Do We Treat Boys and Girls Differently?

boy girl and mom

Boy, Girl & Mom

People tend to talk to girls, while they encourage boys to play with mechanical toys and objects. Gender bias may be even more important than we once thought.

By: Marianne J. Legato, FACP and Laura Tucker

True or False: Boys and girls develop on different schedules.
One of the most important ways in which our brains are shaped is not through growth, but the programmed death of a large number — about half — of the neurons originally produced as the brain forms. This pruning process goes on from the final month of pregnancy and continues long after birth. Synapses, or connections between cells, that don’t get reinforced by stimulation from the outside world atrophy and eventually disappear. The connections that are stimulated grow stronger and become permanent. You have to use it, or you lose it, and practice makes perfect.

It’s a mysteriously wasteful process. Why don’t we simply make what we need to begin with? I like to think that we’re choosing the neurons that function optimally, like choosing the prettiest and healthiest flowers out of a bunch for a bouquet.

This brain tailoring process is part of what makes us unique: Our experiences — the stimulation we’re exposed to, or protected from — have a very real impact on who we become. If we don’t have appropriate input during these times, the systems can be impaired forever, and there are all too many examples of abused and neglected children who are cut off from interaction during crucial developmental windows and will never develop normal language skills as a result. Less tragically, it’s what makes the differences between siblings and even identical twins who carry the same genetic information.

New information also tells us that how and when this brain tailoring occurs between the ages of 6 and 17 is different for boys and girls. There are major differences in when boys and girls prune and expand the connections in their brains, and in which areas they tend, as well as in the numbers of connections between the two halves of the brain in boys and girls. The hormones that surge during puberty (testosterone in boys, estrogen in girls) play a major role in these processes, as they have very different effects on brain function. These hormonal differences may be the reason for the different pace of development in pubescent boys and girls.

True or False: We treat boys and girls differently.
Of course, the society and culture in which we raise boys and girls has a tremendous impact on their outcomes. A landmark study done in the seventies showed that women tended to coo at babies dressed in pink jumpsuits, while men tossed those in blue up into the air. People tend to talk to girls, while they encourage boys to play with mechanical toys and objects, often from a very young age. In fact, this research leaves us unable to tell what comes first. Do the sex-specific innate areas of the brain make one sex function differently from the other? Or is it the impact of gender-specific behavior, induced by the societal roles we are asked to play? Gender bias may be even more important than we once thought, if the structure of our brains is in play.

About the Authors:
Marianne J. Legato, FACP, is an internationally known academic physician, author, and lecturer. She is a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University, where she founded and heads the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine. One of the world’s foremost experts on gender medicine and winner of many awards for her work, she is the author of The Female Heart, What Women Need to Know, andEve’s Rib. She recently edited the widely acclaimed academic textbook, Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine.

Laura Tucker is the coauthor of several health and medical books. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter.

Copyright © 2005 Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP and Laura Tucker

Reprinted from: Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget by Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP and Laura Tucker © 2005 Rodale Inc. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

Photo: Ronald Sebastian