Do women and men process language differently? Is it neuroscience or neurosexism?

Hello internet! 

I’ve been crazy busy the past few months and haven’t been able to blog. I presented in Canada at TOSCON2015 and then presented a new talk at NATECLA. I’ve met some really nice people and had a great time but I’m hoping to get back to blogging now. And to start things off is a guest blog which I’m really excited about. 

Around the time of TESOL 2015 I heard about a talk called ‘Neuroscience, learning styles and teacher training.’ The title worried me as I thought it might be some kind of hymn to woo. Once I saw the slides dear reader, my heart leapt! the authors, Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries did something I’d been hoping to do. They repeat the Dekker 2012 study on neuromyths, but with EFL teachers!  

The study basically asks teachers whether or not they believe statements, like “we only use 10% of our brain” are true or false and the results are shocking! Around 93% of UK teachers believe that employing learning styles will lead to better results, despite evidence to contrary. (more info about their findings here

I wrote to Carol almost as soon as I heard about the research to congratulate her and we’ve been corresponding for months now. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest blog and she graciously agreed (of course, not before Mike Griffin got to her first *shakes fist*). So here it is! I’m exceedingly pleased to present Carol Lethaby writing about two topics which are of interest to me, gender and skepticism. 

Over to Carol…


A big thank you to Russ Mayne, for inviting me to guest blog – in this post I plan to uphold the tradition of debunking popular myths that has become Russ’s trademark. I’ve chosen to focus on the idea of women’s and men’s brains and particularly the idea that the sexes supposedly process language differently.  This is an area of considerable significance to language teachers and one that I have been tackling in both talks and articlesin recent years.

The popular view is that men process language only in the left hemisphere, while women use both their right and left hemispheres to process language, which supposedly makes women better at language. This idea has been repeated again and again in the literature until it has come to be accepted as fact, giving rise to books with such ludicrous titles as:  ‘Why men don’t iron’, ‘Why men never remember and women never forget’, ‘Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps’ and my own personal favourite, ‘Why men don’t have a clue and women always need more shoes’

This video from the entertainer, Mark Gungor, illustrates beautifully the popular idea. There is, however, one problem with this account of things … that it’s not true. Now, you may argue that this is all harmless, and just a bit of fun, – ‘laugh your way to a better marriage’ is the name of Gungor’s website and books – even a great topic for discussion in the language teaching classroom; but is it really harmless if the notion that there are pre-determined differences between the way the sexes think and use language is reinforcing self-fulfilling gender stereotypes? This has been termed neurosexism by Cordelia Fine and others, and in Fine’s awesomely readable book ‘Delusions of Gender’, she really takes researchers to task for shoddy research and rubbish conclusions based on spurious findings:

“It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in an reputable newspaper, changing a school’s educational policy, or becoming a bestseller.” (Fine, 2010:  174)

I mentioned some of the appalling, blatantly sexist titles above, but there are of course also books that are taken very seriously, based on the idea that female and male brains are very different – Why Gender Matters, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, The Female Brain, to name but a few.  Supposed inherent brain differences between girls and boys have been used as a reason to separate the sexes and to teach them differently.

So, where did the idea come from that men and women process language differently and how does it fit in with supposed brain differences? Like many a good neuromyth, there was originally some, albeit dubious, research base for this claim.  It started in 1995 when Shaywitz, Shaywitz et alpublished a study based on neuroimaging that showed eleven out of nineteen women’s brains with activation in the left andright hemisphere while the other eight women’s brains and nineteen men’s brains activated in the left hemisphere only, when doing one particular language task (concerned with rhyming words), out of the various tasks that they were asked to carry out.

From this study it was concluded that men and women deal with language differently, with men being more specialised in the left hemisphere and women being less lateralised, further generalised to suggest that men’s brains are more lateralised than women’s, inferring further that this accounts for female and male cognition differences (nicely coinciding with already accepted gender stereotypes (see Gungor above)).

Now, there are several problems with making this conclusion from the study.

