Alice Roberts: Boys’ and girls’ brains aren’t so different

Is it nature or nurture that divides the sexes?

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Boys like cars; girls prefer dolls. Girls love pink; boys don’t. But are they instinctively drawn to these choices or is it all the result of parental encouragement and coercion? Yes, the nature v nurture debate is getting another outing – with TV experts Professor Alice Roberts and Dr Michael Mosley in opposing corners (we might have said pink and blue corners, but that would have been lazy gender stereotyping). 

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Mosley believes that some of the characteristics evident in male and female children are the result of biological hardwiring – simply speaking, we’re born with them. Roberts, on the other hand, insists that our children’s Ken or Barbie leanings are acquired.

“There’s a plasticity about our brains that means they develop according to the environment that they’re in,” she says. “So if you place them in an environment where there are very different roles for men and women they will adapt to that environment.”

As part of many studies featured in tonight’s Horizon, Roberts observed a group of small children being encouraged by their parents to crawl down a ramp; the parents of boys routinely expected their child to deal with a steeper descent than those of girls.

“From a very young age, parents are pushing their boys to achieve in a way they don’t always do for girls,” says Roberts. “I’m sure it’s an unconscious bias – even if we think we’re not treating boys and girls differently, very often actually we are.”

But is treating boys and girls differently necessarily a bad thing? “I don’t think anyone is saying that we should be treating boys and girls exactly the same and that we should try to aluminate all differences. What the psychologists who do this work are saying is we should be aware of it and careful about it, especially if we think it could be limiting choices.

“It’s all about making sure you’re not constraining them by treating them in a stereotyped way – you’re not bringing them up to think they have a defined set of choices in society.”

So what rules does Roberts impose on her own children, particularly her four-year-old daughter (her son is one)? Is her home a pink-free zone? She laughs: “It’s not banned because that’s almost impossible, but it’s seriously moderated. But I’m really aware of the ‘pinkification’ of toys and clothes.

“As parents we have to tread these lines very carefully. You don’t want them to feel as if they are not fitting in with their peers, because that’s very important to them. One way I try to manage it is by not having a princess party for my daughter and trying to do things that are not so stereotyped. But if she’s invited to a princess party, of course I’m not going to stop her going. That would just be mean.

“The important thing is when you look at areas like physics and you realise that only one in five A-level students is a girl. We know it isn’t about aptitude. Somehow it’s not viewed as a feminine subject or one suitable for females. It’s a real shame because it means children’s horizons are being limited. It’s very difficult with all of this to prove cause and effect but what we can say is that extreme ‘genderisation’ of toys and all of the bias in the ways we treat boys and girls can’t possibly help.” 

Roberts acknowledges that there are differences in adult male and female brains – better spatial awareness among men and greater empathy among women are two much-tested distinctions – but says they’re narrower than we think and most are the result of nurture, not nature.

“The interesting thing is, a lot of those differences disappear when you look at people in other societies, which means that they can’t be biological – they are cultural. The differences tend to be more dominant in developed western nations, which is really interesting because we claim some kind of sexual equality in these places.”

But in many ways, she says, we’re missing the point. Men are as different to each other – often more so – as they are to members of the opposite sex. “We seem to be obsessed between finding differences between men and women but actually they’re very small when compared to the differences between one woman and another woman or one man and another man.”

Whatever you think, you can be certain of one thing. The message boards on Mumsnet will be overloaded with opinions after Monday’s programme goes out. Or is that another lazy,stereotypical observation? 

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Horizon: Is Your Brain Male or Female? is on BBC2 tonight at 9.00pm