How to talk to a skeptical grown-up about the innate skills of men and women

This should be fun.
This should be fun.
Image: USMC Archives
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Seven short days ago, few people had heard of James Damore. Now we can’t go back.

We must occupy the same world as his infamous memo, which criticized Google’s approach to creating a diverse workforce and argued that the gender gap in tech could be explained in part by biological differences between men and women. The memo, published by Gizmodo on August 6, has sparked heated conversations around the world for the past week, as colleagues, friends, and family everywhere debate the differences between men and women, and how those differences may or may not influence behavior.

The problem is that these debates are not always particularly productive or enlightening. A lot of neuroscience studies on gender over the past few decades have been overplayed or misinterpreted by the media. And certain contested ideas, such as the false notion that men are naturally more competitive, have been reported as fact—leaving most people unclear about what’s real and what’s been debunked.

And so, should you find yourself in a difficult conversation about science and gender, consider these tips from Christia Spears Brown, a professor of social and developmental psychology at University of Kentucky. Spears Brown has been patiently discussing sex-based biases for years. She specializes in gender and race and how our perceptions about social groups are molded by the groups we belong to, and has written a book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, about how to talk your kids about gender. We asked how to do the same with adults. Here is her time-tested advice:

Recognize that everyone has an opinion about gender

When it comes to gender, we all think we’re experts—because we all have personal experience to draw upon. “If this were a debate about astrophysics, people don’t know about it, so they kind of assume they have to listen to what the science says,” says Spears Brown, “but when it comes to gender, everyone has these really hard ideas about what men and women are like.”

It’s easier to keep your cool when you remember that we’re all products of the same gendered environment. No one chose to be raised in a culture that reinforces gender norms and shares junk science, shaped by researchers who were raised in that environment, too.

“Most of the time, people don’t intend to make a sexist comment,” says Spears Brown. “It’s so ingrained in us after so many days on the planet, that it comes from an unconscious level.”

Explain that few people have a “typical” male or female brain

Talking about the science of brains and behavior gets complicated for a few reasons. For example, it’s true that men, on average, have larger brains than women, but they also have larger bodies. And women, on average, have more grey matter than white matter relative to men. Scientists are not sure what these differences mean, if anything—but that has never stopped a good headline from finding its audience. “When a study comes out that says men and women differ in the size of their brain and you hear about it, you think it means something,” says Spears Brown.

For her, the most persuasive science on gender comes from Daphna Joel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Tel Aviv University in Israel. In a 2015 meta-analysis, published in PNAS, a journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Joel and a team of scientists examined the magnetic resonance images of more than 1,400 brains from four data sets to determine whether differences in male and female brain structures suggested the two sexes fell into distinct groups. After measuring hundreds of different brain structures individually, she found that although some brains were characteristically more “male” than “female,” and some more “female” than “male,” only a tiny percentage of subjects (between 0% and 8%) had a wholly “male” or “female” brain. “Such a mosaic of features cannot be explained in purely biological terms; it is a measure of the effect of external factors,” Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in the UK, explains in The Conversation.

In the same study, Joel and her team also looked at data measuring attitudes and personality traits related to things like weight loss, cosmetics, and playing video games in more than 5,000 young people from three data sets. Again, the majority of individuals represented a mosaic of such traits, and very few were found to be male or female in every way. Just because a woman is not aggressive doesn’t mean that she is uninterested in watching sports, for example. “The differences across individuals is much more different than across groups, so knowing that he’s a guy isn’t going to tell me much about how he’s going to behave,” says Spears Brown.

Help people learn to question their own assumptions

When someone accuses (or praises) another person for being a “such a guy,” or “a typical woman,” that’s a good opportunity to name individuals you both know who don’t fit that description, says Spears Brown. In fact, introducing cognitive dissonance is a classic strategy for coaxing adults to reject unquestioned assumptions.

Susan Cope, a writer and scholar, explained in an essay published by Quartz:

The key to success is confronting cognitive dissonance, the state of mental discomfort one feels when holding two or more conflicting beliefs or worldviews at the same time. Coming to terms with cognitive dissonance facilitates what the adult learning theorist Jack Mezirow called transformational learning – identifying and addressing our biases through action, becoming a bit more tolerant along the way.

Many studies have shown that we tend to ignore the variable that doesn’t fit a stereotype when it comes to race or gender, says Spears Brown. If you can bring supposed outliers to mind—say, an aunt who’s a microbiologist, or a highly empathetic male classmate—you can create space for change.

Point to counter-examples

A handful of other options can also help you leverage cognitive dissonance. Toddlers, for instance, have not totally internalized gender norms. “The idea that men are stoic and women are overly emotional, well, they’re not when they’re two or three years old,” says Spears Brown. In her conversations, she’ll ask: “What are we like when we start out before we’ve had a lifetime of being told that boys don’t cry?”

Some traits considered typically masculine or feminine vary between cultures. And the gender gap in math, which some argue is created by innate biological differences, has been found to disappear in a female-empowered society.

Spears Brown has found that using race as an analogy can be powerful, too. Race has biological markers, but these markers—say, hair texture or skin tone—have nothing to do with capabilities or “natural” behaviors. “People recognize that idea as antiquated,” she says, which allows them to imagine that seeing gender as relevant to the work one might suited to do is an outdated idea, too.

Tell the origin story of particular stereotypes 

Poorly designed studies can create lasting myths. Spears Brown often tells people about a 1982 report published in Science, which detailed nine brains from men and five from women, out of a sample of just 28 brains. In it, researchers declared that women have a relatively larger corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers that connects the brain’s two hemisphere.

“It wasn’t that impressive of a study and the differences were small, but Phil Donahue picked it up and mentioned it on his talk show,” says Spears Brown, referring to the American grandfather of daytime television talk shows. Donahue told millions of viewers that the Science study illuminated why women have a stronger sense of intuition and why they can multi-task. “Then that got picked up by Time and Newsweek,” says the professor. “These ideas just get stuck in the cultural psyche even though the science doesn’t back it.”

What we do know, she continues, is that women are more often put into a position where they have to multitask, both at home and at work. So if we believe that women are better at multitasking, or if a reputable study finds that to be true, that’s because women have become better at it, thanks to traditional gender roles. “That’s not evolutionary,” says Spears Brown, “That’s because men don’t wash the dishes.”

In another study, published in 2000, scientists at Cambridge University found that among newborn boys and girls, the baby girls were more people-focused and boys more interested in objects. This is exactly what James Damore believes to be true of women. What those scientists actually found was that when boys and girls were shown a picture of a face or a mobile, the boys looked at the face 46% of the time, and girls 49% of the time—hardly an enormous difference. Says Spears Brown: “I tell people to go and look at the study, read it, and then tell me if that’s a compelling way to set up a HR department.”

Prepare for pushback

Talking about gender “shakes to the foundation how some people understand the world,” says Spears Brown. She adds: “I understand that. We want the world to be simplified into categories—if we can chunk the world into smaller categories to process it, that would be quicker.”

Humor can help ease the tension. If someone expresses disbelief that men and women have more in common than not, for instance, she’ll jokingly admit that certain stereotypes hold up in her own life. “I cry weekly and my husband never cries,” she might say, “So the reality is that sometimes those things make sense to us.”

Ultimately, debunking myths about male and female differences also means steering the conversation toward a conclusion that many people find frightening: The idea that gender is an entirely social construct. Although Spears Brown picks her battles, she says, “I do go there. I do think we should do away with gender categories. That would fix a lot of the structural issues between all genders, and allow us to talk about the differences among us that are actually meaningful.”