Let’s say good-bye to the straw-feminist

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straw man By eflon, http://www.flickr.com/photos/eflon/3393498219/

“This was not a permissible hypothesis”.

That was social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent explanation of the outrage that followed Lawrence Summers’ speech at a conference on the under-representation of women in science and engineering, in which he suggested that women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking.

Haidt’s depiction of the way in which scientific thinking can be distorted by “sacred values”, and his portrayal of Lawrence Summers as the victim of censorious political correctness, evoke two familiar protagonists in the sex differences debate. There’s the hero, who doesn’t let political values get in the way of the search for scientific truth. And then, there’s the villain of the piece.

That bogeywoman – the truth-fearing feminist – haunted me during a photo shoot I endured shortly after my book, Delusions of Gender, was published last year.

“Just relax,” the photographer pleaded.

We were in the garden, and since the photo and accompanying article were to appear in the Family section of the newspaper, it was apparently necessary to provide readers with visual evidence of my own. I’d been promised that my husband and children would be in the background, blurred. (This, you understand, was to protect their privacy rather than my limelight.) But I was still tense, because in my mind was a vivid image of how this photo could turn out.

Picture it. In the foreground, the blithely smiling author of the controversial new book that claims to tear apart the myth that science has shown that boys will be boys. Behind her, out of sight, her two sons fight furiously with sticks.

I'm bored with your dolls By theirhistory, http://www.flickr.com/photos/22326055@N06/4944956610/In the interminable sex differences debate it always seems to be those who are critical of scientific claims of essential differences who are accused of allowing political desires to blinker them to the facts of the case. A century ago a medical professional commented in the New York Times that “the dear women are ‘obsessed’ with their fitness for all things masculine which blinds them to a sane view of their biological limitations.” Today’s admonishments, sometimes only a little less condescending, suggest a way of thinking about the relationship between politics and science that is inspired by stereotypes: the agenda-driven feminist who requires everyone to ignore what does not fit her ideology; and the detached spokesperson of science.

And so, in the aftermath of the Summers controversy Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker suggested that the “taboo” of innate sex differences drove a “refusal to glance at the scientific literature”. In a more recent commentary, entitled “Daring to discuss women in science”, New York Times columnist John Tierney quipped that the evidence presented in his article put him at “risk of being shipped off” to a gender equity workshop (a hellish fate, indeed), and asked whether it would be “safe” in such a workshop “for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science”.

A similar theme emerged when The Sexual Paradox author Susan Pinker was asked to comment on my book, which argues that we don’t yet know whether, on average, males and females are born differently predisposed to understanding the world versus understanding people. Pinker responded that the results of scientific investigations of sex differences “describe what is, not what we might choose if we were designing a perfect world. These are compelling studies that add to our understanding of human development. Why would we ignore them?” And while a review of my book by The Essential Difference author and Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen generously acknowledged its scholarship, the instantly recognizable stereotype was nonetheless lurking in all its unalluring glory: I was “strident”; in pursuit of a “barely veiled agenda”; and guilty of the “mistaken blurring of science with politics.”

Again and again, the target is a familiar one and should be recognized for what it is: a straw-feminist.

Summers’ remarks deserved to draw fire. This is not because the ideas were politically impermissible: indeed, the notion that women are inherently less likely to be exceptional because they show less variability in psychological traits was presented in a best-selling book by Steven Pinker; Summers’s suggestion that males are biologically predisposed to be more interested in pursuing a scientific career forms part of an actively investigated hypothesis about sex differences. Rather, his comments merited indignation because scientifically they were not well-considered, sometimes nothing short of offensively so.

There is not blanket denial of the pattern of sex differences in high-level mathematical achievement referred to by Tierney – what is legitimately disputed is the chalking-up of this difference to ‘inherent’ potential, and the extent to which they can explain women’s under-representation in mathematics and science.

Nor does my book (which has been unappealingly described as “relentlessly methodological” in its “striving for scientific correctness”) “ignore” the supposedly compelling evidence for the neurological and hormonal origins of essential differences in male and female minds. Rather, again and again I argue that – because of under-acknowledgment of social factors, spurious results, poor methodologies, and untested assumptions – the evidence scientists and commentators provide as support for essentialist claims is simply not as strong as they seem to think.

It’s Strawman By Mr. Greenjeans, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon/92115975/ portraying those who challenge scientific claims about essentially different male and female minds as more interested in politics than science. Let’s say good-bye to that straw-feminist. And, while she’s leaving, let’s also close the door behind her antithesis, the value-free mouthpiece of scientific facts. These characterizations aren’t just inaccurate, they’re also unproductive. Progress will be faster if we move beyond stereotypes and start thinking about the relationship between science and politics in this debate in a more sophisticated way.

One such approach is offered by philosopher of science Heather Douglas in her challenge of the ideal of value-free science. Douglas is clear that political values should never, ever play a direct role in scientific reasoning. Obviously, that the results of a particular study support one’s political values should not be taken to increase the evidential support; wishful thinking doesn’t allow us to ignore evidence that goes against our desires.

However, Douglas argues that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning, by “shifting the level of what counts as sufficient warrant for an empirical claim.” So, we might demand a higher standard of evidence for the claim that a pill will keep a fatal disease at bay than for the claim it will make our hair glossy. The higher the social costs of potential error, the better the standard of evidence we require.

Uncomfortable though this idea may make those involved in this debate, this perspective helps us to see the stereotypes for the illusions they are, and to better understand the true source of a clash. Science does not yield certainty: methodologies, statistical methods, background assumptions, and interpretation all build layer upon layer of potential error into the scientific ‘facts’ that are ultimately produced. This leaves us with scope for two kinds of disagreement, and it’s probably helpful to know which we are dealing with.

Sometimes, the clash might be over the strength of the evidence – the actual warrant for a scientific claim. Steven Pinker soothed irrationally outraged readers with the information that variations in sex hormones, “especially before birth, can exaggerate or minimize the typical male and female patterns in cognition and personality”, before complaining that a mentality of taboo “needlessly puts a laudable cause [the modern women’s movement] on a collision course with the findings of science”. Yet the empirical case that prenatal hormones help wire sex differences in math, science, and other sex-typical talents and interests is, as Brain Storm author Rebecca Jordan-Young put it, more of “a hodge-podge pile than a solid structure”, leaving us with little more than scientific “rubble” to be cleared. Egalitarian aspirations don’t collide with rubble – they can sail right over it.

