The Reification of Gender

The Socially Porous Brain Case. Illustration by Laura Cooper.

Some of my earliest memories of school life have within them the division between two groups of child; boys and girls. This split often didn’t feel enforced by adults or ourselves. Even in reception classes I recall a subtle difference, felt rather than known, between these two ways of lumping bodies and minds. Subtle beginnings are where the thin edge of a larger wedge become established. The majority of children in the West seem to pass through the stages from oblivious infant to a perceptive practitioner of their gender so smoothly and consistently that it looks like the unfurling of an innate biological capacity. Even children who know they are gender non-conforming often grasp wholesale the stereotypes of the gender they weren’t assigned at birth rather than pick the best of both. Though the crudest manifestations of gender diminish after the age of seven or so, these gender stereotypes stick with us in adulthood. From the consistency of this diverging behaviour, it has been argued that it is caused by a similar dimorphism inside the heads of people of different genders. Some then imply that these differences are unavoidable. Brain activities marches out into the world as behaviour, and no amount of good intentions can stop this, so the argument goes.

The precise details of the things in the brain that cause gendered behaviours have changed over time, as Cornelia Fine details in Delusions of Gender. From Victorian ideas about the small size of the female brain to more recent conjectures about high male foetal testosterone levels and the larger female splenium of the corpus collosum better linking the ‘verbal’ and ’emotional’ parts of the brain, many specific neuroanatomical differences have been argued for. But there is little evidence for any of these differences being robust or significant, or even real. However, rather than address each proposed difference on a case by case basis, more sociologically minded neuroscientists and psychologists such as Fine have looked to the root of this argument.


In his book The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould writes about the fallacy of reifying intelligence. This is where we take the abstract and complex concept of human mental activity and reduce it to the simpler concept of intelligence, defined narrowly as doing well in specific intellectual tasks. It is treated as a single thing, this is reification. This implies that there must be an intelligence ‘centre’ in the brain we can pinpoint. But this thinking is fallacious, as it attempts to reduce the multifarious ways human mental states can manifest, the qualities of which are determined by your upbringing, your society, your biology, your reaction against all three as well as dashing of randomness, into a single biological entity. This fallacy then grafts itself onto another fallacy, that what is biological is innate. Therefore, the argument goes from intelligence the thing to the spatial thing that permits intelligence to the innateness of intelligence. Sweep away the subtleties of the social world, here is reductive biofatalism.

And thus also with gender. The reification of gender to a brain thing takes us down the path of reductive biofatalism. The differences in male and female brain development, whatever this may be, is said to mean that the female infant’s brain unfurls as a wonder of intuition and empathy, whilst the male’s is honed into a systematising machine. The seed and pathway of this unfurling is determined, and nothing good-natured liberals can do will change this, so the argument runs.

But such an argument would only work if the social environment had no impact on the brain during development. This is far from true. We humans owe our great cognitive power to our brain’s extraordinary malleability in response to the environment. Without this no human culture would be possible, as how else could we learn our mother tongue? Psychological changes must produce or be caused by changes in the brain. To suggest anything else would be to throw aside five hundred years of material science and resort to crude ideas of the immaterial psyche. Some seem to forget this easily, but it is undoubable that the brain is sculpted by the world it forms in. From the extremes of foetal alcohol syndrome to the subtle every day instance of memory, the brain changes constantly in response to the environment, social and otherwise. In Cornelia Fine astute image, she refers to the “psychologically permeabl[ity of] the skull that separates the mind from the sociocultural context in which it operates”. The skull is not a fortress against the environment, but a porous psychological veil through which society can impinge into the deepest recess.

How does this relate to gender? It does so because of the subtle and unsubtle ways in which the sex of a child is stressed from birth. For most, a newborn is a gender first and a name second. Even a child raised in a so called ‘gender neutral’ way will likely know their gender. Drawing on the subtle clues their parents let slip and the attitudes of others they will realise what being this gender means in their society. Children between about five and seven years seem to me to be the most gender-fixated of all humans, probably because they have little else going for them. Gender gives them membership of a particular identity club rich in tropes to take on and satisfy their yearning for a social identity when the identity labels of available later like lawyer, heavy metal fan, socialist, bisexual etc. are unavailable. Thus the cues about what being a girl or boy means are picked up and followed and the child self-socialises themselves into their gender role. Of course, this is often not so perfectly smooth as this, but most do achieve consolidation into this role.

This whole process sculpts the brain. For women, as the child does the activities deemed feminine, the connections between brain regions and neural pathways involved with this strengthen and this becomes her life-long psychology and behaviours. This results neural dimorphic between men and women, but as far as I am aware the differences are not specific, vary between individuals considerably and don’t cause radical differences in cognition. This makes single-sex education due to neuroanatomical differences as logical as educating the children who learnt the violin at age 6 away from non-musical children.

Men and women do think differently, but this is likely entirely due to differences in the social environments of men and women rather than a sexually dimorphic ‘gender organ’ or physiological systems are the reifiers would have it. Rather than the gender binary being neuroanatomical a priori, the social gender binary is etched into the brain. But the reifer’s profoundest error is the idea of the autonomy of biological development. The womb is seen as a inviolable temple where the instructions of the genetic code are read out and post-natally the brain-case as sealed to the outside world. In contrast, I find Fine’s image of the psychosocially permeable skull a wonderful metaphor to think with. The body lets in all sorts of environmental influences in through its walls. Our development is not a soliloquy, but a cacophony of voices, each contributing different lines of varying importance which collectively take this human body and mind on life’s voyage through time.