Top neuroscientist insists men and women are BOTH from Mars

For centuries we’ve been told ‘nurturing’ women and ‘scientific’ men are fundamentally different from birth, but now, a provocative new book by a top neuroscientist insists men and women are BOTH from Mars

  • Gina Rippon is challenging belief male and female brains are inherently different
  • The neuroscientist is a leading international researcher at Aston University
  • She questions if the way babies are treated impacts their brain development  
  • One study suggests girls are programmed to prefer pink through evolution 
  • Researchers claim by age nine girls believe maths is a subject for boys
  • Gina concludes that the world around us defines our brains and behaviour 
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In A bold new book, leading neuroscientist Gina Rippon shatters the myth that men’s and women’s brains are inherently different, challenging centuries of scientific thought and popular belief — from the idea that women have poor spatial awareness and are bad at maths, to the assumption men are not natural childcarers. Instead, she concludes that it is the world we live in that shapes and defines our brains and behaviours from birth, with both sexes still facing an avalanche of traditional expectations. 

June 1986 and I was in a labour ward, having given birth to my second daughter. It was the night Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick for England in the World Cup; nine babies were born that night, eight boys (all named after Gary in his honour) and one girl (mine).

Later, I was comparing notes with my neighbour (not on the football) when we became aware of what sounded like an approaching steam train: our new babies, both bawling, were being wheeled towards us. The mother next to me was handed her blue-wrapped bundle with the approving words: ‘Here’s Gary. Cracking pair of lungs!’

Then the nurse passed me my package, wrapped in a yellow blanket (an early and hard-won feminist victory) with a perceptible sniff: ‘Here’s yours. The loudest of the lot. Not very ladylike!’

Neuroscientist Gina Rippon challenges beliefs that male and female brains are inherently different in a bold new book (file image) 

At just ten minutes old, my tiny daughter had her first encounter with the gendered world into which she had just arrived.

I’m an international researcher in the field of cognitive neuroscience, based at the Aston Brain Centre at Aston University in Birmingham.

My work involves using brain imaging techniques to investigate individual differences in the brain, in particular to understand conditions such as autism and dyslexia. But I’ve also been interested in the fascination scientists have long held in identifying differences between male and female brains.

While theories may have come and gone for over two centuries, until recently the basic message has been consistent: there are ‘essential’ differences between men’s and women’s brains, and these will determine their different capacities and places in society. Well, I believe this approach does everyone a disfavour, especially women and girls. It’s surely no coincidence that scientists, who historically were mostly men, favoured theories that supported male superiority.

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The inferior nature of women’s brains has been used as the rationale for frequently proffered advice that the fairer sex should focus on their reproductive gifts and leave education, power, politics, science and any other business of the world to men.

While it’s no longer the case in many parts of the world that power and politics are thought of as only the preserve of men, research often ends up supporting the idea there are things that women just ‘don’t’, or ‘can’t’, do.

Are male and female brains as divergent as we’ve so often been led to believe? When my daughter was born, were there innate structural differences between her brain and those of the boys on the ward, or do differences develop because of the different way in which boys and girls are treated from birth?

Even at a few minutes old, we are bombarded with messages about how males and females should behave in the world.


Although one male 17th-century philosopher bravely went against prevailing social assumptions to argue there were few differences in the abilities of the sexes, over the past 200 years ‘blame the brain’ has been a consistent mantra when it comes to justifying men and women’s different roles in the world.

Gina says male superiority can be associated with men tending to have a physically larger skull capacity (file image)

In the 18th and 19th century, it was generally accepted that women were socially, intellectually and emotionally lacking and their inferior brains were at the heart of any explanation as to why they were lower down the scale. Brain size was an early focus and a finding that, on average, women’s brains were five ounces lighter than men’s was eagerly seized upon as proof.

Even now scientists use the difference in brain sizes as an indication of differences between the sexes, but nothing has been found to indicate this has any significance in terms of cognitive ability. The size difference may simply be a reflection of the fact men tend to be physically larger.

Later, superiority came to be associated with larger skull capacity. It was a female scientist, Alice Lee, who disproved this theory, by creating a mathematical formula to work out skull capacity, and then demonstrating that an eminent (male) anatomist had one of the smallest heads in her study.


Do boys’ and girls’ brains start out the same? The general consensus is that at birth there are actually very few differences. Yet by the time children grow up, it’s clear boys and girls have very different ideas about what is — and isn’t — for them.

It’s particularly striking that so many girls don’t see themselves in the world of science, technology, engineering and maths.

A UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2018 report shows that in the UK, little more than a third (38.6 per cent) of science researchers are female. In 2016, just 15 per cent of computer science and 17 per cent of engineering and technology first-year undergraduates were female.

Gina claims the brain is mouldable and adapts depending on the environment it is exposed to throughout our lives (file image) 

Is this because girls have innately less aptitude in these areas? Or is it because of powerful social messages we are exposed to from an early age?

