Just Like a Circus: The Public Consumption of Sex Differences

Part of the Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences book series (CTBN, volume 19)


The study of sex differences is a rich, productive area of neuroscience, yielding findings that inform our understanding of basic biology and hold promise for clinical applications. There is a tremendous, problematic mismatch, however, between the actual implications of this research and what has generally been communicated to the public. The message communicated by the media, popular press, and in some cases researchers is often inaccurate with respect to what can and cannot be concluded from the data. This misrepresentation of findings has led to a crisis in public education and threatens to do the same in public health. Here, I suggest a number of ways that neuroscientists might address this growing problem. First, we should acknowledge that the term ‘sex difference’ is usually interpreted by the media and the public as evidence for dichotomous categories that do not actually exist. Because data rarely sort so cleanly into sex-specific categories, clearer presentation of the nature and size of sex differences is warranted. The term ‘sex effect’ may be preferable to ‘sex difference’ when the effect is not large. Second, factors that covary with sex, particularly experience, should be considered as causes of sex differences before the idea of “hardwiring” is invoked. Finally, we should be more vigilant about how our own findings are conveyed to policymakers and the public and speak out when they are misrepresented.


Brain-based learning Neuromyth Neurosexism Pseudoscience Reverse inference Sex differences Single-sex education 



I am grateful to Shirley K. Maney, former teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system, for originally calling this controversial topic to my attention, and to Stephan Hamann for his advice and assistance. I also thank Chris Goode, Steve Nowicki, Deboleena Roy, and Kim Wallen for comments on the manuscript.


