Evidence has long suggested that ‘hardwiring’ is a poor metaphor for brain development. But the metaphor may be an apt one for the dominant paradigm for researching sex differences, which pushes most neuroscience studies of sex/gender inexorably towards the ‘discovery’ of sex/gender differences, and makes contemporary gender structures appear natural and inevitable. The argument we forward in this paper is twofold. In the first part of the paper, we address the dominant ‘hardwiring’ paradigm of sex/gender research in contemporary neuroscience, which is built on broad consensus that there are important ‘original’ sex differences in brain structure and function, organized by sex-differentiating prenatal hormone exposures. We explain why this consensus is both unscientific and unethical. In the second part of the paper, we sketch an alternative research program focused not on the origins of sex/gender differences but on variability and plasticity of brain/behavior. We argue that interventional experiments based on this approach will address more tractable questions, and lead to much more satisfactory results than the brain organization paradigm can provide.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. Sexing the body. New York: Basic Books.
Ridgeway, C.L. 2009. Framed before we know it: how gender shapes social relations. Gender & Society 23: 145–160.
Risman, B.J. 2004. Gender as a social structure: theory wrestling with activism. Gender & Society 18: 429–450.
Hines, M. 2004. Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fausto-Sterling, A. 2005. The bare bones of sex: part 1—sex and gender. Signs 30: 1491–1527.
Kaiser, A., E. Kuenzli, et al. 2007. On females’ lateral and males’ bilateral activation during language production: an fMRI study. International Journal of Psychophysiology 63: 192–198.
Kessler, S.J. 1998. Lessons from the intersexed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Oudshoorn, N. 1994. Beyond the natural body: An archeology of sex hormones. London: Routledge.
Fausto-Sterling, A. 2008. The bare bones of race. Social Studies of Science 38: 657–694.
Willis, E., R. Miller, et al. 2001. Gendered embodiment and survival for young people with cystic fibrosis. Social Science & Medicine 53: 1163–1174.
Krieger, N. 2003. Genders, sexes, and health: what are the connections—and why does it matter? International Journal of Epidemiology 32: 652–657.
Kaiser, A., S. Haller, et al. 2009. On sex/gender related similarities and differences in fMRI language research. Brain Research Reviews 61: 49–59.
Baron-Cohen, S. 2003. The essential difference: The truth about the male and female brain. New York: Basic Books.
Eliot, L. 2009. Pink brain, blue brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps—and what we can do about it. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Bogart, L.M., H. Cecil, D.A. Wagstaff, S.D. Pinkerton, and P.R. Abramson. 2000. Is it “sex”?: College students’ interpretations of sexual behavior terminology. Journal of Sex Research 37: 108–116.
Sanders, S.A., and J.M. Reinisch. 1999. Would you say you “had sex” if … ? Jama-Journal of the American Medical Association 281: 275–277.
Kenen, S.H. 1997. Who counts when you’re counting homosexuals? Hormones and homosexuality in mid-twentieth century America. In Science and homosexualities, ed. V. Rosario, 197–218. New York: Routledge.
Steakley, J.D. 1997. Per scientiam ad justitiam: Magnus Hirschfeld and the sexual politics of innate homosexuality. In Science and homosexualities, ed. V. Rosario, 133–154. New York: Routledge.
Terry, J. 1999. An American obsession: Science, medicine, and homosexuality in modern society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bao, A.M., and D.F. Swaab. 2010. Sex differences in the brain, behavior, and neuropsychiatric disorders. Neuroscientist 16: 550–565.
Cahill, L. 2006. Why sex matters for neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7(6): 477–484.
Jordan-Young, R.M. 2010. Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jost, A. 1953. Problems of fetal endocrinology—the gonadal and hypophyseal hormones. Recent Progress in Hormone Research 8: 379–418.
Phoenix, C.H., R.W. Goy, et al. 1959. Organizing action of prenatally administered testosterone propionate on the tissues mediating mating behavior in the female guinea pig. Endocrinology 65: 369–382.
Bishop, K.M., and D. Wahlsten. 1999. Sex and species differences in mouse and rat forebrain commissures depend on the method of adjusting for brain size. Brain Research 815: 358–366.
Schum, J.E., and K.E. Wynne-Edwards. 2005. Estradiol and progesterone in paternal and non-paternal hamsters (Phodopus) becoming fathers: conflict with hypothesized roles. Hormones and Behavior 47: 410–418.
van den Wijngaard, M. 1997. Reinventing the sexes: The biomedical construction of femininity and masculinity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Costanzo, M.S., N.C. Bennett, et al. 2009. Spatial learning and memory in african mole-rats: the role of sociality and sex. Physiology & Behavior 96: 128–134.
Lim, M.M., H.P. Nair, et al. 2005. Species and sex differences in brain distribution of corticotropin-releasing factor receptor subtypes 1 and 2 in monogamous and promiscuous vole species. Journal of Comparative Neurology 487: 75–92.
Lonstein, J.S. 2002. Effects of dopamine receptor antagonism with haloperidol on nurturing behavior in the biparental prairie vole. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 74: 11–19.
