“The bottom line is that saying there are differences in male and female brains is just not true. There is pretty compelling evidence that any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology,” said Prof Rippon. “You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girls brain, or that’s a boys brain’ in the same way you can with the skeleton. They look the same.” Prof Rippon points to earlier studies that showed the brains of London black cab drivers physically changed after they had acquired The Knowledge – an encyclopaedic recall of the capital’s streets.
She believes differences in male and female brains are due to similar cultural stimuli. A women’s brain may therefore become ‘wired’ for multi-tasking simply because society expects that of her and so she uses that part of her brain more often. The brain adapts in the same way as a muscle gets larger with extra use. “What often isn’t picked up on is how plastic and permeable the brain is. It is changing throughout out lifetime “The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias. It is full of the drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.” Prof Rippon believes that gender differences appear early in western societies and are based on traditional stereotypes of how boys and girls should behave and which toys they should play with. Segregating the way children play – giving dolls to girls and cars to boys – could be changing how their brains develop, she claims. “I think gender differences in toys is a bad thing. A lot of people say it is trivial. They say girls like to be princesses. But these things are pervasive in the developing brain and stifle potential. “Often boys toys are much more training based whereas girls toys are more nurturing. It’s sending out an early message about what is expected in a child’s future.”
Earlier this year Consumer Affairs minister Jenny Willott said that women were being forced into professions that paid less well because of gender stereotyping when they are children. Girls were often guided into low paying occupations like nursing because of the types of toys they were given to play with, she claimed. This led to an over-representation of women among nurses – and of men among engineers and physicists. Debenhams has stopped gender specific labelling of toys – Mark and Spencer was now its own brand of toys more “gender neutral”.
Megan Perryman, who co-founded Let Toys Be Toys, a campaigning group against gender stereotyping said: "In our experience, children enjoy a range of toys and it's important they are encouraged to play with anything that interests them.
“Telling boys not to play at being caring, or girls to avoid toys involving science or physical activity can only serve to limit their potential. Children learn these 'rules' of how to be a boy or girl at a very young age, via marketing, media and those around them. It can be upsetting to the child if their interests do not conform and can prevent them from being the people they really are."
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