But we can also, according to Douglas, legitimately disagree over whether empirical warrant is sufficient. As Anne Fausto-Sterling argued in Myths of Gender, “[h]ow much and how strong the proof one demands before accepting a conclusion is a matter of judgment, a judgment that is embedded in the fabric of one’s individual belief system.” Deciding the ‘best’ judgment is not just a scientific issue but also a political one – how do you weigh the social costs of getting it wrong?

Considering a legitimate, indirect role for political values in the debate might help move it along – and encourage those who think they are keeping the science separate from politics to think again. Do Summers’ defenders find unusually insightful his observation that his twin daughters referred to their toy trucks as Daddy and Baby, and think that it really does tell us “something that [we] probably have to recognize” about women’s intrinsic scientific interests? Or are their political values such that even anecdotes have sufficient warrant in this particular debate?

Kids playing road hockey By Spacing Magazine, http://www.flickr.com/photos/spacing/2126966039/What about claims of sex differences in the brain, sometimes speculatively linked to aptitude in science and maths? Small sample sizes, noisy data, publication bias, and teething problems with statistical analysis techniques leave this literature littered with spurious findings of sex differences. So where does the disagreement lie between the neuroscientist or commentator who reports a sex difference in the brain, and the critic of that empirical claim? Does the former have a far more optimistic view of the study’s reliability? Or is she less concerned about the social fall-out should her claim about the difference between the male and the female brain turn out to be wrong?

And do commentators who think the evidence points to ‘innate’ male superiority, on average, in mathematics see the complex empirical situation – the cross-cultural differences in means, variability and exceptional mathematical success, the social influences we know of and those we don’t, the patterns of change in the past and the unknown shifts of the future – differently to those who are less sure? Or, in the absence of certainty, is it political values that push the two sides to different judgments? In other words, is it only the science we should be debating? Or does disagreement also stem from social and ethical values: whether it is worse to waste resources pointlessly riling against implacable nature or, as Stephen J. Gould put it, to commit the injustice of “a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within”.

In the end, the photographer captured one of my sons throwing and catching a ball, while the other cuddled his pet chicken. No parent can fail to wonder how the little people they create come to be who they are, and the scientific explanations we are offered are not psychologically inert. The work of Haidt’s colleagues in social psychology is gathering support for AJ Herschel’s suggestion that “[a] theory about man enters his consciousness, determines his self-understanding, and modifies his very existence.” We can never be certain that we’ve got those scientific stories right, but we have a responsibility to do the best we can.

And the straw-feminist is getting in the way. When criticisms are dismissed as ‘political’ – to be contrasted with one’s own, value-free scientific judgment – we learn nothing new about the quality of the scientific evidence, the hidden work of political values in the scientific debate, or where difference of opinion truly lies. Throwing out that prickly, imaginary lady will give us a clearer picture of the landscape of barriers to disagreement. Then, we can make better moves to navigate them.

Photo credits:
1. Flickr / eflon
2. Flickr / theirhistory
3. Flickr / Mr. Greenjeans
4. Flickr / Spacing Magazine

Guest Blogger Profile: CORDELIA FINE is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University, and an Honorary Research Fellow in Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book is Delusions of Gender.

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56 Responses to Let’s say good-bye to the straw-feminist

  1. John Rennie says:

    Great post, Cordelia, thank you.

    One thing that many of those defending Larry Summers’ comments forget is that he didn’t make them in a vacuum. He made them at a conference on women in the sciences where for the previous two days speakers had been reviewing the abundant evidence that a variety of factors that had nothing to do with innate gender differences held back women. So for him to march at that point and obliviously say “Hey, maybe we should think about whether women just aren’t as good at math” was horrendously oblivious. Why wouldn’t the meeting’s attendees react strongly?

  2. Pete Farley says:

    An excellent, insightful, and edifying piece. Thanks.

  3. gregdowney says:

    I want to add my thanks. We’ve long admired your work at Neuroanthropology, and you continue to write clearly in an area that so badly needs clear voices to keep describing what the Emperor is actually wearing.
    This debate is one of those places where, ironically, the post-modern critics of science as being shot through with ideological assumptions, biased readings of inconclusive data along hackneyed lines, is so spot on. Some of the same people (Pinker, for example) who would most disparage a humanities-based approach to science studies just keep proving the absolute necessity of critique and, what you’ve done so well in your book, encyclopedic review and analysis of the actual data.
    Really happy to see your post here.

  4. Blake Stacey says:

    Nice post!

    (An addendum to John Rennie‘s remarks: Scientists should have the freedom to make unpopular statements. Upper-level management — i.e., professional glad-handers — should know how to avoid them.)

  5. Blake Stacey says:

    (That is to say, Summers’ ill-informed remarks would have been poor form coming from a scientist; from the political public face of a university, they were a pratfall of epic proportions.)

    In a more recent commentary, entitled “Daring to discuss women in science”, New York Times columnist John Tierney quipped that the evidence presented in his article put him at “risk of being shipped off” to a gender equity workshop

    There’s nothing quite so amusing as the spectacle of men who benefit from the status quo putting on martyr’s vestments when they defend it.

  6. Jason says:

    I stopped reading after the first paragraph.

    “…in which he suggested that women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking.”

    No. He said no such thing.

    As Steven Pinker has written:
    “First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is–every one of Summers’ critics has misunderstood it. The hypothesis is, first, that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical–that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistical differences were innate.

    Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor. Still, if it is one factor, we cannot reflexively assume that different statistical representation of men and women in science and engineering is itself proof of discrimination. Incidentally, another sign that we are dealing with a taboo is that when it comes to this issue, ordinarily intelligent scientists suddenly lose their ability to think quantitatively and warp statistical hypotheses into crude dichotomies.”

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  9. Antiquated Tory says:

    Jason, perhaps you should have read the entire essay before commenting.

  10. Dai Jones says:

    Jason, you wrote:

    I stopped reading after the first paragraph.

    “…in which he suggested that women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking.”

    No. He said no such thing.

    And then you wrote:

    the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women

    So, to say the average for women is lower than for men is a misrepresentation, when what was really said is that the average for men is higher than for women? Did you read what you wrote before posting?

  11. Sarah says:

    So instead of suggesting that “women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking”, he hypothesised that “the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women”. I’m struggling to spot the difference here. Must be my muddled lady-brain.

  12. Gaythia says:

    As an addendum to John Rennie’s comment above; “One thing that many of those defending Larry Summers’ comments forget is that he didn’t make them in a vacuum.” Another thing to remember is that some of us listening to, and deeply angered by, those comments from afar did also did so in full knowledge of our own experiences, and we were not a vacuum either. Having gone through the experience of being laid off by a major corporation from a professional science position when 7 months pregnant for example. (Males with heart health issues were better accommodated with leaves of absences, IMHO). Yes, sometimes gender differences, and political reactions to those differences, do matter in science careers. But not, as I see it, significantly because of any small statistical discrepancies in intrinsic math or science skills.

