Demystifying the gender agenda

Neuroscientist Daphna Joel explains why gender is not a good predictor of our behavior.

Illustration of kids  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Illustration of kids
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
On June 15, we will all be able to find out more about the way we think and whether our gender has any bearing on our cerebral functioning. That information will be proffered by Prof. Daphna Joel, chair of the PhD committee and head of the psychobiology program at the University of Tel Aviv, as part of the Art for Children conference.
It will take place at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Holon Mediatheque as part of the children’s section of the Israel Festival. The conference will center on examining the twilight zones between issues relating to gender, gender education and addressing education in children’s art. It will look at ways to enhance awareness of these areas and how teachers, parents and children can correct some relevant wrongs that have taken root in Israeli society.
Joel’s quest to discover whether – as has been claimed for many years – there are actual differences between the way males and females think began a couple of years ago when she began devising a new course, to replace that of a colleague who had retired.
“I created a course on the psychology of gender,” Joel says. “I also read a lot about sex and the brain. As a neuroscientist I was, of course, more interested in this. While reading about the sexual differentiation of the brain, which is how sex affects the brain throughout development, I discovered a number of papers that were against what people were believing about the relationship between sex and the brain.”
It soon transpired that it wasn’t just the person’s gender that impacted on the way he or she considered life, the universe et al., and that the person’s gender-based thinking tendencies could be moderated by different circumstances.
“The important thing about these papers was that they reported that the effects of sex on the brain – that is, sex differences that they found – could be opposite under different environmental conditions,” Joel explains.
She discovered, for example, that being subjected to just 15 minutes of stress can be enough to change the sex of some regions of the brain.
“This was very surprising to me,” she continues.
“Regardless of how stressed you are, the form of the genitals will never change. But what you see in the brain is that this happens often. What is typical for one sex under some conditions [with regard to the brain structure] can be typical in the other sex under other conditions.” That was an earth-shattering revelation for Joel.
“This led me to the conclusion that brains will not be internally consistent in their form. You won’t have only a form that is typically male or a form that is typical in females as is true for the genitals,” she says.
But is this a matter of physiological evolution or does social conditioning come into it somewhere along the line? Joel neatly encapsulates that divide as the “nature or nurture” approach but says she focuses on whether changes take place in the actual anatomy of our brain.
“The only thing we are interested in is ‘Are people internally consistent?’ For example, in Israel, if soccer is a game for boys and not for girls, would you then find people who only have masculine characteristics or people with only feminine characteristics or would you find people who have both? When you look at the data, you hardly ever find someone with only masculine characteristics or with only feminine characteristics. So you might really like football, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like little kids or poetry. Most of us are a mosaic,” she says.
This, believes Joel, belies gender stereotyping. She would like us to adopt a more flexible approach to how genders think and behave.
“We keep treating people as if they belong to one category or another,” she says.
Mind you, things do tend to change on the social front. Not too many years ago, blue was considered the stock color for males and pink the de rigueur hue for girls, but Joel says that is more of an arbitrary matter.
“Blue and pink is clearly a cultural thing because 100 years ago it was the opposite,” she states.
Even so, there are traits that appear to be attributable to one gender or the other.
“If you take aggression, for example, on average men are more aggressive than women, and many people say this has something to do with nature and not just nurture,” she says.
Her recent discoveries notwithstanding, Joel says that gender pigeonholing is more acute now than it was several years ago.
“If you go to buy a present for a newborn, you already have boys’ and girls’ sections. And, of course, when they get older, it’s really difficult to buy something for a boy or a girl that is not ‘appropriate’ for the gender. Everything is gendered these days. You have Monopoly for girls, Lego for girls and different bicycles for boys and girls. Of course, it’s all about making money,” she asserts.
Joel is about to publish a paper that proves that we are a composite of both genders to some degree.
“The paper shows that brains are a mosaic and that human behavior is a mosaic,” she declares.
“The conclusion is that we should stop treating human beings as if they belonged to two distinct categories because scientifically they do not.
Although our genitals do, our behavior and our brains do not. My feminist agenda is to cancel gender.”
That doesn’t mean that Joel believes we live in an essentially unisex world.
“My message is not that men and women are the same. I’m not talking about gender similarities; I am just saying that people are very different from each other and that sex is not a good predictor of these differences in brain and behavior,” she explains.
Some of those differences, as Joel noted earlier, are down to stress and the sociopolitical conditions under which we live. It is not by chance that people born in Israel generally have different codes of etiquette or display different road behavior compared with, say, someone who hails from a very different climatic and political milieu.
“For example, if you compare people who live in Switzerland to people who live in Sderot, they will have different differences in the brain,” notes Joel. “Stress has a very important effect on the brain.”
The speaker lineup for the conference (in Hebrew), which will be moderated by Mediatheque artistic director Ronnie Pinkovitch, also includes lecturer in Jewish and hassidic psychology and Kabbala Dr. Shelly Shilo Goldberg; choreographer, dancer and actress Renana Raz; and Dr. Roni Halperin, head of the gender study program at Beit Berl College and lecturer in the gender studies program of the University of Tel Aviv.
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