“Is your brain male or female?” a doctor at BBC News recently asked, adding to the growing cultural conversation on whether men and women have innate differences.
Last year, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania claimed to have discovered that male and female brains are wired differently. These claims were later countered by neuroscientists who say that the variations are caused entirely by social conditioning from gender stereotypes, forced upon children from an early age.
But are gender differences really all due to social conditioning? In a piece for the New Yorker titled “What is a Woman?,” Michelle Goldberg explored the issue that certain radical feminists have with transgenderism:
“As members [of the eco feminist group Deep Green Resistance] see it, a person born with male privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin. [...] Radical feminists reject the notion of a ‘female brain.’ They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential… In this view, gender is less an identity than a caste position.”
Although I don’t define myself as a radical feminist, I sympathize with their desire to preserve a sense of what it means to be a woman, going beyond the idea that it depends entirely upon whether or not you feel like one. But I find it rather lacking to make womanhood a product of social-conditioning, rather than something innate about women, and in negative terms at that. Woman isn’t a title that we have to earn, after all, and we are not defined by how much oppression we have suffered.
Certainly we know women and men have differences—starting with a uterus and a unique hormonal cycle. Shouldn’t it be possible to think that there’s no neurological reason men should be better at things like math or science than women, while still being open to the fact that there are some differences between the genders? Why do we have to choose between the women’s studies classroom cliché that gender is purely a social construct, or the vapid Stepford Wives-style concept of the housewife who only thinks about kittens and baking?
While they may seem overdone at this point, I think we could take a cue from some of the viral videos of this year. Verizon’s ad depicts a girl being subtly discouraged from pursuing science as she grows up. It's refreshing to see a girly girl—stomping through the woods in a dress, covering her planetary mobile assignment with glitter—with an interest in science, as if to say, "These two things go together just fine."
In a more direct way, the #LikeAGirl ad by Always reminds us of the importance of our words, asking adults to act out what you think of when someone says phrases like "run like a girl" or "hit like a girl." The adults, mostly women themselves, make ridiculous imitations of the activities, revealing the way that using “like a girl” as a derogatory shorthand limits our conception of female potential. It's the young girls that remind us that to be a girl who runs like a girls means … to run.
So perhaps we don't have to have an either-or approach. There's nothing wrong with saying women are different from men. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is supposedly the same but rather where difference is respectfully recognized and celebrated, and people don’t pre-judge each other. Ultimately, arguing away differences won’t help us to relate to each other better, but empathizing with each other as individuals with unique stories will.
Surely whatever science does or does not prove in the long run, individuals should be encouraged to flourish in areas they enjoy and find interesting—no matter their gender.
If I have sons, I have every intention of teaching them to cook and clean just like their sisters, without denying their differences. I know that all my children will have different strengths and weaknesses, some to do with their gender perhaps, and many nothing to do with it at all. I will read my children fairy tales without fear of gender conditioning, because the princes and princesses of those stories teach that courage, gentleness, and kindness, like all virtues, come in many different guises and shine through in the actions of men and women alike.