Review for the book: Pink Brain, Blue Brain

TV Quote (from Parks and Recreation):
Tom: You gotta throw some cold water on this situation.  Start talking about nerd stuff.
Ben: You know, nerd culture is mainstream now, so when you use the word "nerd" derogatorily, it means you're the one that's out of the zeitgeist.
Tom: Yeah, that's perfect.

Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It
Author: Lise Eliot, Ph.D.
Year: 2009
Rating: *** 1/2
Format: Read this adult non-fiction book in eBook form on Kindle for Droid

Neurologist Lise Eliot carefully goes through the research on gender differences and explains what the results actually say. She then explains how the media and gender experts, like Michael Gurian, Louann Brizendine, and Simon Baron-Cohen, have interpreted these same studies.  Her conclusion?

"As a neurobiologist, I had high hopes for understanding sex differences by studying the brain.  Unfortunately, the data just do not add up to anything like the headlines that regularly crop up in the Washington Post, Newsweek, and various parenting magazines." 

  Eliot found that there are small differences between girls and boys at birth, but as children develop, the largest differences seem to be environmental. She found that many gender experts: misread studies, ignore when studies are proven flawed by the scientific community, and ignore the extensive body of research showing how environment is a large factor in gender differences. These gender experts also ignore the research that shows just how strongly stereotyping affects behavior and expectations.

This is a dense, methodical book.  Eliot goes though each stereotype touted by gender experts, examines all the biological differences that would affect each behavior, and then combs though the research and explains what it actually says and how that compares to what the gender experts say about it.  She methodically goes through gender research in infancy, preschool, reading lessons, math and science class, and teens' emotional development.

Her overview on the now debunked research about women's verbal advantage is interesting. She walks the reader though the famous Shaywitzes' study that gender experts taut as proof of women's verbal advantage.  She, then, goes through the many research articles that pointed out flaws in the Shaywitzes' study, like they didn't account for the fact that the women in the study were more educated than the men,  or the fact that no other study has been able to replicate their results.  Eliot also reviews the dozens of other studies on verbal ability and shows how the findings as to which gender has the verbal advantage is all across the board, depending on how the study is set up. Eliot points out that medical texts no longer use the Shaywitzes' study because of it flaws, though gender experts continue to use this study as proof of women's superior verbal skills.  In fact, you probably have read a current article using the study as proof of women's verbal advantage in a popular newspaper and magazine, with no mention that it's been debunked.

Her section on emotional development was equally interesting.  She reviews the body of work on adolescents and hormones and finds that hormones have not been shown to cause the emotional divide for men's reputation as stoic or women's higher depression level.  In fact, there are numerous studies that show boys and men are just as emotional as girls and women.  The difference, many studies conclude, is that boys and men are taught to repress their emotions and girls and women are not.  Eliot points out that this socialization causes men a lot of problems with their social relationships and gives women a disadvantage in their working life.  As she notes, boys would benefit from being taught to handle their emotions better in personal relationships and girls would benefit from learning to repress their emotions more in their professional life.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was the section on math and science. Eliot describes some fascinating studies on how stereotypes affect outcomes in math.  In the study, girls were randomly divided into groups to take a math test.  Before the test each girl was given reading material.  The group given material that said that girls had poor math skills, because of gender differences, did the worst on the math test.  The group given material to remind them they were a girl (a paragraph  about paintings and the arts) scored in the middle, and the girls that were given a paragraph about how research found girls were actually good at math did the best on the math test.

These stereotyping studies have been done in a number of areas.  For instance, white boys who read a paragraph about the superior athletic skills of African-American boys did worse on a strength tests than boys who read a neutral paragraph first.  White boys who read a paragraph about the superior math skills of Asians did worse on their math test than boys who read a neutral paragraph. Eliot then wonders what we are doing to boys when we go on and on about how boys can't read or write as well as girls. 

The moral of the story:  Stereotyping hurts everyone and we have the research to prove it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s