Use myths about brain-based sex differences to teach gender bias

Male brains and female brains…?

Christian Jarrett (editor of the BPS Research Digest blog) posted on the Psychology Today blog a piece entitled “Two Myths and Three Facts About the Differences in Men and Women’s Brains” (20/07/2012).

The post includes a discussion of the possible origins of 2 myths about the differences between men and women’s brains:

  1. “Women’s brains are more balanced”
  2. “Sex-related brain differences explain behavioural differences between the sexes”

The 3 “facts” (bearing in mind the tentative nature of scientific findings) discussed in the post are:

  1. “Men’s brains are bigger”
  2. “There are sex differences in the size of individual brain structures”
  3. “Sex-related brain differences matter”

AQA A: Issues in Psychology – Gender Bias

Students should have the opportunity to consider sources of gender bias in research in Psychology in order to generate AO2 capable of reaching the top mark bands (Unit 3; A2). Don’t, however, just leave students to read about issues such as gender bias in their textbook and then hope they will apply the knowledge themselves. Plan a lesson where the objective is to explore the issue of gender bias in a number of contexts. For those readers who are using a spiral “layered” curriculum (see earlier post; see update re success) this would fit neatly into layer 3 when student’s knowledge of the topic area has been consolidated sufficiently to consider broad issues and debates meaningfully.

Ideas for the classroom

Here are a few ways to use this post as a learning resource:

Starter: myths/truths sort task

Present the 2 myths and 3 facts as a lesson starter. Ask students to sort them into “myths” or “facts”, perhaps adding a few other myths into the mix so that the focus on gender is not obvious from the start (follow these links for some ideas: link 1; link 2). You could ask students to revisit the statements once you have discussed which are “true” and which are not supported by evidence, then ask students to identify those where  it matters most if this myth is believed to be true when it is not. A discussion about the implications and dangers of bias in research should emerge, allowing you to turn the discussion round to gender in particular.

Bias in phrasing

Bias not only exists in the research process, but also in the way in which findings are reported for publication. There is obviously the issue that research which finds a significant difference is more likely to be reported and published, than research that finds no significant difference. Gender bias, however, can also crop up in the wording chosen to describe observed differences in a report. Research by Hegarty and Buechel (2006), for example, reported that researchers tend to describe gender differences that emerge from the data, using phrases such as “more than” in favour of “less than” (www.psychcentral.com has an interesting article on this).

Ask students to consider why this type of wording might be an issue using the fact about brain size as an example (e.g. men have bigger brains than women versus women have smaller brains than men).

Preparatory reading for a seminar style discussion

The article is likely to be a relatively challenging read for A Level students with little knowledge of neuroscience but not an inaccessible read. As the author highlights the problem of ignoring sex differences, as much as creating myths that are not true or not relevant, it provides a stimulus for discussion. The article ends with a recommended reading list and perhaps more interestingly, a list of publications to avoid. Students could consider why these books might be on the authors “banned list”.

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