Balaban, E. 2006. Cognitive developmental biology: history, process and fortune’s wheel. Cognition 101: 298–332.
Bester-Meredith, J.K., and C.A. Marler. 2001. Vasopressin and aggression in cross-fostered California mice (Peromyscus californicus) and white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus). Hormones and Behavior 40: 51–64.
Resko, J.A., and C.E. Roselli. 1997. Prenatal hormones organize sex differences of the neuroendocrine reproductive system: observations on guinea pigs and nonhuman primates. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology 17: 627–648.
Sheng, Z.J., J. Kawano, et al. 2004. ‘Expression of estrogen receptors (Alpha, Beta) and androgen receptor in serotonin neurons of the rat and mouse dorsal raphe nuclei: sex and species differences. Neuroscience Research 49: 185–196.
Tilbrook, A.J., A.I. Turner, et al. 2000. Effects of stress on reproduction in non-rodent mammals: the role of glucocorticoids and sex differences. Reviews of Reproduction 5: 105–113.
Nopoulos, P., M. Flaum, et al. 2000. Sexual dimorphism in the human brain: evaluation of tissue volume, tissue composition and surface anatomy using magnetic resonance imaging. Psychiatry Research-Neuroimaging 98: 1–13.
Allen, L.S., M. Hines, et al. 1989. Two sexually dimorphic cell groups in the human-brain. Journal of Neuroscience 9: 497–506.
Byne, W., S. Tobet, et al. 2001. The interstitial nuclei of the human anterior hypothalamus: an investigation of variation with sex, sexual orientation, and HIV status. Hormones and Behavior 40: 86–92.
Byne, W., M.S. Lasco, et al. 2000. The interstitial nuclei of the human anterior hypothalamus: an investigation of sexual variation in volume and cell size, number and density. Brain Research 856: 254–258.
LeVay, S. 1991. A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men. Science 253: 1034–1037.
Goldstein, J.M., L.J. Seidman, et al. 2001. Normal sexual dimorphism of the adult human brain assessed by in vivo magnetic resonance imaging. Cerebral Cortex 11: 490–497.
Clemens, L.G., M. Hiroi, and R. Gorski. 1969. Induction and facilitation of female mating behavior in rats treated neonatally with low doses of testosterone propionate. Endocrinology 84: 1430–1438.
Wakshlak, A., and M. Weinstock. 1990. Neonatal handling reverses behavioral abnormalities induced in rats by prenatal stress. Physiology & Behavior 48: 289–292.
Leboucher, G. 1989. Maternal-behavior in normal and androgenized female rats—effect of age and experience. Physiology & Behavior 45: 313–319.
Hendricks, S.E., J.R. Lehman, and G. Oswalt. 1982. Responses to copulatory stimulation in neonatally androgenized female rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 96: 834–845.
Buchmann, C., and T.A. DiPrete. 2006. The growing female advantage in college completion: the role of family background and academic achievement. American Sociological Review 71: 515–541.
Huang, G., & Taddese, N. et al. (2000). Entry and persistence of women and minorities in college science and engineering education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2000–601.
Hyde, J.S., S.M. Lindberg, et al. 2008. Diversity—gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321: 494–495.
Hyde, J.S., and J.E. Mertz. 2009. Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106: 8801–8807.
Jorm, A.F., K.B.G. Dear, et al. 2003. Cohort difference in sexual orientation: results from a large age-stratified population sample. Gerontology 49: 392–395.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Fast facts: What is the percentage of degrees conferred by sex and race? http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72, date accessed March 2, 2010.
Smith, T.M. 1995. The educational progress of women: Findings from ‘the condition of education. Washington: National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Hyde, J.S. 2005. The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist 60: 581–592.
Feng, J., I. Spence, and J. Pratt. 2007. Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science 18: 850–855.
Berenbaum, S.A. 1999. Effects of early androgens on sex-typed activities and interests in adolescents with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Hormones and Behavior 35: 102–110.
Hines, M., C. Brook, and G.S. Conway. 2004. Androgen and psychosexual development: core gender identity, sexual orientation, and recalled childhood gender role behavior in women and men with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH). Journal of Sex Research 41: 75–81.
Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F.L. 2001. Gender and sexuality in classic congenital adrenal hyperplasia’. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America 30: 155–171.
Ehrhardt, A.A., G.C. Grisanti, and H.F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg. 1977. Prenatal exposure to Medroxyprogesterone Acetate (MPA) in girls. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2: 391–398.
Reinisch, J.M., and S.A. Sanders. 1992. Effects of prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) on hemispheric laterality and spatial ability in human males. Hormones and Behavior 26: 62–75.
Knickmeyer, R.C., and S. Baron-Cohen. 2006. Fetal testosterone and sex differences in typical social development and in autism. Journal of Child Neurology 21: 825–845.
Blanchard, R., and R.A. Lippa. 2007. Birth order, sibling sex ratio, handedness, and sexual orientation of male and female participants in a bbc internet research project'. Archives of Sexual Behavior 36: 163–176.
