Cordelia Fine and the Delusions of Gender

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Cordelia Fine, psychologist and writer, recently published a fabulous new book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.

Men from Mars? Women from Venus? All pseudo-science!

In Delusions of Gender, Fine demonstrates “how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, are helping to perpetuate the sexist status quo” and reveals “the mind’s remarkable plasticity, [which] shows how profoundly culture influences the way we think about ourselves.”

Cordelia and I met two years ago at the Critical Neurosciences Workshop in Montreal, where Cordelia spontaneously invented the word “neurotosh” and we had a wonderful time discussing neuroanthropology and gender amid great food and great company.

I got back in touch with her because I wanted to hear more about this latest book. Here’s the interview, which we did through email.

Daniel Lende: Let me start with the basic grand tour question.

So, Cordelia, tell me about your new book.

Cordelia Fine: The main message of the Delusions of Gender is that our comforting beliefs about gender – that everything’s fair now, that sex inequality can be blamed on ‘hardwired’ differences between the sexes, and that our failure to rear unisex children just points the same way – just don’t bear up to scrutiny.

First of all, our minds are exquisitely socially attuned, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes. What social psychologists find is that when they push gender into the psychological background, men and women’s behaviour becomes remarkably similar, even in areas where traditionally the sexes would behave differently.

But when the environment makes gender salient, even subtly, there’s a ripple effect on the mind. Our thinking, our behaviour, the way we perceive others and even our own selves becomes more consistent with gender stereotypes. This interaction between our minds and cultural assumptions about gender sets up psychological barriers to greater sex equality.

There’s also surprisingly little really convincing evidence that there’s a “male” brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world, and a “female” brain hardwired to understand people. Yet despite this, the idea of hardwired sex differences is very confidently presented as “fact” by many popular writers. Unfortunately, claims about ‘hardwired’ sex differences may be a particularly effective way of reinforcing the gender stereotypes that influence us in self-fulfilling ways.

And finally, babies are born into a world in which sex is generally the most important and obvious social division – and is absolutely saturated with information about the “cultural correlates” of gender – and they are born to parents with a head full of assumptions and expectations about gender (whether or not they are consciously endorsed and acknowledged).

We need to take very seriously how this contributes to the really very subtle sex differences seen in infancy. But also, you can’t rear children in this kind of strongly gendered environment, and not expect it to influence and motivate them quite powerfully once, at the age of about two years old, they know what side of the all-important gender divide they belong.

Ultimately, the aim of the book is to dispel the belief, encouraged by many popular commentators, that science has shown that hardwired sex differences mean that it’s pointless to hope or strive for greater sex equality.

Daniel Lende: So my next question is one that I want to emphasize in the post and one you probably don’t get a lot. I’m going to leave it broad right now, so you can take it in whatever direction you want. Feel free to dwell on an example or two.

One thing we’ve talked about before is how methods make such a difference and yet don’t receive enough attention when we talk about research on gender and on brain differences. Tell me what you learned about how methods matter while working on Delusions of Gender.

Cordelia Fine: You’re quite right that journalists have not been hounding me with questions about methods! But that’s a brilliant question – and there are so many examples.

“Methods matter” turned out to be a recurring motif in the book. You begin with so many “facts” about the differences between the sexes: women are hardwired to empathize; male newborns prefer looking at mobiles to faces; higher fetal testosterone predicts (if ever so weakly) more ‘boyish’ play in girls; language processing is more lateralized in the male brain; fetal testosterone permanently ‘masculinizes’ the brain. It’s all great sound bite stuff. But always, the devil is in the detail.

For example, does that self-report measure of empathizing enjoy any relationship with actual empathizing ability – and why does the gender gap in ability only appear when gender norms are salient? Could the mobile have been inadvertently moved a bit more when held up for the one day old boys, attracting their attention? Are researchers’ measures of fetal testosterone actually measuring fetal testosterone? Is that neuroimaging result real, or spurious? And if you measure fetal testosterone before birth, and then behavior several years later, can you assume a neat one-way causal pathway from the hormone to the behavior via prenatal effects on the brain?

As I was grappling with these kinds of issues I came across a nice turn of phrase in Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition – of “lift[ing] the paint off the best ideas to reveal the rotting suppositions underneath” – that rather captured the experience of doing the research for the book.

Daniel Lende: I liked that, especially the finish from Allegra Goodman.

So my next question:

There’s a lot of money to be made in selling “hard-wired” gender differences. Tell me what you found about that over the past several years.

Cordelia Fine: I noticed while researching the book is that the charge is often made against those who criticise the substandard science and the illegitimate or premature conclusions often made in this area is that these critics are blinded by their ideology, and in particular by their desire for the idea of ‘hardwired’ sex differences to be false.

Already, this charge of wishful thinking has been laid against me. I have to say that I don’t find this completely convincing psychologically. I personally would prefer not to think there is absolutely nothing inevitable about women being increasingly in the minority the higher up the ranks you go in politics, business, science and the arts. And I suspect that, likewise, a hundred years ago it was more comfortable to think that there was a good ‘biological’ reason for women to be excluded from the political process and higher education.

In fact, social psychologists have identified a “system justification motive” which they describe as the need to feel that society is fair and that the status quo is natural, desirable, and even inevitable. All of which is a round-about way of saying that I think that books that push the “blame the hardwiring” line have the appeal of letting us off the hook. Instead of looking to ourselves and our society to explain inequality, we can just blame the brain.

Daniel Lende: So my last question, which is of a more personal nature but something I am sure readers would want to hear. We both have young children, including little girls. Any advice or insights for parents who are trying to raise their children while taking a clear look at ourselves and our society?

Cordelia Fine: I don’t like really like to give parenting advice – it conjures up too uncomfortable an image of people who know me, and have seen me parent myself, sniggering behind their hands!

But perhaps I’ll risk a general plea to parents not to assume that their kids won’t enjoy playing with toys that are ‘for’ the opposite sex. One of the studies investigating the effect of fetal testosterone levels on children’s play preferences had to replace Lincoln Logs (a construction toy) as a ‘boy toy’ because the girls in their study loved it so much.

Out of curiosity – and I acknowledge that this isn’t very scientific – I took a look on the Fat Brain Toys website, which tells you what proportion of every kind of toy is bought for boys versus girls. The vast majority of Lincoln Log purchases, about 80 percent, were made for boys.

Daniel Lende: This has been great fun. Any final thoughts?

Cordelia Fine: I’m all out of thoughts for the time-being! But thank you for the exchange.

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