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Louann Brizendine, The female brain

July 4, 2010
Louann Brizendine (Courtesy: Andy Feinberg)

Louann Brizendine, 2009 (Image: Andy Feinberg released into the Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Beware – the F-word is coming! Yes, Feminism. It might be a dirty word in some quarters, but I regard myself as a feminist – 1970s style – and so I approached Brizendine’s best-selling book, The female brain, with my cautionary antennae out. It’s not the sort of book I would necessarily have chosen myself but it was a bookgroup read and my number one reading priority is my bookgroup’s schedule. And, really, I’m glad I read it because it is good to keep up with the various arguments and debates going on.

The way I see it – and it’s pretty obvious really – the influences on our behaviour are threefold:

  • biological/biochemical
  • genetic
  • environmental/social

The BIG question is, then, in what proportion do these play out in our lives? Clearly men and women are not the same – you just have to look at us to see that – but as a young woman I believed that environmental factors were the strongest in determining the course of women’s lives. And I still think that’s largely the case. Environmental (or socio-cultural) factors may not necessarily be the determining factors in our individual behaviours but I believe they still do play a major role in the trajectory of women’s lives. As I’m sure they do for men too – but I believe that women still tend to draw the shortest straw.

And yet, there’s a niggle. Statistics – and the obvious evidence around us – show that the proportion of women in leadership roles, for example, in boardrooms, in politics, and so on, is way below what would be pro rata. Why is this? Is it the glass ceiling? Or, is there something else going on? Brizandine suggests women have “superior brain wiring for communication and emotional tones”. Does this discourage us from seeking these leadership roles which, in our current western capitalistic environment at least, tend to be adversarial if not downright aggressive. And then, the thinking and the niggles get murkier. What happens in non-western-capitalist societies? And in indigenous societies? In these (with some notable matriarchal exceptions), women also tend not to be the leaders. Why? Is human society inherently adversarial and aggressive – or is it just that men have made it so. If the latter, can women – with their superior emotional wiring! – change the nature of society?  You see, what happens? Round and round in circles.

And this brings me back to Brizendine, neuropsychiatrist and founder of the Director of the Women’s Mood & Hormone Clinic (which rather suggests where she is coming from). Her book focuses pretty much exclusively on biology. The backcover blurb describes the book in these terms: Brizendine “reveals how the uniquely flexible structure of the female brain determines not only how women think and what they value, but how they communicate and whom they will love”. It’s all in the biology you see! We are “programmed” to seek out the most symmetrical (yes, really, or so she says) good-looking male because it is all about reproduction of the species. Occasionally she qualifies her statements, such as “Humans are not quite so biologically determined [as Syrian hamsters, for example!]” (p. 132) but the  qualifications are minor and infrequent.

It all reads a little simplistically. Like any good non-fiction work, the book is comprehensively referenced with 23 pages of citations/notes and nearly 80 pages of references. However, she herself agrees that it is difficult to properly research the workings of the brain and so many of her arguments are made using either anecdotes, drawing conclusions from the animal world, or based on one-off studies. I don’t have the resources to check all her citations but the Nature magazine reviewer found them wanting in terms of  “scientific accuracy and balance”*. A quick search of the ‘net brings up counter arguments, such as those of Insitut Pasteur neurologist Catherine Vidal, who states that “the differences [in brain development] between individuals of one and the same gender are so great as to outweigh any differences between the genders”. And regarding male versus female test results in, say, mathematics, she says that the main factor is socio-cultural:

The second study, conducted last year with a sample of 300,000 in 40 countries, showed that the current socio-cultural environment is conducive to gender equality. ‘More girls are getting good test scores in maths,’ Dr Vidal highlighted. ‘In Norway and Sweden, the results are comparable, and in Iceland, the girls beat the boys.’ It should be noted, however, that the boys beat the girls in Korea and Turkey.

Of course, she’s talking more about intellectual/academic skills/achievement rather than behaviour which is more Brizandine’s focus – but it serves nonetheless to sound a warning about ascribing causes too simply.

I’m late reading this book which apparently caused quite a flurry when it was published in 2006. I’ll end with Deborah Tannen’s conclusion to her review in the Washington Post (2006):

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once said he despaired of the constant question “Is it nature or nurture?” because “biology and environment are inextricably linked.” Ideally, readers will sift through the case studies, research findings and scientific conjectures gathered in this non-technical book and be intrigued by some while questioning others, bearing in mind the caution that hormones and brain structure play a role in gender differences but are not the whole story. And if this book joins a “nature” chorus that has swelled as a corrective to the previous pendulum swing toward “nurture,” we can assume that another corrective will follow. But given the character — and rancor — of our dichotomous approach to the influences of biology and culture, readers likely will be fascinated or angered, convinced or skeptical, according to the positions they have staked out already. That would be a pity.

Fair enough … and meanwhile, for me, the bottom-line remains: regardless of how similar or different we are, and why, all humans deserve to be respected and treated equally regardless of gender, race or religion.

*Nature, Vol. 443, 12 October 2006.

