When Teen Talk Barbie hit toy store shelves in 1992, Mattel wanted the world's favorite disproportionate doll to say something profound, something that spoke to a generation of future career women who aspired to follow in Barbie's tiny footsteps.
Said Barbie, "Math class is tough!"
Studies on hard-wired sex differences suggest that even Barbie, whose careers have ranged from astronaut to computer engineer, struggles in the science. Why? Because she's a woman.
Yet according to a recent CBC radio story on the "man brain/ woman brain" debate, some psychologists believe that these "studies" lead to unhealthy stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophesies.
After Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus convinced a generation to retreat to their "woman wells" and "man caves," Louann Brizendine backed up gender mythology with science, or at least she tried. In her 2006 best-seller The Female Brain, Brizendine writes that boys and girls are hard-wired for gendered traits during fetal development, when our brains "marinate" in different hormones. Brizendine writes that testosterone destroys connections in the communication centers of the brain and estrogen enhances those connections. These differences make women better negotiators and men better "lone wolves."
But the New York Times review of the book called Brizendine's research "maddeningly vague" and pointed out that Brizendine's descriptions of "the queen" estrogen, the "forceful seducer" testosterone, and the "fluffy, purring kitten" oxytocin use social constructs to explain biology, which completely discredits Brizendine's attempt to explain social constructs with science.
Leonard Sax, oracle of the American "boy crisis" and author of the 2005 best-seller Why Gender Matters, uses similar arguments to campaign for sex-segregated public schools. Sax claims that boys need a competitive learning environment, while while girls need a cooperative one; boys should have time limits on tests, while girls should not, and testosterone makes boys more proficient in mathematics, but less able to focus. With girls surpassing boys in reading, Sax says it's time we foster an "achievement culture" for boys by dividing schools along gender lines.
Gender-essentializing aside, the studies that back Sax's claims are unreliable. People of all genders have varying levels of estrogen and testosterone, and as Mary O'Connell points out in her CBC radio story on the gender biology debate, we don't actually have MRI scans of fetal brains that could reveal any structural sex differences at birth. And according to a statement by the ACLU, "These [sex-segregated education] programs are often based on questionable science about how girls' and boys' brains develop and on disturbing gender stereotypes." Plus, Sax should know that separate is not equal.
Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, believes that while there are some innate sex differences, the genetic and hormonal impact on how we perform in school or on the job is negligible. Eliot writes that socialization is the greatest determining factor of how much we achieve.
Girls whose mothers and teachers claims that boys are better at math and science are more likely to give up sooner, Eliot explains, while boys who are told to "toughen up" lose emotional intelligence.
Author of Delusions of Gender Cordelia Fine cites a 2006 study by French social scientists, which shows the psychological impact of gender stereotypes. In this study one group of students was asked to rank the truth of gender stereotypes. Then, those students were asked to remember their scores on a national standardized test they had taken two years earlier. In the control group, girls enhanced their scores in the arts and boys enhanced their scores in math, while girls remembered earning lower scores in math by the same margin. Students who were not asked to rank gender stereotypes remembered their scores more accurately.
Perhaps in this age of the genderpocalypse, we'll soon realize that people aren't robots programmed for particular skills—we have individual bodies, brains, families, environments, and hormone levels that "marinate" us into the people we become.
If Barbie can be a computer engineer despite her "tough" time in math class, then anything is possible, right?