What’s becoming ever clearer is that the brain is mouldable — that is, it changes depending on the environment we’re exposed to — throughout our lives, but this is particularly so at the very beginning. The environment a baby is born into is key.

Though what they see is fuzzy and they might not be able to hear much either, even newborn babies are tuned to pick up clues about what is — and is not appropriate — for them.

Who knew?

The average human brain weighs 3lb and is comprised of 60 per cent fat, making it one of the fattest organs in the body

They appear to be tiny social sponges, quickly soaking up cultural information from the world around them. But before these little humans arrive, the world is already tucking them firmly into a pink or a blue box. It is clear from YouTube videos I’ve watched of parties where parents unveil the sex of their child that, in some cases, different values are attached to the pinkness or blueness of the news.

Some of the videos show existing siblings watching the excitement of ‘the reveal’ and it’s hard not to wonder what the three little sisters in one film made of the screams of ‘At last!’ that accompanied the cascading blue confetti to signal the impending arrival of a brother.

Just a harmless bit of fun, maybe, but it is also a measure of the importance that is attached to these ‘girl’/‘boy’ labels.


The belief that differences in male and female behaviour are dictated by hormones is as firmly entrenched as the idea that a person’s gender dictates the sort of brain they will have.

Yet what’s easily forgotten is while many hormones are thought to be male or female — for example androgens such as testosterone are described as ‘male’ and oestrogen and progesterone as ‘female’ — they are actually found in all of us, male and female alike. And like the brain, it seems hormones are not fixed at birth, but fluctuate depending on environment and a person’s experiences.

Gina says hormones are not fixed at birth but instead fluctuate depending on environment and a person’s experiences (file image) 

Far from the ‘biology in the driving seat’ characterisation of hormones such as testosterone dictating how someone develops, it’s clear that levels can be driven by different social activities.

An astonishing example of this is that testosterone levels in fathers will vary depending on how much time they spend caring for their children.

One study exposed three groups of men to a computerised baby doll that had been programmed to cry. The first group wasn’t allowed to intervene, the second could intervene but their efforts to pacify the doll would fail and the third were able to comfort the doll.

Testosterone levels rose in the first group, stayed constant in the second but decreased among the group who were able to successfully calm the ‘infant’.


Think of the cliche of a man talking about his emotions and the joke is he won’t do more than grunt. Men are famously portrayed as strong, silent types. Women are the talkers, with the joke being they never stop.

The stereotypes start in childhood, with girls assumed to be the early talkers who go on to be better at English, and boys talking later and expressing themselves more physically. Supposedly the evidence for this is that language areas in the brain are larger in women than in men. One claim stated that women on average use 20,000 words a day and men only 7,000.

Large group studies have shown there isn’t a superiority between the verbal skills of men and women, females are just expected to talk more (file image)

But scientists have since tried in vain to find any research to back it up. One linguist from the University of Pennsylvania did his own calculations, based on a British database of conversations, and concluded men’s word use was just over 6,000 a day compared with just under 9,000 for women.

In fact, taking into account studies on larger groups of people and women’s supposed superiority in verbal skills — vocabulary, reading comprehension and essay writing — doesn’t exist. Women are just expected to talk more.


It has always been assumed the two biological templates that produce different female and male bodies will also produce differences in the brain, but recent research suggests that, even in adulthood, instead of differences there’s actually a lot of overlap.

In 2015, a study of 1,400 brain scans concluded we should ‘shift from thinking of brains as falling into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, to appreciating the variability of the human brain mosaic’.

A study of 1,400 brains revealed less than six per cent of participants consistently fitted into conventional ideas of brain traits associated with either gender (file image)

Less than six per cent of the sample consistently fitted conventional ideas about brain traits considered ‘male’ or ‘female’. The rest showed a range of variability between each brain, with a general ‘pick and mix’ collection of maleness and femaleness. Instead of women being from Venus and men from Mars, it seems we may all be from the same planet.


It’s a cartoon we’ve all seen: a man holding a map and gazing confidently in what is clearly the right direction, with a female companion bearing a puzzled frown and a crumpled, upside-down chart, pointing anxiously the opposite way. And don’t forget the countless jokes about women’s inability to parallel park.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest men’s superior spatial skills are linked to the hunting, spear-throwing, wayfinding skills they needed in the past. Others speculate it’s to do with exposure to pre-natal testosterone.

But is it really the case that men are innately better map readers? Being able to successfully read a map and parallel park is all to do with spatial cognition — the ability to navigate round our environment, mentally manipulate objects, identify patterns and work in many dimensions.

Gina questions if videogames such as Tetris and Lego could explain why men appear to be better at spatial tasks, boys are usually steered towards computer games (file image) 

As young as four years old, boys show evidence of superior visuo- spatial processing skills. But it’s been shown that experience of spatial tasks, such as Lego, and videogames such as Tetris, can improve the brain’s abilities. So if it appears men are better map readers, we may simply be looking at the consequences of different experiences moulding our brains and abilities.

