We hit the 11th rule in Brain Rules, and while I thought it would be less than exciting, this was one of the most interesting chapters yet.

Chapter 11: Gender

“Male and Female Brains are Different”

So pretend you work for a company that has a brilliant vice president. This person is a stellar performer and on the fast track at the company. The vice president is a man. What do you think?

The vice president is a woman. What do you think?

In a research study, most people thought the man was awesome. He was competent and likable. A real ‘hot dog.’ On the other hand, most people thought the woman was a bitch. Real and true. “Gender biases hurt real people in real world situations.” (p. 244)

Medina starts out by exploring “the x factor” or how we even become male or female. The key proposition is the x chromosome (which comes from the female, by the way). So if your sex chromosomes are XX, you are a female, and XY creates a male. If you don’t have an x chromosome, there is something terribly wrong with you and you probably die. If you consider the genetic aspect of gender difference, the first important thing to understand is that the Y chromosome isn’t all that important. In fact, there is only a small snippet of the gene called the Sex Reversal Y or SRY. David C. Page discovered that if you destroy this small piece of the gene in a developing embryo, the embryo becomes a female. If you add this piece to a developing female embryo, the embryo changes to male. Additionally, the Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes while the X carries around 1,500! In fact, as we know, the male needs every bit of the X chromosome, because it’s the only one he gets. Women, on the other hand use only one of the two X chromosomes they get and it doesn’t matter which one they use…the one from the dad or the one from the mom. Only one chromosome is used, the other goes inactive.

Research has also shown that our gender affects how we think. Women have a fatter cortex, which is the area that controls decision-making, while men’s amygdalas are larger and tend to communicate mostly with the right hemisphere, while women talk to the right. Additionally, men and women produce and utilize brain biochemicals differently as well.

And finally, as you well know, there are behaviors that are specific to each gender that have statistically been proven such as higher rates of mental retardation in males, are more differently affected by the types and severity of psychological disorders, and they exhibit more antisocial behavior. However, in the every day aspect of life there are some other notable statistics. When dealing with traumatic situations, women activate the left hemisphere’s amygdala and remember the emotional details, while men use the right amygdala and only remember the “gist.” Behaviorist Deborah Tannen performed some interesting research on verbal communication in both sexes. When looking at verbal communication, women are generally better at it. This is because they use both hemispheres of the brain when speaking and processing verbal information (p. 252). Men on the other hand, only use one. In their early years, girls are already more verbally sophisticated and their conversational style continues into their older years. Additionally, when girls communicate other girls, they cement relationships. They look at each other directly, lean towards one another, and talk…a lot. Not so with boys. The glue that holds little boys together is physical activity. When they do start using their verbal skills, it is to negotiate status and issue orders. Girls talk, boys direct. As they move into adulthood, these patterns stick. Boys who gave orders became leaders and girls who did the same were “bossy.” As you may know, there is now a campaign to ban the word “bossy.”

While other factors affect each gender’s language patterns, it is important to keep in mind that there may be associations between gender and cognition, however, we are still exploring the notions.

Ideas to promote learning

  • Understand the fact that emotions make us pay attention, that men and women process them differently, and they are a result of differences in our experiences and genetic makeups.
  • Consider trying different gender arrangements in the classroom. If a group of all girls will learn math better because there are no boys ordering them around, make the change. You have to think outside of the box.
  • In the workplace, create groups of mixed gender. The varying perspectives and differences can bring a heightened perspective to even the most mundane dilemma. Additionally, men and women should both be integral to the decision-making process.


Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.


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