Visiting speaker Dr Catherine Vidal asks: Does the brain have a sex/gender?

Posted on: 15 February 2017

Trinity and the Centre for Women in Science & Engineering Research (WiSER) recently welcomed neurobiologist and global expert in the societal implications of sex and gender, Dr Catherine Vidal, for an intriguing public lecture which posed the question: Does the brain have a sex/gender?

Dr Catherine Vidal (third from the left) delivered her lecture to a packed-out audience.  

Dr Vidal, former Research Director at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, spoke to a large audience as she argued against the ‘modern archaic beliefs in biological determinism of gender differences.’ Instead, she said that research had now provided significant evidence against gender differences being imposed by our innate biology.

She argued that despite tremendous advances in neuroscience, the outdated idea that biology is a major determinant for sex differences in cognition and behaviour remains alive. Media and magazines continue to feed the public with old clichés that claim that women are naturally good for language but are unable to read maps, for example, while suggesting men have brains suited for maths and competition.

These discourses suggest that intellectual abilities are wired differently in the brains of girls and boys at birth, but such a view is in total contradiction with today’s knowledge on cerebral plasticity, and on the role of the environment in re-shaping the brain through learning and experiences.

Professor Eileen Drew, Director of WiSER, said: "This was a sellout and highly insightful lecture in which Dr Vidal enthralled the audience with her knowledge and wit."

"She, and rapporteur, Professor Ian Robertson, provided a lively and thoughtful exchange on the issue of gender and the brain — thereby advancing our understanding of how concepts such as 'brain plasticity' and 'social learning' provide an essential contribution to the contemporary gender equality debate."

"Dr Vidal stressed the important role of those concepts in the deconstruction of gender stereotypes such as 'brain hardwiring' and the divergent abilities of women and men."

In her lecture, Dr Vidal presented a critical analysis of selected examples that emphasize deterministic explanations to sex differences in cognitive functions e.g. multitasking and language abilities, spatial orientation, mathematical reasoning etc. Her visit formed part of the distinguished speaker lecture series run by WiSER.

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