Mrs Anne Ingram, Dean of Students
In the dimmed room, pairs of khaki-clad pilots man their jet simulators. Headsets are adjusted. Safety harnesses clicked into place. Control panels are checked, and re-checked as communication systems are activated. The ‘thumbs up’ signals readiness as the countdown commences. The action begins; it’s the chance to prove who is the best in the head-to-head simulated fighter pilot scenario — the ultimate Top Gun competition.
The venue was NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, USA. Space Camp was launched in 1982 to inspire and motivate young people from around the country to join the ranks of space pioneers who persevere to push the boundaries of human exploration. Today, with attendees from all 50 US States, territories and more than 60 countries, this immersive program continues to challenge young people to dream of a future in space. Brisbane Girls Grammar School has enjoyed a long association with NASA’s Space Camp. The inaugural tour to Alabama took place in 1992, and since then, the School has returned eleven times. As a teacher observer in 2011, I marvelled at our girls in action during their Mach III Aviation Challenge programme. Working alongside students from around the globe, our girls were challenged in the fields of aerodynamics and aeronautics as they experienced Space Camp’s most advanced aviation course. Using simulated combat scenarios and hands-on activities, Aviation Challenge provided our girls both with an understanding of flight technique and piloting skills, as well as rich opportunities for the reinforcement of leadership, teamwork and creative problem-solving.
I was in awe of the skills the girls were demonstrating and how they were flourishing in their new environment. They were incredibly proficient, quick thinking, and spatially aware. They were deft at communicating to solve problems, sometimes within very short time frames. They showed an intensity of focus and a commitment to the task at hand. Faced with obstacles and challenges, they presented a grit and determination to succeed — a ‘dig deep’ mindset. It was not surprising that on several of the US Space Tours, Girls Grammar students have been awarded the prestigious Right Stuff and coveted Top Gun awards.
Those old enough to remember the 1986 hit movie Top Gun will recall the male dominated field of United States Naval Aviators. Aviators were men and those in aeronautical pursuits were considered to be the best of the best. The job was physically and intellectually demanding and risk taking was revered. Not a woman to be seen, except for the stereotypical glamorous blonde providing the perfect predictable storyline of Hollywood movie fare. Many years later, while marvelling at our girls outperforming their male counterparts in what can still be described as a male-dominated arena, this gave me a reason to ponder the perceived differences of male and female minds, and if indeed, any difference exists.
Over the past two decades, brain researchers have sought to identify structural differences in brain anatomy that provide reasons for the perceived differences between the sexes. The female brain is often described as dominant in language, social connection, nurturing and empathy, while in contrast, the male brain is often viewed as one designed for mathematics, spatial orientation, systematisation and analysis. New findings about male-female difference command worldwide attention and scientists use gendered brain maps to demonstrate structural differences between male and female brains in the hope of extrapolating structural differences into functional variance (Eliot, 2014). Great care needs to be taken in this area. While it might be intuitive to assume that differences in brain structure will result in differences in function, the most recent work in this area suggests that this is not necessarily the case (Fine, 2013). Cutting-edge studies in neuroscience have identified that while in the past, some neural differences between the sexes have been highlighted as important differences and thus attributable to a more male or a more female brain, they have since been deemed inconsequential and found to be offset by other compensatory differences. Neural differences can, in fact, provide alternative pathways to the same behavioural end.
One indisputable physiological difference between males and females is brain size. The larger brain of the average male presents a different sort of engineering problem, much like a larger city requires a more comprehensive highway system to allow traffic to move smoothly from the centre to the suburbs. To minimise energy demands, wiring costs and communication times, different neurological arrangements are evident in differently sized brains. In males, the wiring pattern generally appears to be from front to back with few connections bridging the two cerebral hemispheres. In females, the pathways criss-cross between the left and the right hemispheres. This structural difference has paved the way for some sloppy scientific extrapolation in terms of how men and women think. One popular school of thought is that with their richly interconnecting neural circuitry, females are programmed to multitask, connect, nurture and communicate. Male brains, on the other hand, have a far more straightforward patterning and are built to streamline, hardwired for action and analysis (Deak, 2003).
Today, good science disputes this and now supports the fact that men and women are able to meet similar intellectual challenges using different sized neural machinery and slightly different neural patterning. Ultimately, the brain is able to meet the same outcome in more than one way and it would appear that gender is not the key factor at play in this debate (Eliot, 2014).