    I agree, this is an excellent post. I look forward to reading the book.

  13. Andrew says:

    Trying to distill the whole post, Ms Fine’s main point seems to be:

    And that since the results are so inconclusive, we should be very worried about the “fall-out” or real harm that would manifest, I assume, as male superiority and female inferiority complexes. A valid concern.

    But to anyone who rejects “women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking” on empirical rather than emotional grounds, please tell me, what evidence would convince you that the statement is true?

  14. Andrew says:

    Trying to distill the whole post, Ms Fine’s main point seems to be:

    And that since the results are so inconclusive, we should be very worried about the “fall-out” or real harm that would manifest, I assume, as male superiority and female inferiority complexes. A valid concern.

    But to anyone who rejects “women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking” on empirical rather than emotional grounds, please tell me, what evidence would convince you that the statement is true?

  15. Andrew says:

    Trying to distill the whole post, Ms Fine’s main point seems to be:

    “Rather, again and again I argue that – because of under-acknowledgment of social factors, spurious results, poor methodologies, and untested assumptions – the evidence scientists and commentators provide as support for essentialist claims is simply not as strong as they seem to think.”

    And that since the results are so inconclusive, we should be very worried about the “fall-out” or real harm that would manifest, I assume, as male superiority and female inferiority complexes. A valid concern.

    But to anyone who rejects “women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking” on empirical rather than emotional grounds, please tell me, what evidence would convince you that the statement is true?

  16. gerty-z says:

    Andrew, I agree with you, IF you are raising the point that it may be impossible to measure “intrinsic capabilities” separate from the social and political environment. Nevertheless, studies that have tried to measure such a difference generally don’t find evidence for one (except in cases of poor methodology, as described above). This would seem to argue against the existence of a difference. Why are you so determined that there must be one there?

    • Andrew says:

      gerty-z, I don’t think it’s impossible to measure intrinsic capabilities… in fact, this is the kind of thing that science is good at (looking into noise to uncover underlying principles). It is earlygoing and difficult work, which is why this is still a controversial issue. But eventually as the science gets better a consensus will emerge that will be increasingly difficult to argue against on skeptical grounds. And yes, it may turn out that current research is misleading and there are zero differences between male and female but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

      Ms Fine’s book, she says, does not ignore “the supposedly compelling evidence for the neurological and hormonal origins of essential differences in male and female minds.” It seems to me she’s just saying, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and let’s make sure we’re doing science correctly.” Which is good, of course, and a part of that “correct” process.

      What would you say if the evidence got much better over the next 10 years for a difference in intrinsic capability? If there is no evidence that could change your mind then you might be the embodiment of the straw-feminist. If you can think of evidence that would change your mind then I am guilty of the OP sin of fighting a straw-feminist and I apologize!

      — And I’m sorry for my repeat posts, couldn’t figure out \blockquote=””\ :(

      • Dai Jones says:

        I’m not sure about earlygoing: psychologists have been making claims about essential gender differences for well over a century. In 1910 Helen Thompson Woolley reviewed research into psychological differences between gender groups, and suggested:
        “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here.”

  17. figleaf says:

    You know what would work a little better for me in science terms? If you’re pondering possible differences in men and women, how about beginning from an assumption that we’re all the same and then spend your time looking for possible causes of variation. This as opposed to assuming we’re different and spending time looking for confirmation?

    Good example? Last week Ed Yong (who’s link I followed to find this post) linked to Kate Clancy’s cool post about how gender assumptions about anemia led to… about 2000 years of misdiagnosis: it turns out that at least 85% of the time women have anemia for the same reasons men do — gastro-intestinal bleeding. The assumption had always been that women have periods, menstrual flow resembles blood (it’s actually highly dilute), blood has iron in it, so why look any further?

    Nor, lest straw-feminist bashers leap forward, was Clancy’s observation limited to health consequences for men. Turns out that women’s blood-iron levels remain constant into adulthood while men’s iron levels spike tremendously during puberty. The assumption that men are “normal” and women are “naturally anemic” has almost certainly led to misunderstanding of human-male-specific blood disorders (e.g. hemochromatosis.)

    Again, are men and women identical in the aggregate? No, otherwise Clancy would have no blood-iron differences to point to. But, again, in terms of general scientific productivity what methodology tends to generate more interesting results: confirming assumptions or challenging them?

    Not to use a shopworn example but we’ve got the computing and observational power today to totally master the cycles and epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy. And thus confirm the extremely natural and obvious assumption that Mars and Venus orbit the earth. We kind of challenged that assumption back in 1543 and so we’re able to use our computing power on everything else. Kind of dumb that half a millennium later scientists still think it’s ok to assume men are from Mars and women from Venus.

    figleaf

  18. figleaf says:

    And just in case my previous comment sounded too even handed, I agree with you and disagree with the “men and women aren’t just different species, they’re from completely different planets” mindset.

    I also agree with you and disagree with your critics: identifying consistent bias when findings are within margins of error, for instance, is no more “political” than the bias itself. (Especially when, as I indicated in my first comment, confirmation bias is inherent in hypothesis formation and testing of sex differences but not astronomy.)

    Words like “You are woman, I am man / You are smaller, so I can be taller than”
    might (or might not) be lovely for romantic Louis Armstrong song lyrics. Not sure I know that many scientists, men or women, who say what science needs is a firmer foundation in romantic notions.

    (Doh! On a whim I just Googled to see how tall Louis Armstrong was: five feet six inches, which would make him somewhat shorter than my mom, my sister, and my wife. He’d be taller than my daughter but since she’s only eleven and still growing I don’t expect that’ll hold up either.)

    figleaf

  19. Dai Jones says:

    Andrew, the issue is around the idea of intrinsic or essential differences. Studies looking for gender differences are quasi-experimental, and so incapable of establishing causality. The results of such studies are necessarily confounded by a range of factors other than biological sex. To conclude that they demonstrate an intrinsic difference is to infer causality: it’s an act of interpretation, and as such is influenced by a range of socio-cultural and political factors. Those who decry politics getting in the way of accepting scientific results are usually those who’s politics lead to them accepting the unfounded inference. There are plenty of examples of this in psychology, particularly around race differences also. There’s an analysis in my forthcoming book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Social-Context-Issues-Debates/dp/1405168234/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297601711&sr=8-1

    • Andrew says:

      Dai Jones, “Those who decry politics getting in the way of accepting scientific results are usually those who’s politics lead to them accepting the unfounded inference.”