If boys are steered towards construction toys, sports and computer games, which all positively affect performance in these areas, is it any wonder if they turn out to be better map readers? But it’s never too late to remould your brain — one study showed that 18 hours of origami training also improves mental performance.


By the age of nine, a study has found girls will think maths is a subject for boys, not for them. Is this because they struggle more? No — in fact, in this study there weren’t any differences in achievement between boys and girls, it was purely the perception of the girls. But teachers may hold some blame. A study in Israel looked at the effects of a very early ‘teacher bias’, calculated as the difference between marks awarded on an external blind-marked maths exam and those given on an internal teacher-marked version of the same type of test.

In the external exam, girls outperformed the boys. But when it came to the test marked by the teacher, there was a systematic bias in favour of boys, with teachers over-assessing boys’ ability and under-assessing the girls’.

Researchers have found by the age of nine, girls believe maths is a subject not for them, but for boys (file image) 


While one study of adults supposedly backed up women’s natural preference for pink (it’s been speculated that women are programmed through evolution to favour pink because in prehistoric times they had to look for berries for survival), a more recent study in four to five-month-old infants, using eye movements as a measure of their preference, found no evidence of sex differences at all, with all babies preferring the reddish end of the spectrum.

In another study, 200 children, aged seven months to five years, were offered pairs of objects, one of which was always pink. The result was clear: up to the age of about two, neither boys nor girls showed any pink preference.

After that point, the age children start seeing themselves as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ and start receiving gendered toys, there was quite a dramatic change, with girls showing distinctly more enthusiasm for pink things, whereas boys were actively rejecting them.


Last year a survey by the Guides reported girls as young as seven felt boxed in by gender stereotyping. Nearly 50 per cent felt it reduced their willingness to speak up at school.

As one commentator noted: ‘We teach girls that pleasing others is the most important virtue and that being well-behaved is contingent upon being quiet and delicate.’

A recent survey by the Guides shows girls as young as seven have felt boxed in by gender stereotyping (file image) 

We must remember our children’s developing brains will always be on the lookout for the rules and expectations that go with being a particular member of a social group.

It is clear those gender stereotypes that are being input into our little girls do not seem to be giving them a confidence-fuelled clear run to potential pinnacles of achievement.

When parents say: ‘But my daughter and son are so different,’ I say: ‘But my daughters are so different.’ From birth we have to be aware that our children are individuals whose personalities and tastes and interests are not fixed because of their sex.

For me, as a parent of two daughters in the Eighties it was a question of keeping a vigilant lookout for any messages that suggested girls weren’t as brave, or as powerful as boys.

In the 21st century, I think parents have a much tougher job. But we must stay vigilant to anything that signals there are no-go areas or choices you can’t make.

From tweezers to tool kits, how does gender marketing change our brains?

Children as young as four are able to label everyday objects as male (such as a hammer) or female (lipstick), as well as boy or girl toys. 

But is it surprising when you find out that a boy’s toy cupboard is likely to be different from a girl’s from as young as five months, not because of the infant’s choice (they are too young to say) but because of what a parent or friend/relative chooses for them. 

Many will be coded by colour, too.

Tweezerman’s G.E.A.R tweezer and neon pink version, both £22

This bright pink £10.77 hose from Hozelock also comes in yellow

Pink has become a code for all things ‘girly’. It’s not the colour itself that’s the problem, but what it’s come to signify: girly means soft and emotionally fragile, constantly in need of rescue, eye-rollingly incompetent at anything technical.

As campaigners against gendered toys have pointed out, pink toys are almost always associated with dressing up, or with domestic activities such as cooking, or looking after fluffy pets or baby dolls. No problem with that, but it also means these little princesses are not pretending to be super heroes or playing with creative construction toys.

And ideas about what children will think is suitable for them are fixed very early on. Sometimes pink appears to ‘give permission’ for girls to engage with what would otherwise be seen as a boy domain, such as science, technology or engineering. 

The tools in the Apollo 39 Piece Pink Ladies Home Tool Kit, £19.99, are the same as its ‘macho’ black kit, £17.99 — both from

Radox’s ‘heroic’ for men and ‘glam’ for women shower gels, £2.25

Mattel has produced a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Barbie doll to stimulate girls’ interest in becoming scientists. And yet what is it that our Engineer Barbie can build? Not a computer, or a car.

Instead, it’s a pink washing machine, a pink rotating wardrobe or a pink jewellery carousel.

To me it seems ‘pinkification’ is all too often linked with a patronising undertow, implying you can’t get females to engage with the thrills of engineering or science unless you can link them to ‘looks and lipstick’. You don’t have to spend long in a supermarket or trawling the internet to find pointlessly gendered products for adults, as well as children.

Wilkinson’s Quattro three-pack razors for women cost £6.25 and its three-pack for men, £5.89

Adapted from The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon, published by Bodley Head at £20. © Gina Rippon 2019. To order a copy for £16 (offer valid until March 14, 2019; p&p free) visit or call 0844 571 0640.

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