  1. American Civil Liberties Union (2012) Preliminary findings of ACLU “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign. Accessed 15 Jun 2013
  2. A.N.A. et al (2011) Breckinridge County Board of Education, et al. US District Court, Western District of Kentucky at Louisville 3:08-CV-4-S. Accessed 1 Jul 2013
  3. Andrew-Sfeir A (2012) Differences in brain structure between men and women. Accessed 25 Mar 2014
  4. Aragonès E, Piñol JL, Labad A (2006) The overdiagnosis of depression in non-depressed patients in primary care. Fam Pract 23:363–368CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Beery AK, Zucker I (2011) Sex bias in neuroscience and biomedical research. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 35:565–572CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bishop DV (2013) What a difference a day makes: how social media is transforming scientific debate. Accessed 12 Dec 2013
  7. Bishop MK, Wahlsten D (1997) Sex differences in the human corpus callosum: myth or reality? Neurosci Behavioral Rev 21:581–601CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blatter DD, Bigler ED, Gale SD, Johnson SC, Anderson CV, Burnett BM, Parker N, Kurth S, Horn DS (1995) Quantitative volumetric analysis of brain MR: normative database spanning 5 decades of life. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol 16:241–251PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Bluhm R (2012) Self-fulfilling prophecies: the influence of gender stereotypes on functional neuroimaging research on emotion. Hypatia 28:870–886CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bowman GS (2001) Emotions and illness. J Adv Nursing 34:256–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bruner E, Cuetara MJ, Colom R, Martin-Loeches M (2012) Gender-based differences in the shape of the human corpus callosum are associated with allometric variations. J Anatomy 220:417–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cahill L (2006) Why sex matters for neuroscience. Nat Rev Neurosci 7:477–484CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Canto JG, Goldberg RJ, Hand MM, Bonow RO, Sopko G, Pepine CJ, Long T (2007) Symptom presentation of women with acute coronary syndromes: myth vs. reality. Arch Intern Med 167:2405–2413CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Carothers BJ, Reis HT (2013) Men and women are from earth: examining the latent structure of gender. J Personal Social Psychol 104:385–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. CBS News (2010, September) Size matters: how male, female brains compare. Accessed 18 Jun 2013
  16. Chadwell D (2010, February 28) Instructional resources. Accessed 15 Dec 2013
  17. Chamberlain LB (2009) The amazing teen brain: what every child advocate needs to know. ABA Child Law Pract 28:17–24Google Scholar
  18. Cosgrove KP, Mazure CM, Staley JK (2007) Evolving knowledge of sex differences in brain structure, function, and chemistry. Biol Psychiatry 62:847–855CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Courchesne E, Chizum H, Townsend J, Cowles A, Covington J, Egaas B, Harwood M, Hinds S, Press GA (2000) Normal brain development and aging: quantitative analysis and in vivo MR imaging in healthy volunteers. Neuroradiology 216:672–682Google Scholar
  20. Doe V (2012) Wood County Board of Education. US District Court, Southern District of West Virginia 6:12-cv-04355. Accessed 23 Jun 2014
  21. Eliot L (2009) Pink brain, blue brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, BostonGoogle Scholar
  22. Eliot L (2011) Single-sex education and the brain. Sex Roles 69:363–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fine C (2008) Will working mothers’ brains explode? The popular new genre of neurosexism. Neuroethics 1:69–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fine C (2010) Delusions of gender. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  25. Fine C (2013) New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism? The conversation. Accessed 20 Jan 2014
  26. Forer B (2011) Top 5 symptoms of heart disease in women. Accessed 28 Dec 2013
  27. Gillies GE, McArthur S (2010) Estrogen actions in the brain and the basis for differential action in men and women: a case for sex-specific medicines. Pharmacol Rev 62:155–198CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Gimenez MR, Reiter M, Twerenbold R, Reichlin T, Wildi K, Haaf P, Wicki K, Zellweger C, Hoeller R, Moehring B, Sou SM, Mueller M, Denhaerynck K, Meller B, Stallone F, Henseler S, Bassetti S, Geigy N, Osswald S, Mueller C (2014) Sex-specific chest pain characteristics in the early diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction. JAMA Int Med 174:241–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gould SJ (1981) The mismeasure of man. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Gray J (1992) Men are from mars, women are from Venus: a practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want in your relationships. Harper, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Greenspan JD, Craft RM, LeResche L, Arendt-Nielsen L, Berkley KJ, Fillingim RB, Gold MS, Holdcroft A, Lautenbacher S, Mayer EA, Mogil JS, Murphy AZ, Traub RJ (2007) Studying sex and gender differences in pain and analgesia: a consensus report. Pain 132(S1):S26–S45CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Gurian M, Stevens K (2004) With boys and girls in mind. Educ Leadersh 61:21–27Google Scholar
  33. Gurian M, Stevens K (2005) The minds of boys: saving our sons from falling behind in school and life. Jossey Bass, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  34. Haier RJ, Jung RE, Yeo RA, Head K, Alkire MT (2005) The neuroanatomy of general intelligence: sex matters. NeuroImage 25:320–327CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Halpern DF, Eliot L, Bigler RS, Fabes RA, Hanish LD, Hyde J, Liben LS, Martin CL (2011) The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling. Science 333:1706–1707CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Hambrick DZ, Oswald FL, Darowski ES, Rench TA, Brou R (2010) Predictors of multitasking performance in a synthetic work paradigm. Cognit Psychol 24:1149–1167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hardiman M, Rinne L, Gregory E, Yarmolinskaya J (2012) Neuroethics, neuroeducation, and classroom teaching: where the brain sciences meet pedagogy. Neuroethics 5:135–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Huang GZ, Woolley CS (2012) Estradiol acutely suppresses inhibition in the hippocampus through a sex-specific endocannabinoid and mGluR-dependent mechanism. Neuron 74:801–808CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Hodgins DJ (2007) Looking through the eyes of boys and girls. As cited in RationalWiki (2013, October 15). Crockus. Retrieved from Accessed 15 Dec 2013
  40. Hodgins DJ (2011) What about those boys? [Presentation materials]. Accessed 15 Jun 2013
  41. Hollingsworth H, Bonner JL (2012) Why single-sex education is spreading across the U.S. Christ Sci Monit 8:2012Google Scholar
