My child has reached somewhat of a milestone in her life… she is on the brink of her first year of college. She loves art, for its own sake, and not for the fact that it may plunge her into a career in fine art, architecture, etc, etc. She is gifted (hard-wired, you may say) at art, that is quite plain to see, and has a creative perceptual concept of color and light, texture and depth that is rare, I’ve been told by her school art head. She is equally gifted at music and sings well and plays the piano as if it were second nature to her. Now while I have always praised and encouraged these abilities, (much to my husband’s chagrin), I doubt these will forge the foundation of a strong solid career. Why? Because the measurement of achievement in the fine art fields is subjective at best…one may like a painting or may not…Judgement depends purely on the sentiment of the judge, and not on a quantifiable variable. She likes science too…biology, to be specific…but not to the extent where she’s passionate about it. She has decided to take science in her 11th academic year, and I support her completely. Most of our friends and families do not. They tell me to let her “do art”…. to let her “express herself”…. to let her “make her music”. That’s all fine and dandy, but honestly, I don’t think these will get her anywhere without a firm academic degree. She is free to pursue these side by side, but pure academics is a must! In this day and age, the more kids do (and they can do a lot more than our lot did!), the better….Then they say, “Oh science and engineering aren’t for girls!” At these remarks, I cringe! Then I fly off the handle! Why aren’t they for girls? They’re for anyone who has the ability, and my child is no weakling in the intellect department…if she has the smarts, she should do it. This is what urged me to write this article….
In the wake of bestsellers like, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by John Gray, there has been much debate about the abilities of men and women … and it is claimed that these are hard-wired at birth. Certain evolutionary differences, it is argued, categorize the intellects of men and women, and naturally lead to differences in abilities and behaviors that vary from map reading to multi-tasking, to parking to empathizing… and what does this eventually lead to? Gender bias and stereotyping…mostly…
Several scientists have recently challenged the idea of this so-called neurosexism and its implications, and thus biased, consequences. The concerns stem, these researchers say, from the view that parents and teachers have, for example, of boys having poor verbal skills ( I remember my own mother telling me that my daughter, who started speaking words at one year, nine months, was bound to start talking “early” as she was a girl!) , and girls lacking mathematical abilities. These views are of concern and are without any scientific evidence in their support. If anything, they act as obstacles in a child’s educational journey . Recently, a good friend told me to “stop thinking of science as a stream of further education for my child….she said, “She’s a girl, she won’t be able to handle it! The traveling to college, the extra classes, etc, etc.” I am good at ignoring people, so I did exactly that!
There are no neurological differences between the sexes…it’s just a figment of the (patriarchal) imagination! There may be variations between the brains of men and women, but these are not hard wiring differences….they are different in the same way any two brains are different from each other…there is no hard wiring, so to speak… if there is any wiring at all, it’s soft. Thinking can be changed, it is flexible, malleable and open to any experience, exposure and learning. Lisa Eliot of the Chicago Medical School says that all the evidence indicates that there is no hard wiring at all. There may be basic differences between genders, but these probably only get exacerbated with age by our gendered cultural stereotypes. Cerebral differences aren’t inherited. They are learnt…founded upon the expectations of what a girl or boy should be.
Boys are thus encouraged at sport, and girls are encouraged to develop verbal skills. Girls are discouraged from being more active (tomboyish) and boys are encouraged to be aggressive and strong. On the issue of verbal skills, girls do, it’s found, talk earlier than boys, earlier by a month, on average. This is really a very minute difference, considering the vast gamut of linguistic variations that differentiate people. Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry, UK, brings attention to this fact, and his studies have revealed that a mere 3% of variations in children’s linguistic development is attributed to gender. If you map these tiny differences statistically, on two graphs, the lines would almost overlap! Yet people propagate this, rather than focus on the huge similarity! So cognitive abilities including reasoning, speaking, spatial relations, computing, navigation, etc are not embedded in one’s cortex!
Whatever we acquire, the abilities, are through experience and exposure. It’s not very likely that a woman growing up in 18th century Britain would have been well-versed with the law, simply because she had not had exposure or experience with jurisprudence. It was the same in the field of medicine…. women were told they couldn’t be doctors… so there weren’t any women doctors or very few…
What the premise of hard wiring does is, it leads us to arrive at very ridiculous conclusions about very important issues….the only thing we should believe is “hard wired” in our brains is the fact that nothing is hard wired!
By Scherezade Mansukhani
Scherezade is a Clinical Child Psychologist, Part-time mother, blogger, French teacher and IATA teacher. She has worked with the differently abled, and now works on and off as a teacher.