expected answer.

There is a heated debate on gendered brain, even in scientific circles, but one rarely hears that there would be a research on “female liver” or “male kidney”. Why is it so?

Discussions about ‘gender’ differences in the brain are, if gender is the term being used, more than debates about anatomy or physiology. Taking the brain as the source of basically human behaviour or more profoundly human individual or social identity, or the secret of human success, failure, power, achievement etc etc. or, possibly most centrally, the basis of everyone’s lived experience (positive or negative), means that an understanding of such differences (if differences there are!) will remain a core element of research into the differences between females and males.

Author: Kristýna Veitová