      This is probably often the case, the male chauvinists would use conditional research to reinforce their prejudices. But it seems like you’re saying that because science is hard, and the results may have negative social consequences, therefore let’s not go down this investigative road at all. Surely as time goes on and we look at the issue from many angles, we may be justified in saying the hypothesis is becoming more and more likely to be true.

      It’s very sad if it turns out that men are born with better processing for math and science, but it may be true.

      • Dai Jones says:

        It may indeed be true, though I suspect Lise Eliot in Pink Brain Blue Brain is right and that any essential differences that may be present are very small, but are reinforced through development. However, the basic problem is a logical one: the scientific method, as applied in psychology, only establishes a definitive basis to ascribe causality if the independent variable is manipulated in a tightly controlled manner; and in the case of gender difference studies the IV isn’t manipulated. It’s not so much that it’s hard to manipulate the IV, it’s that it’s impossible.

        Actually, there is a way of designing a scientific study, in principle, that could establish causality. You’d need two identical eggs, freshly fertilized, which are genetically manipulated so that one has the male chromosome and one the female. Then raise the offspring produced by the eggs in identical environments, isolated from any human or outside environmental contact. Have a standardised computer programme to give them some basic instruction in mathematical or spatial ability, in this case, and then at some chosen point administer some standard test of performance. Do this multiple times to reduce random effects, and if you find that there’s a male superiority then you can ascribe causality. It’s not particularly ethical though.

        There is a problem in the use of difference testing, and reliance on the use of the p<.05 criterion, to make decisions here. The use of p values to make dichotomous decisions is problematic in itself, because they tell us little about the size of the effect between populations relative to the variation within populations, since they're confounded by sample size. Effect sizes are a more meaningful metric in this case, but all too rarely reported. Meta-analyses show that effect sizes in gender difference studies are typically very small. A better approach, reflecting what you say in your post, might be to use inference to best explanation as a basis for decision making, where we might accept that the most likely explanation for the observed results is genetic rather than social. Unfortunately, what counts as best explanation is likely to differ for different people, so it doesn't save us from the subjectivity problem.

        • Andrew says:

          Dai Jones, what about testing across dozens of cultures instead? Giving them “basic instruction in mathematical or spatial ability… and then at some chosen point administer some standard test of performance.”

          • Andrew says:

            That way cultural influences would wash out to some extent and we could get a better look at male/female differences than when we’re looking inside one skewed culture.

          • Kali says:

            That ignores the possibility that all/most cultures could be skewed in one direction due to other factors besides the ones under consideration.

            You seem to be more interested in lowering the standards of proof rather than in seeking out the truth.

          • Dai Jones says:

            As Kali says, that gender roles are consistent across cultures doesn’t mean that such roles are biologically determined. Despite that, there are some interesting cross-cultural results. A study in the UK found that women expressed a preference for colours towards the red end of the colour spectrum, and men expressed a preference for colours towards the blue end (on average: plenty of men liked red, and women blue). This was used as evidence to support the evolutionary hypothesis that red is a woman’s colour because they had to be good at picking out berries in the trees. In its modern expression, that’s why we dress girls in pink and boys in blue: it’s in the genes. There are a range of problems with this, not least that plenty of berries aren’t red, so gatherers would need to be sensitive to a range of colours, whereas hunters would need most to be sensitive to the trail of blood left by wounded animals, which is a uniform colour. The fact that in Victorian times it was normal to dress boys in pink – seen as a ‘strong’ colour – and girls in blue suggests that this is either a very strange kind of genetic determinism, or that colour preference is socially, not genetically, determined. The researchers also gave participants a Bem Sex Role Inventory questionnaire to complete, which basically measures the extent to which people buy into stereotypical representations of gender. Those who were found to most adopt stereotypical behaviours were also more likely to express stereotypical colour preferences, supporting the notion that gender differences are socially constructed: the researchers largely ignored this explanation. To get back on point though, the researchers also tested students from a Chinese background, and showed a greatly reduced difference in the distribution of preferences, with most men preferring a kind of red. A fuller discussion is given on the excellent Bad Science blog:
            http://www.badscience.net/2007/08/pink-pink-pink-pink-pink-moan/

          • Andrew says:

            Yes, you interpreted my disagreement accurately. But, yes I misunderstood your “supporting the notion” to mean it’s evidence against a biological link… I guess I agree it supports both (it’s late not 100% on this lol) http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs30-cordelia-fine-on-delusions-of-gender.html

        • Andrew says:

          Dai Jones, well that berry hypothesis is ridiculous. And I think I disagree with “Those who were found to most adopt stereotypical behaviours were also more likely to express stereotypical colour preferences, supporting the notion that gender differences are socially constructed”… I can see the possibility of a biological correlation in there. It’s possible that girls inherently prefer pink and dolls.

          Kali, I think that’s wrong… sampling many cultures would actually be better evidence. Let’s say we discovered that in the US toddler girls, teenage girls, and adult women outperform toddler boys, teenage boys, and adult men on math problems. Okay, interesting, further research is required. Now let’s run the same experiment on 10 very different cultures and get the same results. Now *that’s* interesting.

          • Dai Jones says:

            Sorry Andrew, I wasn’t keeping up with the discussion. Glad you agree the berry hypothesis is ridiculous, but sadly there are more ridiculous hypotheses in the “science” of essential gender differences. Don’t get me started on claims that women are biologically determined to be monogamous while men are naturally – and so rightly – polygamous; or that because dragonflies engage in “sexual violence” then it must be only natural for human males to do so also. I’d refer you to the Wooley quote from 1910 I cited above: nothing’s changed.

            Presumably you disagree with concluding – based on the observed correlation – that colour preference reflects adoption of social stereotypes, rather than disagreeing with the correlation itself: the correlation was the observed result of the study, and not really susceptible to disagreement. Any such result needs to be interpreted – and that was my point above. The interpretation isn’t an objective act. I interpret the result in one way, suggesting conformity to stereotype; you suggest an alternative interpretation. Both are possible, and both are logically sound: we have no way of knowing which is the correct interpretation. I’m quite open in admitting that I prefer my interpretation because it fits my politics and hence my general view of human nature. You have your own reasons for preferring your interpretation, which is perfectly fine. The important thing is that neither of us is more ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’ than the other.

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  21. Mona Albano says:

    Value-free science seems doomed to be dragged through the mud of cultural assumptions every time. Even as a teenager I realized that claiming that women had better manual dexterity than men didn’t automatically fit them for, say, embroidery rather than brain surgery.

