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Are male and female brains different? Book debunking gender myths going out to Kiwi schools

A physicist is distributing copies of an acclaimed scientific book to Kiwi high schools in the hopes it will help debunk myths around the difference in aptitude between males and females.

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Laurie Winkless is distributing an acclaimed book by Angela Saini which debunks common myths. Source: Breakfast

Some may believe men are naturally more promiscuous, that women are better at multitasking, or that, in general, male and female brains are just different.

'Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong' was written by British science journalist Angela Saini, and published in 2017 to wide praise from the scientific community.

The book was credited with effectively showing that several persistent myths about the differences between men and women are not backed by science.

Physicist Laurie Winkless was part of a campaign started by fellow physicist Dr Jess Wade to get the book distributed to schools in Ireland, England and here in New Zealand. They raised about NZ$48,000 to do so.

While not a neuroscientist herself, Ms Winkless this morning told TVNZ 1's Breakfast programme that the effects of the myths had been plain to see.

Ms Winkless said she had always been supported by family in her love of science, but at some point in school it got into her head that she'd have to work extra hard to keep up with the males in her field.

"Somehow there's a message that says that men are just better at physics and maths, and women are better at other subjects, and it does a disservice to all of us really," Ms Winkless said.

"That's not true at all - there's absolutely no evidence to show that women and men have any different levels of expertise in these areas.

"Usually - often, in fact - women outperform men, especially at young ages, in school in these subjects.

"We see these things culturally and socially and then conclude that they're a biological fact."

Ms Winkless said 'Inferior' clearly outlines the fact that there is no physical difference between a male and a female brain, and she wanted to be a part of the team who put it in schools.

"There's not a neuroscientist on the planet who would be able to tell you whether the brain they are looking at is from a man or a woman - not one," she said.

The "multi-tasking" myth is commonly believed, but 'Inferior' explains that it is, in fact, the result of an over-zealous press release.

"Researchers looked at the connections in the white matter in your brain and they, on average, found some differences between men and women - and that's kind of what the paper concluded," Ms Winkless said.

"But the press release that was written to accompany the paper is where it said, 'This means that women are better at multi-tasking and men are better at single tasks,' and that's where it got picked up.

"Not even the scientist who wrote the study agrees with that."

There's also a common belief that men are more promiscuous than women - but the study this belief was pulled out of was based on fruit flies - not people - and it hasn't been replicated since.

"This is an idea that Darwin had based on pretty limited observations, and then that was followed up with a study with fruit flies - so not humans," Ms Winkless said.

"We don't see clear differences - the biological studies aren't pointing to those same outcomes."