Louann Brizendine
The female brain
London: Bantam Books, 2007 (First pub. 2006)
ISBN: 9780553818499

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2010 7:25 pm

    Of late, I’ve been having many conversations with female friends that tend to end up with the same conclusion: that we don’t want our work to be our life, and that we’d rather sacrifice a higher pay than end up working in situations that adversely affect our opportunities to be with friends and family. I don’t claim to know anything for sure, but this sometimes seems to be a more common feeling among women than men… could this tendency to shy away from status and prestige in favour of strong relationships have something to do with the lack of women in leadership roles? Which is not to say that women in such roles lack the desire for interpersonal connections…. argh, I’ve even got in a muddle trying to express this thought!

    All I know is that my main goal in life is contentment and a strong network of people in my life, not a large paypacket and social power. Is this because I’m female, because I’ve been socialised to think of life as revolving around emotions and nurturing people, or simply because I couldn’t identify a BMW or a Prada handbag if you paid me??

    • July 4, 2010 7:36 pm

      Your guess is as good as mine – but Brizandine would say it was your hardwired girlbrain! But, good on you all talking about these goal-type things …

  2. July 5, 2010 12:33 am

    Years ago I took a sociology class, and part of the intro was a quick quiz that included questions whose answers got to the nitty gritty on gender issues.

    I can’t remember the stats now, but according to studies women are more likely to switch careers, and there was another question regarding the number of years women spent working vs men. I believe it was something like 15 years less (it may be different now).

  3. July 5, 2010 5:18 am

    This sounds like an interesting book, as I seem to be going through a feminism phase in my reading lately, but I’m sure this one would wind me up, rather than verify my current thinking. I always get very scared when I hear that biology is the reason for women not being high achievers etc. My personal view is that the reason the proportion of women in leadership roles/politics etc is lower than men’s is simply because the “structure” of these institutions/lifestyles are not compatible with child rearing. Women invariably have to step out of the workplace to have children and even if they only take 6 months or a year out of their careers, they will find their previous position/status has been slightly eroded. And motherhood changes priorities — for example, that striving for status and power takes a back seat to the reality of a sick child at home.

  4. July 5, 2010 8:40 am

    Guy: Thanks Guy. Those studies are interesting – but they don’t really get to the issue of why, do they? Did the course go into that? Sociologists often then look at those sorts of results and analyse whether – or the degree to which – they are driven by societal factors. I suspect the 15 years would be different now – which rather gets to Vidal’s point that differences like this are socio-culturally driven.

    Kimbofo: The book is interesting but way too one-sided and, as you suggest, a bit scary. I do agree that social structures – particularly in terms of employment – don’t support child-rearing BUT I do have a niggle about whether those social structures are also antithetical to how women (generalising) might like to operate. And if the latter is (generally!) right, why is it so? Have women been socialised to be non-aggressive, non-adversarial, or is it in our make-up? We know there’s a lot of socialisation pushing women/girls to be conciliatory etc but is that all? Scary – and the reason it’s scary is because theories (usually based on biology of course) that women are inherently different result in their being treated inequitably, and as far as I’m concerned EQUAL does not mean SAME.

  5. July 5, 2010 7:01 pm

    I think I agree with kimbofo: it always scares me when gender roles are explained through biology.

    • July 5, 2010 9:18 pm

      Thanks Iris … I essentially agree with you, particularly when it is used narrowly and as an excuse to limit people’s opportunities. Women DO bear children. We can’t escape that biological reality but that doesn’t mean women should be defined and limited by that fact, does it.

  6. July 6, 2010 2:48 am

    I am far from expert in this area (understatement of the year) but this sounds like a worthwhile read despite is focus on “biology”. I would be interested in the political aspects – if Scandinavia does so well, then why is that? A society with a much narrower gap between the rich and poor for example? An interesting review – thanks for publishing it

    • July 6, 2010 9:00 am

      Thanks Tom, I was a bit unsure about reviewing it – but decided that as I’d read it I may as well. It’s the sort of book that would probably be worth getting from the library and browsing rather than reading in detail. It is useful to understand our different biologies but the conclusions she draws are not, I suspect, all as cut and dried as she might suggest. For example, she suggests that it’s women’s specific biology – not aptitude differences – that results in their not ending up in science and maths! And yet, I think, studies (the generic “studies”!) show that the more opportunities and encouragement women are given in those “traditional” males fields the more enter them which rather begs the question re whether socio-cultural (political) rather than biological reasons are the cause? Then again, when more women “get into” science and maths do they make different choices about how they want to follow that career? Murky…because it is hard to start such research from a level playing field.

  7. July 8, 2010 11:54 pm

    Does she say anything about brains that are sure left comments but then apparently didn’t? I seem to recall when this book came out and sort of gagged at the idea of it. Yes, I know men and women are different. Yes I know our brains are different in some ways. But biological determinism makes get all apoplectic. Does biology play a part in who we are? Sure. But I think there are many more factors that contribute and even override what biology dictates. There is far too much variation among both men and women to be able to make any kind of blanket statement that women do X because of Y. Really? I don’t do X, what does that mean then? I’ll stop now as clearly I am getting a bit riled up 🙂

    • July 9, 2010 12:15 am

      LOL, no she didn’t though I must admit I skimmed the last couple of chapters, so you never know! Thanks for commenting now, anyhow, and as you will probably have seen, I agree with you re other factors being stronger particularly in affecting the actual course of women’s lives.

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