Parents anticipate sex differences from the first prenatal ultrasound but then seem amazed when their son goes gaga over trucks or their daughter will wear nothing but pink. Boys and girls are obviously different, and in many cases the gaps between them seem stark. But stereotypes do not always hold up to scientific scrutiny. Are boys really more aggressive and girls really more empathetic–or do we just see what we expect in them? Where true sex differences exist, are those gaps inborn, as our current Mars-Venus obsession implies, or shaped by environment–that is, by us?
A natural place to look for answers is in the brain. If there is a neurological disparity between the genders, it could explain important behavioral differences. But surprisingly, researchers have found very few large-scale differences between boys and girls in brain structure or function. Yes, boys have larger brains (and heads) than girls–from birth through old age. And girls’ brains finish growing earlier than boys’. But neither of these findings explains why boys are more active and girls more verbal or reveals a plausible basis for the consistent gaps in their reading, writing and science test scores that have parents and teachers up in arms.