RSS backs project tackling the ‘neuro-nonsense’ of gender stereotypes

The Royal Statistical Society is one of a number of institutions involved in a new project that aims to put a stop to misleading claims about differences between women’s and men’s brains.

‘Noise in Neuroscience’ project, launched at the British Science Festival on 9 September 2021, will create the first good practice guide to responsible communication of research into sex/gender and the brain.

These good practice guidelines will help researchers and science writers avoid the hype and exaggeration that contributes to gender stereotypes. The guidelines will also make it easier for parents, teachers and other readers to tell when a research finding on sex/gender and the brain has been reported accurately and fairly.
The Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood found that gender stereotypes significantly limit children’s potential, contributing to lower take-up of STEM subjects among girls, self esteem and body image problems, higher male suicide rates and violence against women and girls.

The guidelines will be developed by an eminent academic panel, working with the Royal Institution, Royal Statistical Society, Association of British Science Writers and others.

The project launches with a call for evidence seeking views on how to make the guidelines a success and recommendations of good and poor practice examples of communicating research on sex/gender and the brain. The call is a short survey asking for input about what the guidelines should cover, what is likely to make them a success, and for good as well as poor practice examples of communicating research findings on sex/gender and the brain. It is open to everyone and is quick and easy to complete.  

'Misleading claims about differences between women’s and men’s brains are far too common,' said Project spokesperson, Professor Gina Rippon, Professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre and author of The Gendered Brain. 'This "neuro-nonsense" crops up in teaching materials, business training courses and in everyday conversations. It can have a damaging effect on people’s lives by contributing to stereotyped ideas of what they can do and be. This project is a great opportunity to put a decisive stop to this problem and promote good science communication.'
The aim of the project is to create a definitive reference guide for accurate, fair and balanced reporting on sex/gender difference research for all those involved in writing and reading about it, including journalists, journal editors, peer reviewers, as well as researchers themselves. The guidelines will also be translated into an engaging and accessible ‘user guide’ for the wider public, so that all of us can more easily identify and challenge unwarranted and damaging claims about sex/gender and the brain. While there are already a number of research papers that have made recommendations for how these problems can be avoided (see for example, How hype and hyperbole distort the neuroscience of sex differences) there has not yet been a single, accessible and widely-endorsed good practice guide for journal editors, science writers, and members of the public to refer to.

The project uses the term ‘sex/gender’ to combine the terms 'sex' - used as referring to individual biological attributes including sex-related chromosomes, genitalia and hormones – and ‘gender’ - used as referring to social and cultural experiences associated with identifying as female, male or non-binary. This use recognises that publications in this area may use these terms separately, interchangeably or in combination, with or without definition.

For example, one of the first brain imaging studies looking at language processing in the brain in 1995 was reported as showing that ‘men and women use [their] brain differently’, with men using the left hand side of their brain for language processing while women use both. But it had a small sample size (19 men and 19 women), nearly half of the women did not show a left and right distribution of processing, and several attempts at replicating the study’s results have failed. Yet the study has been and continues to be widely quoted, cited over 1,600 times since publication including in recent years.


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