Sex on the Brain

Our beliefs about sex and gender roles are formed early, and are tough to change. But that doesn’t mean we’re all sexists. We’re also flexible enough to accept new ideas and teach our children to be open minded.

A father and his son are driving in a car when they crash. The father dies instantly but the son is injured and rushed to hospital for surgery. In the operating theatre, the surgeon looks at the boy and shouts “Oh my God! That’s my son!” How do you explain this?

It’s still not hard to find people who can’t solve this riddle. They’ll mention stepfathers, mistaken identity and even same-sex marriage before you tell them the simple fact that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

These people aren’t all sexist males, either. Studies have shown that the riddle fools people of all sexes, ages and backgrounds – even the children of women doctors. The riddle, it seems, doesn’t show how sexist you are, but how sexist our society is.

Things are undoubtedly improving. 150 years ago there was one female doctor in the UK, while women GPs now outnumber men. Meanwhile, in Spain there are still people who remember a time when married women who went to work required their husband’s permission. Nowadays, you just have to look around on Lanzarote and you’ll see women driving buses, cleaning the streets, running businesses, enforcing the law and heading town councils. Read more...


But our minds seem to change much more slowly than society. Psychologists believe that our opinions are formed by patterns of thought that are formed early in life and are very difficult to change. These patterns are called schemas. We all have schemas. Think of a cat, for example, and you’ll probably picture a well-fed animal that purrs; think of a house and you may imagine a typical drawing of a square building with a roof, four windows and a door; think of a nurse and the chances are you’ll see a mental image of a woman in uniform.

But schemas are not reality. They are ideas, and they change according to our culture. An African peasant will have a very different idea of a cat or a house to a Scottish schoolchild. They rely on what we are taught in our earliest years, and they don’t have much to do with actual experience. If we think women are more emotional and men more competent, it usually has more to do with what we’ve been told and taught early in life, rather than what we actually see.

There is hope, however. Our schemas are flexible. They have to be, so that we can accept that a skinny feral moggy or a mud hut still fit the words “cat” or “house”. In the same way, most of us have no problem accepting a female surgeon or a male nurse. It is the people who insist that the world fits their inflexible idea of it who cause the problems.
And, as schemas are formed early in childhood, it’s important to give our children models that allow them to frame the world in a way that allows for flexibility. And this is perfectly possible. We may still see nurses as female and footballers as male, but think of a teacher or a shopkeeper and there’s an equal chance that the picture in your mind will be male or female. That wouldn’t have happened 100 years ago, and it still won’t in many parts of the world.

One example of the schemas we build are the gender associations of colours. You may think that pink is a soft feminine colour while blue is strong and masculine, but it’s all in your mind.

In fact, before the 1940s, pink and blue were used for babies of both sexes. In 1918, the American Home Journal wrote “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
In China, a group of children who were told that yellow is for boys and green is for girls ended up choosing toys and clothes according to this rule. It seems we learn early, and what we learn sticks regardless of whether its true or not.

The idea that language forms our attitudes about sexual roles is widespread.
Some changes have been hugely successful. “Ms”, for example, is now widely used as a title for women, especially in formal contexts. But that’s because it is extremely useful in English, where “Miss” and “Mrs” have strict meanings relating to whether a woman is married or not – information that is rarely relevant to most communication.

Other proposals, such as referring to ‘firefighters’ rather than ‘firemen’ or getting rid of the word ‘actress’ are aimed at changing our schemas, and may be harder to change.