  22. MissCherryPi says:

    Thanks for this great post. I was just having a conversation this week about what to call the fallacy that feminists are trying to shut down science because of “political correctness.” The person making the argument usually claims to be speaking truth to power, which is maddening considering that’s usually a term reserved for people taking risks more severe than arguing with feminists on the internet. They are using a straw-feminist argument, but I wonder if we need an even more specific term.

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  24. Echidne says:

    But eventually as the science gets better a consensus will emerge that will be increasingly difficult to argue against on skeptical grounds.
    This sentence is fascinating, because it predicts future scientific results on the basis of what I presume are personal beliefs, not the science itself.

    On the greater male variability hypothesis: Note that the Benbow-Stanley study of early 1980s found 13 boys to every girl in the exceptionally mathematically gifted group. The 2005 repetition of the study found 2.8 boys for every girl in the exceptionally mathematically gifted group. Such a drop in the excess male variability seems not to support an innate difference hypothesis.

    Yet I have seen the initial Benbow-Stanley study used as evidence of innate gender differences in the extreme tails of some theoretical distribution of mathematical talent. The change from 13 boys to 2.8 boys per every girl in that group tells us that environmental variables must play a major role here. Add to that the possibility that “nature” and ” nurture” might interact in unexpected ways, and who knows what future research will look like.

    • Andrew says:

      I’m predicting that a consensus will emerge. It will be a difference toward men or a difference toward women or zero difference.

  25. Pingback: Monday Stepback: Why Read?, Verbing, Straw Feminism, and Getting Yelled At | Read React Review: Rethinking romance and other fine fiction

  26. Bork says:

    Maybe saying goodbye to said “Straw Feminists” should be anticipated by works not titled “Delusions of Gender”, “Myths of Gender”, “The Myths of Stuff we do not like too much” etc

  27. Pingback: Innate womanhood « Fraser Sherman’s Blog

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  29. Pingback: But he’s really a nice linkspam (24th February, 2011) | Geek Feminism Blog

  30. Timo98 says:

    I think a consensus has already emmerged. The question is: is it the result of prejudice, bias and stigma or ‘hard science’?

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  32. Pingback: The Sunday Read: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine « Tui Talk

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  34. Emily says:

    I’m continually amazed that the word “feminist” is still associated with bra burning, military boot wearing, hairy-legged man haters. (Was there a movie with this character or did we all have some collective weird dream???) Being a “feminist” should be the obvious default for the average person (pick the best person for the job, just cause they’re pretty doesn’t mean they’re dumb, men are just as good at child rearing and housework as women, etc.) and “mysoginist” should be the qualifier.

    Unfortunately I’ve been conditioned myself to avoid the label “feminist” because of this silliness. During a cutsey “most likely to. . . .” team building exercise at my predominantly male workplace, I was initially described as “most likely to hold a bakesale for feminism.” I balked and they changed it, but later I thought, that would have been great! I love baking! I am a feminist! Duh!

    (Full disclosure: My legs are often hairy.)

  35. Pingback: What do you have against feminists? « Aleksandr Jak

  36. Cindi says:

    List Price

    $27.00

    Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian
    $27.00 List Price

    Overview –
    Product Details
    Pub. Date: February 1999
    Publisher: MIT Press
    Synopsis

    Why do so few women occupy positions of power and prestige? Virginia Valian uses concepts and data from psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to explain the disparity in the professional advancement of men and women. According to Valian, men and women alike have implicit hypotheses about gender differences — gender schemas — that create small sex differences in characteristics, behaviors, perceptions, and evaluations of men and women. Those small imbalances accumulate to advantage men and disadvantage women. The most important consequence of gender schemas for professional life is that men tend to be overrated and women underrated.Valian’s goal is to make the invisible factors that retard women’s progress visible, so that fair treatment of men and women will be possible. The book makes its case with experimental and observational data from laboratory and field studies of children and adults, and with statistical documentation on men and women in the professions. The many anecdotal examples throughout provide a lively counterpoint.

    The MIT Press

    Publishers Weekly
    Social psychologist Valian thinks that the Western world has gotten gender all wrong. “As social beings we tend to perceive the genders as alternatives to each other, as occupying opposite and contrasting ends of a continuum,” she writes, “even though the sexes are not opposite but are much more alike than they are different.” Indeed, despite nearly three decades of feminism, “gender schema”the assumption that masculine and feminine characteristics determine personality and abilitycontinue to influence the expectations and thinking of most Americans. Just about everyone, Valian writes, assumes that men are independent, task-oriented and assertive, while women are tagged as expressive and nurturing. As such, women lag behind in many professions and continue to do the lion’s share of housework and child-rearing. Girls remain less attentive in math and science, while even women who attend medical school tend to steer themselves into “gender appropriate” slots such as family practice or pediatrics. Valian bases her findings on research conducted by social scientists in fields as disparate as psychology, education, sociology and economics, and the result is a work that is both scholarly and anecdotally rich. But it also posits concrete suggestions for changing the way we view the sexes, from stepped-up affirmative action programs, to timetables for rectifying gender-based valuations. Accessible and lively, Why So Slow? is a breakthrough in the discourse on gender and has great potential to move the women’s movement to a new, more productive phase. (Jan.)

    Features –
    Why So Slow?
    Table of Contents
    Table of Contents
    Preface
    Acknowledgments
    A Note on Method and Scope
    1 Gender Schemas at Work 1
    2 Gender Begins – and Continues – at Home 23
    3 Learning About Gender 47
    4 Biology and Behavior 67
    5 Biology and Cognition 81
    6 Schemas That Explain Behavior 103
    7 Evaluating Women and Men 125
    8 Effects on the Self 145
    9 Interpreting Success and Failure 167
    10 Women in the Professions 187
    11 Women in Academia 217
    12 Professional Performance and Human Values 251
    13 Affirmative Action and the Law 277
    14 Remedies 303
    Notes 333
    References 353
    Author Index 385
    Subject Index 393

    © 1997- Barnesandnoble.com

  37. Cindi says:

    Below is an email I wrote to Oxford University Gender communication professor Deborah Cameron author of the great important book,The Myth Of Mars and Venus Do Men and women Really Speak Different Languages?.

    Dear Deborah,

    I recently read your great important book, The Myth Of Mars & Venus. I read a bad review of the book, The Female Brain on Amazon.com US by psychologist David H.Perterzell and he called it junk science.

    I also thought you would want to know that John Gray got his “Ph.D” from Columbia Pacific University which was closed down in March 2001 by the California Attorney General’s Office because he called it a diploma mill and a phony operation offering totally worthless degrees!

