Healthbeat Report: The Gender Divide

September 17, 2009 (CHICAGO) A local researcher and author wants parents to think twice about how they may be unknowingly stereotyping their children.

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls.

"You see the boys wanting to go build with the blocks and the girls want ot play dress up but there is that cross over," said Lisa Obermeyer, teacher, Dearhaven Child Care & Learning Center.

For decades, researchers and psychologists have been saying boys and girls are fundamentally different because of nature and not nurture.

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot is challenging that theory.

"There's this idea that boys and girls brains are fundamentally different and unfortunately There's no data to support that," said Eliot.

Eliot, a researcher at Rosalind Franklin University of medicine and science has been pouring over hundreds of scientific papers. Her findings are the basis for "pink brain, blue brain."

She says small differences at birth become amplified over time as parents unconsciously reinforce gender stereotypes to the detriment of our children.

"The way we think about children is very important for how we raise them," said Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author/neuroscientist, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine Science.

Here's how she thinks this exaggeration of sex differences is hurting our children: she says they lower expectations for boy's academic achievement and young women's professional achievement.

That boys tend to give up on English and girls on math because of the stereotype they're not cut out for such fields.

More schools are separating the sexes. Eliot says the benefits are not proven and the division could lead to an increase in stereotyping by teachers.

"It's not true that boys and girls learn differently. Learning is part of the cerebral cortex and that's the one part of the brain that's least differentiated between boys and girls."

Scientists have been studying the male and female brain for years looking for variations that may explain different behavior.

Northwestern University researcher James Booth says they do exist.

In a study his lab published last year it was found certain brain regions involved in language work harder in girls than in boys and that boys and girls activate different parts of their brains when talking. But he agrees the differences are not dramatic.

"The difficult question is not whether nature or nurture drives development rather how biology and environment interacts through development," said James Booth, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Northwestern University.

What research does support is that girls have an easier time with writing and language while boys have better sense of spatial navigation such as reading a map.

Eliot says the young brain is very pliable and parents should play less to these natural tendencies, instead encouraging children to try things outside their comfort zone. For instance give Legos to girls and encourage boys to type.

"What children do with their time is going to influence which circuits wire up and which ones don't," said Eliot.

Scott and Angie Sontag are aware their son already prefers trucks while their daughter favors dolls, but they're determined to offer a variety of activities.

"We try to raise them in the sense that we balance them, expose them to all sorts of things see what they like or don't like," said Scott Sontag.

Other researchers say the current science is very clear in identifying brain based differences between the sexes. And even though they may be subtle can cause difficulties if ignored. They say differentiating by gender in school has been shown to improve children's attitudes and academic success.

Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Smal Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps- And What We Can Do About It

Contact: Taryn Roeder
Houghton Mifflin Company
222 Berkeley Street Boston, Massachusetts 02116
617.351.3818 (phone) 617.351.1109 (fax)

Walt Ulbricht
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science
3333 Green Bay Rd.
North Chicago, Il. 60064

Lake Forest Hospital
Dearhaven Child Care & Learning Center
1100 North Westmoreland Rd.
Lake Forest, Il. 60045

James R. Booth
Jo Ann G. and Peter F. Dolle Professor in Learning Disabilities
Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders
Northwestern University
2240 Campus Drive
Frances Searle Building, Room 2-352
Evanston, Illinois, 60208
Phone 847-491-2519
Fax 847-491-4975

In work with Douglas Burman, when he was in my lab, now at NorthShore University Health System, and Tali Bitan, when she was in my lab, now at Haifa University - Israel, we showed mostly overlap between the sexes in activation during language/reading tasks. Consistent with previous studies, we showed that girls have greater activation in the two critical nodes, and additionally we showed that higher skill in girls is correlated with greater activation in these nodes, regardless of task. In contrast, higher skill in boys was associated with greater activation in auditory cortex for spoken language and visual cortex for written language. The general conclusion is that boys are more modality specific whereas girls access supramodal language mechanisms more effectively. Boys may not effectively activate the modality general network for language comprehension, and this may result in lower verbal skills. -- Dr. Booth

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