Reaching For Gender Equality with Brain-Based Holistic Education

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Spring 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


Out of 1,000 people, 504 are men (50.4 percent) and 496 are women (49.6 percent). We’re talking about half the world’s population. Vulnerable and disadvantaged women, and those who experience discrimination and inequality of any kind, need to be empowered if we are to achieve full inclusivity and the United Nations’ goals of sustainable development. From its inception, the U.N. has protected the rights of women. Among the purposes of the U.N. Charter is the mandate “To achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

Within one year of its existence, the Economic and Social Council established its Commission on the Status of Women dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women. The General Assembly declared 1975 as the International Women’s Year, and, in 1979, adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Since 1975 to date, there have been four World Conferences on Women, advancing and broadening the agenda and acknowledging women’s rights as human rights. Gender issues were integrated into the Millennium Development Goals Agenda for 2015. The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals also integrate women’s issues explicitly (Goal 5) and as a crosscutting theme.

But despite countless efforts and numerous instruments in place, we still have these devastating facts with us:

  • One woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth every 90 seconds.
  • Noncommunicable diseases (cancers, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, diabetes) represent the biggest threat to women’s health worldwide.
  • One-third of the countries in developing regions have not yet achieved gender parity in primary education.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Western Asia, girls still face barriers to entering both primary and secondary school.
  • One in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lives.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

Looking at this major global topic from the point of view of the human brain might provide some useful insight on ways to address it.

Even though male and female brains show subtle structural, biochemical, and functional differences — such as, for example, involving their relative sizes, or the thickness of white matter (some parts being thicker within male brains while others in female brains) — it is unknown how these relate to differences in behavior. If anything, they seem more compatible than competing, with women tending to be more compassionate and men tending to be more systemic when it comes to behavioral patterns, for instance.

We also know that the brain structure and function change in response to experience, so these differences between the brains of men and women — rather than being hardwired or innate — could also be due to differences due to social context and upbringing.

What does seem to be hardwired, regardless of our gender, is the brain’s capacity for empathy. It appears as though, rather than perceiving these structural differences, our brains ultimately perceive one another simply as human beings. It should therefore seem normal for the brain to see beyond gender differences and work together for our broadly shared goals, such as development, productivity, and peace. Recent scientific studies are proving that this is not a trait of some exceptional individuals but rather a natural tendency of every human brain.

Babies have shown behavioral patterns for helping each other out of intrinsic motivation without any expectation of reward. An international study conducted by Ronit Roth-Hanania, Maayan Davidov, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, went into the homes of 37 infants aged 8 to 16 months. For the study, the researchers set up three troubling situations with the infants’ mothers. In each instance, the infants demonstrated emotional and cognitive empathy. The babies’ feelings of concern for their mothers’ pain showed up on their faces, and many made sympathetic sounds. Ultimately, there were no gender differences in behavior. Another study by Umberto Castiello, published by PLOS ONE, looked at babies inside their mothers’ wombs. They found that fetus twins showed social interaction. The researchers used four-dimensional ultrasound to record videos of twins at 14 and 18 weeks of their development.

At week 14, the twins touched each other head to head, arm to head, and head to arm. By week 18, they made more contact and began spending up to 30 percent of their time reaching out and stroking each other. Their movements were described as planned movements — not reflexes — including purposeful contacts with each other’s eyes and mouth areas, during which the twins took care of these delicate body parts. Researchers also observed the twins “caressing” each other’s backs. Because they are babies, unbiased by any artificial constructs such as speech or morality, these findings point to the fact that empathy and care are natural traits that we as human beings have, rather than being feelings which we learn.

Nearly all of our brain cells are developed before we are even born. Our brains are never more pure than at the moment of birth. As newborns, we know nothing of race, religion, socioeconomic class, sex, or any other identity boundary. It is only as we develop language that we establish our differences, which include gender differences.

How to recover that innate empathy becomes a relevant question when addressing inequality issues. Assuming the premise that the mind and body are fundamentally connected, one avenue worth venturing could involve a comprehensive approach to all these topics, focusing on the importance of the mindset of individuals. When it comes to educating the mind, let’s try looking at gender inequality without judgment — as a habit, rather than a moral concern, trusting that no one really believes they are better or worse than anybody else. Many people just fall into the habit of making assumptions about inequality. Usually, the way we go about these issues is through offensive and defensive strategies, entering a debate that has no end.

However, if we work on educating both men and women about their similarities, on the basis of brain-related discoveries, perhaps we can help them recover their own ability to see each other as equal — which might end up proving a more cost-effective and sustainable approach to resolving the issue. If women and girls, men and boys, can be made aware of the great value of their brain as our human common denominator and life source, and of their body as having a unique purpose and role in society, we might stand a chance at reaching equality.


For more on brain-based holistic education, check out IBREA Foundation.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Spring 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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