  42. Humphries KH, Izadnegahdar M, Mackay MH (2012) Sex differences in presentation of myocardial infarction. JAMA 307:2486–2487CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Hyde JS (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis. Am Psychol 60:581–592CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Hyde JS (2014) Gender similarities and differences. Annu Rev Psychol 65:373–398CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Ingalhalikar M, Smith A, Parker D, Satterthwaite TD, Elliott MA, Ruparel K, Hakonarson H, Gur RE, Gur RC, Verma R (2014) Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. Proc Natl Acad Sci 111:823–828CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Jordan-Young RM (2010) Brainstorm: the flaws in the science of sex differences. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  47. Jordan-Young R, Rumiati RI (2012) Hardwired for sexism? Approaches to sex/gender in neuroscience. Neuroethics 5:305–315CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kam K (2009) Her guide to a heart attack: recognising female heart attack symptoms. Accessed 28 Dec 2013
  49. Kaufmann C (n.d.) How boys and girls learn differently. Accessed 1 Jul 2013
  50. Khadaroo ST (2012) Judge stops W. Va. single-sex classes: were they a success or pseudoscience? Christ Sci Monit 31:2012Google Scholar
  51. Lenroot RK, Gogtay N, Greenstein DK, Wells EM, Wallace GL, Clasen LS, Blumenthal JD, Lerch J, Zijdenbos AP, Evans AC, Thompson PM, Giedd JN (2007) Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. Neuroimage 36:1065–1073CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Leonard CM, Towler S, Welcome S, Halderman LK, Otto R, Eckert MA, Chiarello C (2008) Size matters: cerebral volume influences sex differences in neuroanatomy. Cereb Cortex 18:2920–2931CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Liberman M (2007) High crockalatorum. Accessed 15 Jun 2013
  54. Lindeløv JK (2013) This PNAS paper could be the go-to example of how not to interpret statistics. Accessed 19 Jan 2014
  55. Longley R (2013) Women’s heart attack symptoms are different from men’s. Accessed 28 Dec 2013
  56. Mäntylä T (2013) Gender differences in multitasking reflect spatial ability. Psych Sci 24:514–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Maas AH, van der Schouw YT, Regitz-Zagrosek V, Swahn E, Appelman YE, Pasterkamp G, Ten Cate H, Nilsson PM, Huisman MV, Stam HC, Eizema K, Stramba-Badiale M (2011) Red alert for women’s heart: the urgent need for more research and knowledge on cardiovascular disease in women. Eur Heart J 32:1362–1368CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Mackay MH, Ratner PA, Buller CE, Johnson JL, Humphries KH (2009) Gender differences in reported symptoms of acute coronary syndromes. Can J Cardiol 25(Suppl B):294Google Scholar
  59. Mackay MH, Ratner PA, Johnson JL, Humphries KH, Buller CE (2011) Gender differences in symptoms of myocardial ischaemia. Eur Heart J 32:3107–3114CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. McBride W (2008) Girls will be girls and boys will be boys. [Presentation materials]. Accessed 1 Jul 2013
  61. McCarthy MM, Arnold AP, Ball GF, Blaustein JD, De Vries GJ (2012) Sex differences in the brain: the not so inconvenient truth. J Neurosci 32:2241–2247CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Meana M (1998) Depression: comorbidity in women. Can J Psychiatry 43:893–899PubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Meder E (2012) Schools battling courts, cost for single-gender education. SCNow Morning News Online. Accessed 13 Oct 2013
  64. Melcangi RC, Garcia-Segura LM (2010) Sex-specific therapeutic strategies based on neuroactive steroids: In search for innovative tools for neuroprotection. Horm Behav 57:2–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Mobbs D, Lau HC, Jones OD, Frith CD (2007) Law, responsibility, and the brain. PLoS Biol 5(4):e103CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Mogil JS (2012) Sex differences in pain and pain inhibition: Multiple explanations of a controversial phenomenon. Nat Rev Neurosci 13:859–866CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Multiplying Connections (2012). Male and female brains are not the same. Accessed 1 Jul 2013
  68. Neufang S, Specht K, Hausmann M, Güntürkün O, Herpertz-Dahlmann B, Fink GR, Konrad K (2009) Sex differences and the impact of steroid hormones on the developing human brain. Cereb Cortex 19:464–473CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Penn Medicine (2013) Brain connectivity study reveals striking differences between men and women. Accessed 21 Dec 2013
  70. Poldrack RA (2006) Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends Cogn Sci 10:59–63CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Ridgeway G (2013) Illustrative effect sizes for sex differences. Figshare. Accessed 21 Dec 2013
  72. Rivers C, Barnett RC (2011) The truth about boys and girls: challenging toxic stereotypes about our children. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  73. Roy D (2012) Neuroethics, gender and the response to difference. Neuroethics 5:217–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Sample I (2013) Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal. The Guardian, December 2 2013. Accessed 21 Dec 2013
  75. Sax L (2005) Why gender matters: what parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. Doubleday, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  76. Sax L (2006) Six degrees of separation: what teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. Edu Horizons 84:190–200Google Scholar
  77. Schott B (2010) Neurosexism. Accessed 21 Dec 2013
  78. Scott SK (2013) Asking questions about men and women by looking at teenagers. Accessed 20 Jan 2014
  79. Smith K (2011) Neuroscience vs. philosophy: taking aim at free will. Nature 477:23–25CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Sorge RE, LaCroix-Fralish ML, Tuttle AH, Sotocinal SG, Austin JS, Ritchie J, Chanda ML, Graham AC, Topham L, Beggs S, Salter MW, Mogil JS (2011) Spinal cord Toll-like receptor 4 mediates inflammatory and neuropathic hypersensitivity in male but not female mice. J Neurosci 31:15450–15454CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Today@UCI (2005, January) Intelligence in men and women is a gray and white matter. Accessed 15 Jun 2013
  82. Tobin AM (2009) Women have same heart attack symptoms as men, including chest pain. Accessed 28 Dec 2013
  83. Tytus RH (2010) Heart attack symptoms in women. Accessed 28 Dec 2013
  84. U.S. Department of Education (2006) 34 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 106, 71. Accessed 15 Jun 2013
  85. Weisberg DS, Keil FC, Goodstein J, Rawson E, Gray JR (2008) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. J Cogn Neurosci 20:470–477CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  86. Whitmire R (2011) Chadwell on the science article debate. Accessed 21 Dec 2013

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA

Personalised recommendations