Is There Neurosexism in Functional Neuroimaging Investigations of Sex Differences?

Abstract

The neuroscientific investigation of sex differences has an unsavoury past, in which scientific claims reinforced and legitimated gender roles in ways that were not scientifically justified. Feminist critics have recently argued that the current use of functional neuroimaging technology in sex differences research largely follows that tradition. These charges of ‘neurosexism’ have been countered with arguments that the research being done is informative and valuable and that an over-emphasis on the perils, rather than the promise, of such research threatens to hinder scientific progress. To investigate the validity of these contrasting concerns, recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) investigations of sex differences and citation practices were systematically examined. In line with the notion of neurosexism, the research was found to support the influence of false-positive claims of sex differences in the brain, to enable the proliferation of untested, stereotype-consistent functional interpretations, and to pay insufficient attention to the potential plasticity of sex differences in both brain and mind. This, it is argued, creates a literature biased toward the presentation of sex differences in the brain as extensive, functionally significant, and fixed—and therefore implicitly supportive of a gender essentialist perspective. It is suggested that taking feminist criticisms into account would bring about substantial improvement in the quality of the science, as well as a reduction in socially harmful consequences.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This was done using the search terms “sex” or “gender” in title, and “fMRI”, “functional magnetic resonance imaging” or “functional MRI” in the title, abstract or keywords. ‘Difference’ was not included as a search term so as to not exclude studies reporting sex/gender similarities. Studies that were not full reports of original findings that investigated sex differences in brain activation in humans were then excluded.

  2. 2.

    Excluded from the analysis was one study, referred to earlier, that was specifically testing the generalizability of sex differences based on a total sample size of 20 [42].

  3. 3.

    It’s noteworthy (or at least footnoteworthy) that two of these three articles are specifically concerned with problems arising from neuroimaging studies of sex differences in language lateralization.

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Acknowledgments

My warmest thanks to Martha Farah, Fiona Fidler, Kit Fine, Nick Haslam, Anelis Kaiser, Neil Levy, Carsten Murawski, and Danielle Pogos for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper. This research was supported in part by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Cordelia Fine.

Appendix

Appendix

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Fine, C. Is There Neurosexism in Functional Neuroimaging Investigations of Sex Differences?. Neuroethics 6, 369–409 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-012-9169-1

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Keywords

  • Sex/gender
  • fMRI
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Publication bias
  • Gender essentialism
  • Citation bias