    Also there is a Christian gender and psychology scholar and author psychology professor Dr. Mary Stewart Van Leewuen who teaches the psychology and Philosophy of Gender at the Christian College Eastern College here in Pa. She has several online presentations that were done at different colleges from 2005- the present debunking the Mars & Venus myth.

    One is called , Opposite Sexes Or Neighboring Sexes and sometimes adds, Beyond The Mars/Venus Rhetoric in which she explains that all of the large amount of research evidence from the social and behavorial sciences shows that the sexes are very close neighbors and that there are only small average differences between them many of which have gotten even smaller over the last several decades which she says happened after 1973 when gender roles were less rigid and that genetic differences can’t shrink like this and in such a short period of time, and that most large differences that are found are between individual people and that for almost every trait and behavior there is a large overlap between them and she said so it is naive at best and deceptive at worst to make claims about natural sex differences. etc.

    She says he claims Men are From Mars & Women are From Venus with no emperical warrant and that his claim gets virtually no support from the large amount of psychological and behavioral sciences and that in keeping in line with the Christian Ethic and with what a bumper sticker she saw said and evidence from the behavioral and social sciences is , Men Are From,Earth ,Women Are From Earth Get Used To It. Comedian George Carlin said this too.

    She also said that such dichotomous views of the sexes are apparently popular because people like simple answers to complex issues including relationships between men and women. She should have said especially relationships between them.

    Sociologist Dr.Michael Kimmel writes and talks about this also including in his Media Education Foundation educational video. And he explains that all of the evidence from the psychological and behavioral sciences indicates that women and men are far more alike than different.

    Yet Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen says that there are no consistent large psychological sex differences found.

    I have an excellent book from 1979 written by 2 parent child development psychologists Dr. Wendy Schemp Matthews and award winning psychologist from Columbia University, Dr.Jeane Brooks-Gunn, called He & She How Children Develop Their Sex Role Idenity.

    They thoroughly demonstrate with tons of great studies and experiments by parent child psychologists that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike than different with very few differences but they are still perceived and treated systematically very different from the moment of birth on by parents and other adult care givers. They go up to the teen years.

    I once spoke with Dr.Brooks-Gunn in 1994 and I asked her how she could explain all of these great studies that show that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike with few differences but are still perceived and treated so differently anyway, and she said that’s due to socialization and she said there is no question, that socialization plays a very big part.

    I know that many scientists know that the brain is plastic and can be shaped and changed by different life experiences and different enviornments too and Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen told this to me too when I spoke to her 10 years ago.

    Also there are 2 great online rebuttals of the Mars & Venus myth by Susan Hamson called, The Rebuttal From Uranus and Out Of The Cave: Exploring Gray’s Anatomy by Kathleen Trigiani.

    Also have you read the excellent book by social psychologist Dr.Gary Wood at The University of Birmingham called, Sex Lies & Stereotypes:Challenging Views Of Women, Men & Relationships? He clearly demonstrates with all of the research studies from psychology what Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen does, and he debunks The Mars & Venus myth and shows that the sexes are biologically and psychologically more alike than different and how gender roles and differences are mostly socially created.

    Anyway, if you could write back when you have a chance I would really appreciate it.

    Thank You

  38. Cindi says:

    And Bork and Andrew’s comments demonstrate how commonly most people have been taught all of this gender myth,and gender stereotyping stuff,and they *want* to believe it even with so much great research studies and evidence that debunks it! It’s more comforting and not threatening to belive it!

  39. Cindi says:

    Public release date: 4-Nov-1999
    [ Print E-mail Share

    Contact: Penny Burge or Sharon Snow
    burge@vt.edu or ssnow@vt.edu
    540-231-7806
    Virginia Tech

    20-year-old sex-role research survey still valid

    BLACKSBURG, Va. ­ In the late 1970s, Penny Burge, director of Virginia Tech’s Women’s Center, was working on her doctoral dissertation at Penn State University researching the relationship between child-rearing sex-role attitudes and social issue sex-role attitudes among parents. As part of her research, Burge designed a 28-question survey in which respondents were asked to mark how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: “Only females should receive affectionate hugs as rewards,” “I would buy my son a doll,” and “I would be upset if my daughter wanted to play little league baseball.”

    Hard-hitting questions, many of them. But Burge carried on. She received her degree in 1979, and in 1981 her research findings were published in the Home Economics Research Journal.

    Among her findings were that respondents who named the mother as their child’s primary caretaker held more traditional child-rearing sex-role attitudes than respondents who named both parents. In addition, those respondents who held more traditional child-rearing sex-role attitudes also held more traditional social issue sex-role attitudes, and fathers were more conventional than mothers with respect to the issue of whether or not boys and girls should be raised differently.

    “We found that parents do cling to traditional sex-role attitudes,” Burge said. “It was more pronounced with male children where pressure to achieve was more intense.”

    Over the years, Burge occasionally received requests from other researchers for permission to use her survey in their own research. Burge always granted permission, but had redirected her research focus to gender equity in education. She had moved on in her career, serving on the faculty in Virginia Tech’s College of Human Resources and Education from 1979 to 1994 when she became director of the Women’s Center.

    But a recent request from a researcher at New Mexico State University sparked her interest. The researcher, Betsy Cahill, had used Burge’s survey (with some modifications and additions) to conduct research on early childhood teachers’ attitudes toward gender roles. After the results of Cahill’s research were completed and published in The Journal of Sex Roles in 1997, some unexpected events occurred.

    The Educational Testing Service, a national resource that makes research instruments more widely available to other researchers, requested permission to use the Burge and Cahill survey tools in its upcoming Test Collection, a reference publication for future researchers. “I was honored,” Burge said. “It was nice to have another researcher include my survey instrument in her own. And the request from the Educational Testing Service gave an additional sanction to my survey. It’s amazing to me that the same type of social questions are still valid after 20 years.”

    And no one can dispute the past two decades have brought enormous social changes in the world, which leads to the second unexpected occurrence.

    Cahill found that many of the findings from Burge’s research were still very much the same. For example, teachers who espoused traditional gender role beliefs for adults also did for children. For those who were more accepting of cross-gender role behaviors and aspirations, they were more accepting of these behaviors from girls than boys.

    Enter Sharon Snow, newly hired assistant director of the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech, and the third coincidence regarding Burge’s survey tool. As part of a survey research class Snow took while working on her graduate degree at Texas Woman’s University, she cited Burge’s study in her literature review.

    “As part of the class, we conducted a survey of students to determine their attitudes about gender roles in children,” Snow said. “We found that parents do indeed drive gender-based behavior. It’s not something that just happens naturally.”

    So 20 year later, researchers find that parents still have a profound influence on their children’s gender roles.

