Gender Hardwired in the Brain?

(Photo: Misucell)

The general idea in every society is that life differs in more ways then one for men and women. To some level these differences have a biological origin, regulated by hormones. But biology alone does not explain all the differences; culture also plays a significant role. Due to contrasting cultures the differences between men and women may also vary. The sex or gender of a person plays an important and central role in these differences. Although most people do not make a distinction between sex and gender, there is clearly one. In neuroscience for example we can find research concerning sex and gender differences between men and women.

In some contexts the words sex and gender are used as synonyms. But looking at it from a psychological perspective: sex refers to the biological basis of categorizing a person as male or female, while gender refers to the total set of attributed differences to males and females. It is gender that can vary across diverse cultures, whereas sex seems to be a fixed concept for the majority of them. At birth a person does not only come into this world ‘male’ or ‘female’, there is also an attribution of gender. This means that the person is tied to all kinds of ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’ traits, material belongings and activities. As a consequence biological sex differences are combined with expectations and cultural models. This gives rise to gender differences in various cultures. It also extends to the field of neuroscience where it is assumed that there are ‘hardwired’ differences between male and female brains that contribute to gender-typed behavior, or so the assumption goes. One might question these statements though and ask if they are true.

Does the ‘gendered brain’ exist?

Rebecca Jordan-Young and Rafaella I. Rumiati1 argue that there is evidence in brain development that the concept of ‘hardwiring’ is a poor metaphor. Still it is used in the sex/gender research in the field of neuroscience where there is a consensus about the existence of important sex differences in brain structure and function. These differences in the brain are supposedly organized by prenatal exposure to hormones. Yet Young and Rumiati claim that this consensus is both unscientific and unethical. Furthermore they plead for an alternative way of conducting research regarding sex/gender differences in neuroscience. Variability and plasticity of the brain/behavior should be the main focus in researching sex/gender differences, instead of the origins of sex/gender.2

In their paper Young and Rumiati make no hard biological and cultural distinction between sex/gender:

[…] sex is not a pure bodily and material fact, but is deeply interwoven with social and cultural constructions of gender.3

In neuroscientific research the dominant brain organization paradigm is maintained. At a critical period of fetal development hormones (testosterone) would permanently determine the structural and functional sex/gender differences in the brain.4 This theory on how human development evolves is accepted as a ‘fact’. Consequently this is the paradigm known as ‘hardwiring’.

However, Young and Rumiati argue that this ‘fact’ can be rejected for a number of compelling reasons. Regarding specifically the unscientific consensus they illustrate how the developmental model has flaws. It draws incorrect parallels between the brain and genitals/reproductive structures. Alfred Jost’s paradigm states that a minimum level of especially testosterone is needed for the development of a male phenotype instead of the default female pathway.5 In another study, conducted by William Young, there were multiple discontinuities between the organizing (permanent determination) and activating (determination based on the level of later activity) effects of the hormones on the brain and behavior. So the brain and behavior are far less dimorphic than genitals.

Furthermore the brain cannot be sexed as genitals can. The distinction in male versus female genitals can be easily made just by looking at them, whereas human brains between males and females do not differ much. The only distinction in the brain can be found in the area called the hypothalamus. This area is larger in males than in females, but nobody knows what this brain region’s function really is. So Young and Rumiati state clearly that

All indications are that human brains […] do not occur in two distinct forms.6

There is a difference in how men and women recruit emotional and cognitive regions in the brain. These subtle differences are measured at the group level, and not in individuals. Additionally these so called ‘hardwired’ brain differences may as well be the result of gendered patterns of social roles and behaviors.7

The self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘hardwired’ accounts of sex differences

Cordelia Fine points out that scientific claims about ‘hardwired’ differences between male and female brains sustain the sex differences they seek to explain.8 There are self-fulfilling effects due to these hardwiring claims:

Conversely telling people that gender differences are hardwired increases the tendency to act in accordance with stereotypes.9

Fine focusses primarily on Baron-Cohen’s Empathising/Systemising hypothesis. It claims that the male brain is ‘hardwired’ for systemizing and the female brain for empathising.10 Further, she indicates that gender stereotypes influence behavior and perception. One example Fine gives for this is the prejudice that men are better suited for technical and scientific occupations. This is due to prescribing ‘hardwired’ systemising to the male brain: the stereotype that men are more logical and analytic than females.11

What’s more there are cultural influences on beliefs and behaviors about how men and women should behave, too. Communal behaviour is prescribed for women and agentic behaviour for men. Even if men and women do not affirm gender stereotypes, they can still be influenced through gender cues and stimuli in the immediate social environment.12

There also exists a persistent gender bias concerning social perception. This emerges when we automatically categorise people as ‘male’ or ‘female’ under the influence of gender-related stimuli furnished by our social environments. When participants in an experiment were shown photographs of men and women of the exact same height they still perceived the men as taller.13

However, gender gaps can be reduced or eliminated through social manipulation. Simply telling participants that there are no gender differences can influence performance. Vice versa telling participants that there are ‘hardwired’ gender differences increases them to act in accordance to gender stereotypes.


The gendered brain simply doesn't exist.Click To Tweet

Considering all of the above arguments one should come to the conclusion that gender is not ‘hardwired’ in the brain. There are far too many problems and enough evidence showing that gender is not hardwired. We simply cannot claim that the gender differences that we do find in the brain are causing ‘hardwired differences’, neither that they are caused through ‘hardwired differences’. Gender differences are always already present in society and the brain is embodied and embedded in the world.



  1. Rebecca Jordan-Young & Raffaella Rumiati (2011). Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience. Neuroethics,  p. 1.
  2. Ibidem
  3. Young and Rumiati 2011: 2
  4. Idem, p. 3
  5. Ibidem
  6. Young & Rumiati 2011: 3
  7. Rebecca Jordan-Young & Raffaella Rumiati (2011). Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience. Neuroethics,  p. 4.
  8. Cordelia Fine (2011). Explaining, or Sustaining, the Status Quo? The Potentially self-fulfilling effects of “hardwired” accounts of Sex Differences. Neuroethics, p. 1.
  9. Fine 2011: 7
  10. Idem, p. 2
  11. Ibidem
  12. Idem, p. 3
  13. Cordelia Fine (2011). Explaining, or Sustaining, the Status Quo? The Potentially self-fulfilling effects of “hardwired” accounts of Sex Differences. Neuroethics, p. 3.
More from Khadija al Mourabit
Onwetendheid als wetendheid
Een aantal jaar geleden had ik een opmerkelijk gesprek met een medestudent,...
Read More
0 replies on “Gender Hardwired in the Brain?”