The taxi driver was taking me to the Institute of Physics Gender Champion Training where I was delivering some workshops on Unconcious Bias and Building Resilience.
‘Don’t get me started on gender stuff ‘ he said which clearly meant he was going to get started on gender stuff. ‘I’m all for equality, but ..’ . He carried on ‘There’s a girls school round here and they aren’t allowed to call the girls, girls. How ridiculous is that? Its obvious girls are girls and men are men.’
What to do? Give him a lecture on genetics, gender as a social construct, unconscious bias and how it isn’t at all obvious?
Sadly, faced with a belief system, rationality usually fails miserably. A strategy of -‘ Here is the evidence, you lose the argument’, usually provokes an emotional response and a strengthening of the belief system
How can we get people to engage strategic reasoning?
We naturally to overestimate what we know about a subject. Often simply reading the headlines of an article from news media that we trust or from a person we admire. Fact checking is not something we often do To change someone’s opinions we need to get them to question what they really know.
“What are the advantages of calling girls, girls?” I put to the taxi driver.
‘It’s obvious isn’t it? That’s what they are?’
“So what makes a girl a girl?”
‘You mean you don’t know?’ he chuckled ‘You’ve got a lot to learn’
I gave up!
Why do we feel the need to label genders and is it obvious what makes a girl?
Humans generally like to organise things. It is useful to put things into categories based on some common characteristics. It is one way we make sense of the World.
What about humans, how can we group them? By race and gender? What does she’s a black girl mean?
Race may seem obvious category for adults, but children can see the world differently.
Take this 5-year-old boy on the left below. He wanted to have an identical haircut as his friend on the right in order to ‘trick their teacher’ who would no longer be able to tell them apart.
Other research found that when 5-year-old European Americans were shown images of children speaking either English or French and then asked to match the child to pictures of grown-ups. They were more likely to choose consistently speaking French as the stable, unchanging category even if it meant the skin colour of the child changed as they became an adult.
White children aged 9 no longer believed this, to them, race was the stable factor. Interestingly (probably worryingly) 5-year-olds from ethnic minorities also matched race rather than language. The researchers suggested this was because the racial minority groups probably considered race to be a meaningful category.
But grouping people by sex is easy isnt it?
What is a girl in terms of biology?
It’s simple at GCSE level. There are two options an XX chromosomal pair and you have a girl. XY and you have a boy. Unfortunately, this is a simplification. People with Swyers Syndrome, for example, are genetically XY but have no male traits. These are not “women trapped in men’s bodies.” They are women trapped in women’s bodies that are chromosomally male (except for just one gene). There are people who have a genetic mosaic, some of their cells are XX and others are XY. Women with 90% XY cells and 10% XX cells have given birth.
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Parents make a choice as to whether to bring them up as a boy or a girl. It is difficult to know what percentage of children are born intersex. Some only discover they are intersex during puberty that although they have a vagina they have no ovaries. There is the extraordinary story of the Guevedoces (literal translation ‘penis at 12’) Apparently born as girls, but developing into boys at puberty
An intersex model Hanne Odiele shares her story here
So biologically there are grey areas in our girl definition with possibly up to 1.7% having genetic ambiguity. That isnt an insignificant number
How about brains? Can you spot a girls brain using MRI or other means?
There appear to be some sex differences between male and female brains but every brain seems to have a unique mixture of both. Scientists may have some degree of confidence in predicting whether the brain is male or female. The brain obviously influences behaviour, but conversely, behaviour changes the brain structure. It’s a two-way process. When we stereotype and limit what people do then we effectively limit their brain development.
As soon as scientists could image the brain, they began hunting for sex differences. Some modest disparities have been reported: On average, for example, men tend to have a larger amygdala, a region associated with emotion. Such differences are small and highly influenced by the environment, yet they have still been used to paint a binary picture of the human brain, “even when the data reveal much more overlap than difference between males and females,”
Can you tell a girl by her behaviour?
How much of behaviour is influenced by societal expectations?
As soon as a child is assigned a gender the behaviour of adults changes towards them. The plasticity of the brain is such that its structure is changed by experience. How much do we mould girls and boys to fit into established ‘norms’ and how much is innate?
Gender is simply a social construct. How helpful it is to categorise girls and boys is a matter of fierce debate. Science cannot prove anything, simply disprove. The evidence firmly suggests that my taxi driver was wrong. It’s not obvious at all.
What is clear is that when we label anyone as a girl, boy, black, white, thin, fat, Christian, Muslim or whatever. We expect them to be like whatever our previous experience or biases are towards that category and that is seldom helpful.
Blog on unconscious bias coming soon