    “The most amazing finding is that despite tremendous societal change over the past two decades, many parents still hold fast to raising their children with traditional sex-roles,” Burge said.

  40. Cindi says:

    I have an excellent book from 1979 written by 2 parent child development psychologists Dr. Wendy Schemp Matthews and award winning psychologist from Columbia University, Dr.Jeane Brooks-Gunn, called He & She How Children Develop Their Sex Role Idenity.

    They thoroughly demonstrate with tons of great studies and experiments by parent child psychologists that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike than different with very few differences but they are still perceived and treated systematically very different from the moment of birth on by parents and other adult care givers. They go up to the teen years.

    They also show that surveys show that boys are overwhelimingly prefered over girls,(sadly nothing has changed and sexist Tee shirts that say( I’m Too Pretty For Homework So I Let My Brother Do It For Me) (and other sexist anti-female ads,pornography,etc do too) like these both reflect and contribute to this injustice.They also explain that when people guess if a pregnant woman is having a girl or a boy,and they list a whole bunch of false unproven old wives tales,that assign all negative characteristics to a woman if they think she’s having a girl,and the imagined girls or given all of the negative characteristics.

    For example they say that author Elana Belotti(1977) explained these examples, The man and woman each take hold of one end of a wishbone and pull it apart.If the longest part comes away in the man’s hand,the baby will be a boy. If you suddenly ask a pregnant woman what she has in her hand and she looks at her right hand first ,she will have a boy;if she looks at her left hand it will be a girl.If the mother’s belly is bigger on the right-hand side a boy will be born,and also if her right breast is bigger than her left,or if her right foot is more restless.

    If a woman is placid during pregnancy she will have a boy,but if she is bad-tempered or cries a lot,she will have a girl.If her complexion is rosy she’s going to have a son;if she is pale a daughter. If her looks improve,she’s expecting a boy;if they worsen,a girl.If the fetal heartbeat is fast,it is a boy;if it is slow it is a girl.If the fetus has started to move by the fortieth day it will be a boy and the birth will be easy,but if it doesn’t move until the ninetieth day it will be a girl.( Belotti 1977,pp.22-23)

    Dr.Brooks-Gunn and Wendy Schempp Matthews then say, now rate each of the characteristics above as positive or negative. A woman expecting a girl is pale,her looks deteriorate,she is cross and ill-tempered,and she gets the short end of the wishbone,all negative characteristics. They then say,furthermore ,a girl is symbolized by the left-the left hand,the left side of the belly,the left foot,the left breast. They say,left connotes evil,a bad omen,or sinister,again the girls have all of the negative characteristics. They then say,that sex-role stereotypes about activity also characterize Belotti’s recipes:boys are believed to be active from the very beginning and girls have slower heartbeats and begin to move around later.They then say,the message although contradictory(girls cause more trouble even though they are more passive) is clear in that it reflects the sex-role stereotype that boys “do” while girls “are” and the belief that boys are more desirable than girls.

    I once spoke with Dr.Brooks-Gunn in 1994 and I asked her how she could explain all of these great studies that show that girl and boy babies are actually born more alike with few differences but are still perceived and treated so differently anyway, and she said that’s due to socialization and she said there is no question, that socialization plays a very big part.

    I know that many scientists know that the brain is plastic and can be shaped and changed by different life experiences and different enviornments too and Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leewuen told this to me too when I spoke to her 13 years ago. DR.Van Leeuwen also said that humanbeings don’t have sex fixed in the brain and she told me that humans have a unique highly developed cerebral cortex that allows us to make choices in our behaviors and we can learn things that animals can’t.

    There was another case in Canada that I read about online some years ago about another case in which a normal genetic male baby’s penis was destroyed when he was an infant and in this case he was raised as a girl from the much younger age of only 7 months old,not as late as 18 months as was David Reimer,and research shows that the core gender identity is learned by as early as 18 months old.

    In this other case,it was reported in 1998 he was still living as a woman in his 20’s but a bisexual woman. But I’m not sure if he still is now. With David Reimer they raised him as a girl too late after he learned most of his gender identity as a boy from the moment he was born and put into blue clothes, treated totally differently, given gender stereotyped toys, perceived and treated totally differently than girls are in every way(in the great book,He and She:How Children Develop Their Sex Role Identity it explains that a lot of research studies and tests by parent child psychologists found that they give 3 month old babies gender stereotyped toys long before they are able to develop these kinds of preferences or ask for these toys. They also found that when adults interacted with the same exact baby they didn’t know was a girl or boy who was dressed in gender neutral clothes,they decided if they *believed* it was a girl or boy. And those adults who thought the baby was a boy,always handed the baby a toy foot ball,but never a doll and were asked what made them think it was a girl or boy and they said they used characteristics of the baby to make the judgement . Those who thought the baby was a boy described characteristcs such as strength,those who thought the baby was a girl described the baby as having softness and fragility,and as the Dr.Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Wendy Schempp Mathews explain,Again remember that the same infant was being characterized as strong or soft,the actual distinction by sex characteristics being only in the minds of the adults.

    They also explain that in the toy preference studies,girl toddlers often show an intitial interest in the trucks,but eventually abandon them for a more familiar type of toy. Also check out Kate Bornstein’s books,Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook,and recently a co-written book,Gender Outlaws. Kate used to be a heterosexual married man who fathered a daughter and then had a sex change and became a lesbian woman who now doesn’t idenity as a man or a woman. I heard Kate interviewd in 1998 on a local NPR show and she totally debunks gender myths,and rejects the “feminine” and “masculine” categories as the mostly socially constructed categories that they really are.She even said,what does it mean to feel or think like a woman(or man) she said what does that really mean.

  41. Cindi says:

    There is an excellent online article that I printed out 10 years ago,by Jungian psychologist Dr.Gary S.Toub,called,Jung and Gender:Masculine and Feminine Revisted. On his site it now only has part of this article and it says you have to register to read the full article. I emailed Dr.Toub years ago and he wrote me back several nice emails,in one he said he really liked my letter,and that it was filled to the brim with excellent points and references.

    In this article he talks about what parts of Jungian thought he finds useful and what he finds problematic. The first thing he says he finds useful is, In the course of Jungian analysis, he often assists female clients to discover traditionally,masculine qualities in their psyche and that he likewise frequently assist male clients to recognize traditionally feminine qualities in their psyche. He says this process frees each gender from the straight-jacket of stereotyped sex roles and expands his clients identities. He then said that the process also mirrors and furthers the breakdown of male-female polarization in our culture,and the cultural shifts towards androgyny.