Leading neuroscientist, Professor Gina Rippon of Aston University, Birmingham, claims the idea that male and female brains are wired differently is a myth with no basis in science. She contends that nurture has far more to do with gender-perceived brain difference than nature:
There is increasing concern within the neuroscience community about the misinterpretation and abuse of our findings on the links between brain structure and behavior. This ‘neurohype’ is designed to support stereotypes and to suggest that there is a major biological and structural difference in the brains of men and women that explains their social roles and status. This is nonsense. There may be some very small differences between the genders but the similarities are far, far greater (Rippon, 2010).
Professor Rippon’s irritation with such ideas is shared by Associate Professor Cordelia Fine, of Macquarie University in Sydney. In her 2013 presentation to the ACER Institute Research Conference, Fine focused on debunking the pseudoscience behind boy brains and girl brains. Drawing on the very latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Fine revealed a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies and poor methodologies in scientific studies based on brain difference. Through her careful, deep and thoughtful analysis of the most recent research, Fine presented a compelling case that who we are is much more closely attuned to the culture that surrounds us, than to the biology of our brains:
As long as there has been brain science there have been misguided neurological explanations and justifications of sex inequality. Again and again, these hypotheses eventually find themselves on the scientific scrap heap. But not before they become part of cultural lore, and reinforce social attitudes about men and women that hinder progress towards greater sex equality (Fine, 2010).
Fine’s view is of plastic, mutable minds that are continuously influenced by cultural assumptions about gender. The truth is that the mass of the billions of nerve cells that comprise our brains is flexible and changes based on experience. Two decades ago, the brain was thought to be rigid in many respects. The notion of fixed neurological structures was the accepted norm. Since then, neuroplasticity has been somewhat of a revolution. We now know that our brains are malleable and much like a muscle, they can be trained, retrained, developed and repaired given the correct stimulus, at any time throughout our lives. (Merzenich, 2013).Simply put, experiences change our brains. In order to explain differences between male and female brains, some neuroscientists today are challenging the status quo, suggesting that the science now points to an interesting interplay between cultural stimuli and neuroplasticity, rather than basic anatomy. A woman’s brain may become more ‘wired’ for social connection, nurturing and multitasking simply because of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias through the course of her life. Society’s expectations of her have resulted in her using that part of her brain more often. Over time, as a result of developing and strengthening those particular neural pathways, the brain adapts to be more expert and adept in this area (Rippon, 2010).
Ultimately, what is important about gender differences is not whether they arise from social constructs or from brain design but that they can be changed. Females can be experts at mathematics and analysis. Men can empathise and multitask. Our educational opportunities at Brisbane Girls Grammar School are rich and challenging. They provide the cross training that is essential for our girls’ age and stage, enabling them to flourish in a wide variety of academic endeavours that see them challenging gender boundaries. It is our duty to continue to present to our students the importance of a growth mindset, the significance of neuroplasticity, the role of cognitive challenge and an understanding of the rich rewards that failure can bring. Through the breadth and depth of our academic offerings at Brisbane Girls Grammar School and our vast array of co-curricular activities, guided by an outstanding team of staff, our students are provided with the ideal environment for them to reach exceptional standards in education and learning. Their preparation for the future is not gender biased nor gender dependent, allowing them the flexibility and freedom to prepare themselves for their valuable contribution to our future society.
In an increasingly complex and competitive world, we need our boys to be emotionally intelligent and our girls to be technologically savvy. By appreciating how sex differences emerge — rather than assuming them to be fixed biological facts — we can help all children reach their fullest potential, closing the troubling gaps between boys and girls and ultimately end the gender wars that currently divide us (Eliot, 2014).
Eliot, L. (2009) Pink Brain Blue Brain: How small differences grow into troubling gaps and what we can do about it. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
Eliot, L. (2014) Sex-trapolation in the Latest Brain Science. Huff Post Science, April 6, 2014.
Fine, C (2013) Presentation to ACER Research Conference. Debunking the Pseudo-Science Behind ‘Boy Brains’ and ‘Girl Brains’. Melbourne, Australia.
Fine, C (2010) Delusions of Gender. WW Norton & Company, Inc., New York.
Merzenich, M. (2013) Softwired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. Parnassus Publishing, San Francisco.
Rippon, G. (2010) Fighting the ‘neurotrash industry’. Accessed April 7, 2014 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8207106/Professor-Gina-Rippon-Fighting-the-neutrotrash-industry.html
Published 22 May 2014