Gladue, B.A., and J.M. Bailey. 1995. Spatial ability, handedness, and human sexual orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology 20: 487–497.
Lalumiere, M.L., R. Blanchard, and K.J. Zucker. 2000. Sexual orientation and handedness in men and women: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 126: 575–592.
Cook, T.D., and D.T. Campbell. 1979. Quasi-experimentation: Design & analysis issues for field settings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Savin-Williams, R.C. 2006. Who’s gay? Does it matter? Current Directions in Psychological Science 15: 40–44.
Sell, R.L., J.A. Wells, et al. 1995. The prevalence of homosexual behavior and attraction in the United-States, the United-Kingdom and France—results of national population-based samples. Archives of Sexual Behavior 24: 235–248.
Gastaud, F., C. Bouvattier, et al. 2007. Impaired sexual and reproductive outcomes in women with classical forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 92: 1391–1396.
Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F.L., and C. Dolezal. 2008. Sexual orientation in women with classical or non-classical adrenal hyperplasia as a function degree of prenatal androgen excess. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37: 85–99.
Zucker, K.J., S.J. Bradley, et al. 1996. Psychosexual development of women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Hormones and Behavior 30: 300–318.
Jordan-Young, R. M. (2011). Hormones, context, and “Brain Gender”: evidence from congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Social Science & Medicine, special issue on Gender & Health (volume not yet numbered). doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.08.026
Lin-Su, Y.R., S. Nimkarn, et al. 2008. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia in adolescents—diagnosis and management. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 1135: 95–8.
White, P.C., and P.W. Speiser. 2000. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency. Endocrine Reviews 21: 245–291.
Karkazis, K. 2008. Fixing sex: Intersex, medical authority, and lived experience. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lish, J.D., H.F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, et al. 1992. Prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (Des): childhood play behavior and adult gender-role behavior in women. Archives of Sexual Behavior 21: 423–441.
Titus-Ernstoff, L., K. Perez, et al. 2003. Psychosexual characteristics of men and women exposed prenatally to diethylstilbestrol. Epidemiology 14: 155–160.
Schachter, S.C. 1994. Handedness in women with intrauterine exposure to diethylstilbestrol. Neuropsychologia 32: 619–623.
Scheirs, J.G.M., and A. Vingerhoets. 1995. Handedness and other laterality indexes in women prenatally exposed to DES. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 17: 725–730.
Smith, L.L., and M. Hines. 2000. Language lateralization and handedness in women prenatally exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES). Psychoneuroendocrinology 25(5): 497–512.
Ehrhardt, A.A., H.F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, et al. 1985. Sexual orientation after prenatal exposure to exogenous estrogen. Archives of Sexual Behavior 14: 57–77.
Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F.L., A.A. Ehrhardt, et al. 1995. Prenatal estrogens and the development of homosexual orientation. Developmental Psychology 31: 12–21.
Hewlett, S.A. 2002. Creating a life: Professional women and the quest for children. New York: Hyperion.
Holden, C. 2000. Parity as a goal sparks bitter battle. Science 289: 380–380.
Udry, R. 2000. Biological limits of gender construction. American Sociological Review 65: 443–457.
Fine, C. 2008. Will working mothers’ brains explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism, Neuroethics 1: 69–72.
Brescoll, V., and M. LaFrance. 2004. The correlates and consequences of newspaper reports of research on sex differences. Psychological Science 15: 515–520.
Fine, C. 2010. Delusions of gender. New York: Norton.
Young, R.M., and E. Balaban. 2006. Psychoneuroindoctrinology. Nature 443: 634.
Brizendine, L. 2006. The female brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.
Swaab, D.F., and A. Garcia-Falgueras. 2009. Sexual differentiation of the human brain in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation. Functional Neurology 24: 17–28.
Hyde, J.S., and M.C. Linn. 2006. Diversity—gender similarities in mathematics and science. Science 314: 599–600.
Guiso, L., F. Monte, et al. 2008. Diversity. Culture, gender, and math. Science 320: 1164–1165.
Maguire, E.A., D.G. Gadian, et al. 2000. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97: 4398–4403.
Maguire, E.A., H.J. Spiers, et al. 2003. Navigation expertise and the human hippocampus: a structural brain imaging analysis. Hippocampus 13: 250–259.
Messing, K., and J.M. Stellman. 2006. Sex, gender and women’s occupational health: the importance of considering mechanism. Environmental Research 101: 149–162.
Driemeyer, J., J. Boyke, et al. 2008. Changes in gray matter induced by learning-revisited. Plos One 3(7): e2669.
Lappe, C., S.C. Herholz, et al. 2008. Cortical plasticity induced by short-term unimodal and multimodal musical training. Journal of Neuroscience 28: 9632–9639.
Rose, S., S. Ceci, and W.M. Williams. 2009. Should scientists study race and IQ? No: science and society do not benefit. Nature 457: 786–788.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Jordan-Young, R., Rumiati, R.I. Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience. Neuroethics 5, 305–315 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9134-4
- Brain organization theory