    He also says that most importantly, his practice of Jungian analysis places the greatest emphasis on facilitating his clients individuation process. He says this means that he tries to assist clients,male or female,to search for their authentic self-definition,distinct from society’s gender expectations.He also says that many Jungian definitions of masculine and feminine are narrow,outdated and sexist.

    He also says that he has found that generalizing about what is masculine and what is feminine is dangerous,often perpetuating gender myths that are discriminatory and damaging.He says while there is some research supporting biological roots to personality differences,the majority of studies suggest that much of what is considered masculine or feminine is culture determined.

    He also says that viewing masculine and feminine as complementary opposites,while useful at times,is problematic. He then says as his gay,lesbian, and transexual clients have taught him,gender is more accurately viewed as encompassing a wide-ranging continumm. He then says that likewise,the more people he sees in his practice,the more he is impressed at the great diversity in human nature. He says he has seen men of all types and varieties,and women of all kinds. He then says,he is hard-pressed to come up with very many generalizations based on gender.He says he knows that there are some statistical patterns,but how useful are they when he works with individuals and in a rapidly changing society? He says if each person is unique,no statistical norm or average will be able to define who my client is.

    He then says,from a psychological perpespective,men and women are not, in fact,opposite. He says his clinical experience is that they are much more psychologically alike than different,and the differences that exist are not necessarily opposing.

  42. Cindi says:

    Below is part of a presentation by Eastern College Gender and Christian scholar,psychology professor Dr.Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.

    Trinity 2007

    Opposite Sexes or Neighboring Sexes?

    C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and
    the Psychology of Gender
    Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

    Gender and Modern Social Science

    C. S. Lewis was no fan of the emerging social sciences. He saw practitioners of the social sciences mainly as lackeys of technologically-minded natural scientists, bent on reducing individual freedom and moral accountability to mere epiphenomena of natural processes (See Lewis 1943 and 1970 b). And not surprisingly (given his passion for gender-essentialist archetypes), aside from a qualified appreciation
    of some aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis (See Lewis 1952 (Book III, Chapter 4) and 1969). “Carl Jung was the only philosopher [sic] of the Viennese school for whose work [Lewis] had much respect” (Sayer 102).

    But the social sciences concerned with the psychology of gender have since shown that Sayers was right, and Lewis and Jung were wrong: women and men are not opposite sexes but neighboring sexes—and very close neighbors indeed. There are, it turns out, virtually no large, consistent sex differences in any psychological traits and behaviors, even when we consider the usual stereotypical suspects: that men are more aggressive, or just, or rational than women, and women are more empathic, verbal, or nurturing than men. When differences are found, they are always average—not absolute—differences. And in virtually all cases the small, average—and often decreasing—difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the “bell curves” for women and men (showing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naïve at best (and deceptive at worst) to make even average—let alone absolute—pronouncements about essential archetypes in either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on all the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.

    This criticism applies as much to C. S. Lewis and Carl Jung as it does to their currently most visible descendent, John Gray, who continues to claim (with no systematic empirical warrant) that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (Gray 1992).

    And what about Lewis’s claims about the overriding masculinity of God? Even the late Carl Henry (a theologian with impeccable credentials as a conservative evangelical) noted a quarter of a century ago that:

    Masculine and feminine elements are excluded from both the Old Testament and New Testament doctrine of deity. The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as “he” the pronoun is primarily personal (generic) rather than masculine (specific); it emphasizes God’s personal nature—and, in turn, that of the Father, Son and Spirit as Trinitarian distinctions in contrast to impersonal entities… Biblical religion is quite uninterested in any discussion of God’s masculinity or femininity… Scripture does not depict God either as ontologically
    masculine or feminine. (Henry 1982, 159–60)
    However well-intentioned, attempts to read a kind of mystical gendering into God—whether stereotypically
    masculine, feminine, or both—reflect not so much careful biblical theology as “the long arm of Paganism” (Martin 11). For it is pagan worldviews, the Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna reminds us, that are “unable to conceive of any primal creative force other than in terms of sex… [In Paganism] the sex element existed before the cosmos came into being and all the gods themselves were creatures of sex. On the other hand, the Creator in Genesis is uniquely without any female counterpart, and the very association of sex with God is utterly alien to the religion of the Bible” (Sarna 76).

    And if the God of creation does not privilege maleness or stereotypical masculinity, neither did the Lord of redemption. Sayers’s response to the cultural assumption that women were human-not-quite-human has become rightly famous:
    Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being
    female; who had no axe to grind or no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is not act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel which borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about women’s nature. (Sayers 1975, 46)

    It is quite likely that Lewis’s changing views on gender owed something to the intellectual and Christian ties that he forged with Dorothy L. Sayers. And indeed, in 1955—two years before her death, Lewis confessed to Sayers that he had only “dimly realised that the old-fashioned way… of talking to all young women was v[ery] like an adult way of talking to young boys. It explains,” he wrote, “not only why some women grew up vapid, but also why others grew up (if we may coin the word) viricidal [i.e., wanting to kill men]” (Lewis 2007, 676; Lewis’s emphasis).

    The Lewis who in his younger years so adamantly had defended the doctrine of gender essentialism was beginning to acknowledge the extent to which gendered behavior is socially conditioned. In another letter that same year, he expressed a concern to Sayers that some of the first illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles were a bit too effeminate. “I don’t like either the ultra feminine or the ultra masculine,” he added. “I prefer people” (Lewis 2007, 639; Lewis’s emphasis).

    Dorothy Sayers surely must have rejoiced to read this declaration. Many of Lewis’s later readers, including myself, wish that his shift on this issue had occurred earlier and found its way into his better-selling apologetic works and his novels for children and adults. But better late than never. And it would be better still if those who keep trying to turn C. S. Lewis into an icon for traditionalist views on gender essentialism and gender hierarchy would stop mining his earlier works for isolated proof-texts and instead read what he wrote at every stage of his life.

    Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is Professor of Psychology and Philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

    This essay originally was presented as the Tenth Annual Warren Rubel Lecture on Christianity and Higher Learning at Valparaiso University on 1 February 2007.

    The Cresset

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    Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol. V. Waco, Texas: Word, 1982.
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    _____. “Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,”[1942]. Reprinted in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper, 286–300. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1969.
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    _____. The Four Loves. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960.
    _____. Till We Have Faces. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956.
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    _____. That Hideous Strength. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1945.
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    _____. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University, 1942.
    The Cresset
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  43. foryourhealth says:

    Stephen Pinker is right, Jonathan Haidt is right, Lawrence Summers is right , and Cordelia Fine is wrong.. She is seeking justifications for her emotions; she’s not considering the data–just muddying the waters.