Firstly, this is an example of what scientists call ‘reverse inference’ – that is drawing conclusions about what and how people think based on the physical brain.  Fine has no patience for this and she warns of the dangers of drawing conclusions about how we think based on neuroscientific data. “Inferring a psychological state from brain activity … is fraught with peril.” (2010: 151)  Brain scientists warn against making conclusions about cognition based on brain activation seen during imaging and this is precisely what the Shaywitz et al study does.

Secondly, this is a very small study (38 people) and does not address the fact that, in the other language tasks participants were asked to perform, there were no significant differences between male and female participants, nor the fact that not all women displayed the bilateral activation that was so interesting to scientists.

Note too, that all participants were adults, so how can we conclude from this that this is a hard-wired female-male difference?  As neurobiologist, Lise Eliot, points out, nearly all the evidence is based on the adult brain – “Who’s to say that such differences [in the brain] are caused by nature and not by learning?” (Eliot, 2009: 9).  Brain scientists point to gender differences in brain structure being related to the complex interrelationship between genetic factors, our experiences and our biology, in other words, what we do and what happens to us affects what our brain looks like.  “Experience can alter sex differences in brain structure” (2004:  211) says Melissa Hines, a neuroscientific researcher who has been looking at the question of gender and the brain for over 35 years.  As educators, doesn’t it seem more helpful to look at how gendering in the classroom may contribute to learning differences as well as how education can remediate those differences?

Thirdly, and most importantly, neuroscientific studies done since have notshown the sex differences in language processing found in the Shaywitz study.  It has been found that most women and most men process language in the left hemisphere of the brain and that both sexes show a tremendous amount of interconnectivity between the hemispheres.  After carrying out a meta-analysis of functional imaging of sex differences, Sommer et al (2004) conclude:

“In summary, this meta-analysis found no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization in a large sample of 377 men and 442 women. Thus, the hypothesis that language functions are generally presented more bilaterally in women than in men is not supported. This suggests that language lateralization is unlikely to underlie sex differences in cognition, and their biological basis remains elusive.”

So why haven’t we heard more about Sommer’s study (and others like it) saying there is no support for innate differences between how the sexes process language? Why does the popular media continue to promote the idea that male and female brains are “completely different”?  Unfortunately studies that don’t show differences between the sexes are often underreported.  Hines talks about this problem as well as the converse “overreporting of positive results” (2004: 6).  To address this issue, Janet Hyde 2005 proposed the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis’ after conducting a meta-analysis of 46 meta-analyses of studies concerned with sex differences. She sums up like this:

“It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences.  Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems among adolescents.  Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data. [my emphasis]” (Hyde, 2005:  590)

This focus on looking for sex differences continues to this day.  In 2013 there was a study splashed all over the newspapers including this headline in the Mail Online “Men’s and women’s brains: the truth! As research proves the sexes’ brains ARE wired differently, why women’s are cleverer ounce for ounce – and men can’t read female feelings

Cordelia Fine responds  by pointing out that 1) the conclusions don’t take into consideration differences between larger and smaller brains (they have different structures because of size – male brains tend to be larger because men tend to be larger and larger brains are needed to control larger bodies), 2) there’s no discussion of the plasticity of the brain and the effect of our experiences on our neural structure (see above)  and 3) the study is full of reverse inference based on legitimising tired stereotypes (you can see Fine’s full response to the study here).   But the damage has already been done and the study is quoted as ‘proving’that female-male differences are hard-wired when in reality it shows no such thing!

Peddling sex differences in brain function is clearly ‘sexy’ and sometimes lucrative, and neuroscience is a very tempting way to try to explain differences between the sexes. Isn’t it time, though, that we got away from this obsession with looking for hard-wired differences between the sexes and considered the part that our experiences and especially education, play in female and male disparities?  Given the potentially harmful nature of neurosexism, shouldn’t we be more critical and look more closely at what the studies should, can and do tell us, rather than merely accepting the narrative that confirms our cliché-ridden beliefs and sells yet more books and toys?


Fine, C (2010) Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.
Hines, M (2004) Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hyde, J S (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis’ American Psychologist, Vol 60 (6), Sep 2005, pp581-592
Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing
Sommer, I et al (2004) Do women really have more bilateral language representation than men? A meta-analysis of functional imaging studies Brain, 127, 1845–1852