This week the Eton College community celebrated International Women’s Day, an occasion which commemorates and celebrates the cultural, political, sporting, and scientific achievements of women. It also reminds us of the challenges and inequalities still facing women across the world today.  

To mark this occasion, the Feminism Society was thrilled to welcome Professor Gina Rippon to the virtual stage. A prominent neuroscientist, author, gender equality advocate, and currently Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University, Professor Rippon provided a fascinating introduction to the concept of the ‘gendered brain’.

She explained that research had suggested that there were distinct differences in the brains, and therefore the behaviours, of men and women. Yet this argument rested on a shaky foundation, with a dearth of research papers, substantiated peer reviews and questionable use of data. Indeed, many studies which upheld the ‘gendered brain’ argument often highlighted disparities in neurobiology between men and women, and brushed over similarities.

They will focus on the differences they find, not the similarities

Professor Gina Rippon on the problematic concept of the ‘gendered brain’

It has often been thought that apparent differences in behaviour and sensibilities must mean men and women have inherently different brain activity. That is why the popular conception of women as homemakers and carers was contrasted to the image of men as strong, emotionally resilient providers. However, Professor Rippon was keen to highlight that these differences, especially the perception of certain skills being specific to certain genders (e.g. logical problem-solving vs. emotional intelligence), are a consequence of societies where women were often restricted from certain academic and cultural fields.

Scientific research was therefore used to justify this form of gender discrimination. New imaging techniques, and a determination to assess diverse data rather than searching for data to support a pre-existing conclusion, has helped to challenge this narrative.

Thank you to Professor Rippon to joining us on International Women’s Day 2021, and for encapsulating this year’s theme, ‘challenge yourself’.