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Studies Suggest Kids Should Be Raised Gender-Neutral

Studies Suggest Kids Should Be Raised Gender Neutral

Research indicates that gender-neutral classrooms lead to more confidence in girls and more kindness among boys.

The infamous "Google memo," which claimed that men are biologically more suited for certain kinds of thinking than women, provoked a national conversation of if men and women are really so genetically different. Are women less driven? Are men better at crunching numbers?

A new study from Tel Aviv University indicates that on a brain level, we're all the same.

The study, which was led by Professor Daphna Joel and was the first to search for sex differences across the entire human brain revealed that there is no physical difference between a man and a woman's brain. Scientists examined 1,400 brain scans from subjects aged 13-85, searching for variations in size between brain regions to determine if men have a larger hippocampus, which deals with memory, or women have smaller inferior frontal gyruses, which affect risk-taking behavior.

The researchers found that fewer than 8 percent of people had the clear-cut features that people like the Google memo's author attribute to female or male brains. Individual brains have a mix of both traditionally feminine and masculine features. "There are not two types of brain," Joel told New Scientist.

Among its findings, the study noted that men and women have the same level of variation when it comes to spatial awareness, and women's lack of representation in math and science does not come from a lack of natural ability but a dearth of social encouragement.

"The study is very helpful in providing biological support for something that we've known for some time -- that gender isn't binary," Meg John Barker, a psychologist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, told New Scientist.

The research points out that disparities between men and women are not in our genes but our upbringing. In the new BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free,Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim is putting that theory to the test. In his experiment, he took 23 7-year-old students and exposed them to six weeks of "gender-neutral treatment." After evaluating the children's psychological states, particularly their self-confidence and spatial awareness, he asked the kids about their perspective on gender politics.

"Men are better, because they are stronger, and they've got more jobs," one boy said, while his classmate echoed, "I think boys are cleverer than girls because they get into president more easily, don't they?"

The preliminary tests found that the girls underestimated their own intelligence, while boys overestimated their abilities and lacked the same vocabulary to articulate their emotions as their female counterparts. They were, however, found to have more practical skills like spatial awareness, which Abdelmoneim attributes to the societal encouragement for them to play with Legos and building blocks, an activity which helps nurture mathematical and scientific skills.

After weeks of the students using gender-neutral toys, bathrooms, and nicknames, and introducing them to professionals who subvert traditional gender roles, from female mechanics to male makeup artists, the researchers found that the genderless setting encouraged a more level playing field and improved female self-esteem. Using an unaltered classroom as the control, the study found that the difference between boys' and girls' self-esteem dropped from 8 percent to less than 1 percent.

Girls were less likely to call themselves ugly, 12 percent more self-motivated, and 40 percent more accurate when predicting their test scores. The boys also became 10 percent kinder toward others, and their bad behavior was reduced by 57 percent.

"I think the boys have learned to be more caring," one girl said, while a boy decided, "I think it's better to express yourself rather than just getting angry."

While there has been a conservative backlash in the U.K. toward Abdelmoneim's work, calling it "abusive" and "inappropriate," the researcher says, "This is about giving children a full development so they can achieve absolutely anything they want. I'd challenge any sane and sensible adult to say we don't want that."

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Ariel Sobel