The Sunday Read: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

8 May

Cover is white, with three overlapping rectangles - pink labelled X, blue labelled Y, and yellow unlabelled - and the subtitle "How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference"

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference has been on my to-read list for awhile, and I’m thrilled I finally got around to it. Delusions of Gender might fairly be described as a response to a trend in both popular and academic science of ascribing sociological differences in women’s and men’s lives to a physical difference. We’re all probably familiar with recent books and studies that ascribe these differences to neurological differences in men and women; but in a brilliant if slightly puckish stroke, Fine compares the language of these books and studies to the language of popular and academic science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and finds them remarkably similar. The intent of the book, Fine suggests in her Author’s Note, is not to say anything new about gender: rather, it’s to question scientists who appear to be saying the same things about gender that they have been saying for the past 150 years. Basically, she says, we are constantly turning to biology to confirm our hope that men and women really are different; and the brain is so poorly understood that it has become the latest screen onto which we project these suspicions.

The book is divided into three parts: “‘Half-Changed World’, Half-Changed Minds”, “Neurosexism”, and “Recycling Gender”. The first third is a funny, scathing assessment of the role societal conditioning plays in the formation of gender, reviewing stereotype threat (where minority groups do badly because it’s expected that they will), gender priming (which brings gender to the foreground so women in fields women aren’t supposed to be good at are constantly aware of their gender and under stereotype threat), and other ways in which cultural and social expectations affect and predict performance. Some of this stuff is fairly familiar to anyone interested in sexism, gender, and sociology: get two mixed groups to take a test. Before they take the test, tell one group that men traditionally do better in these kinds of tests; tell another group that women traditionally do better. (This process ranges from the blunt to the extremely subtle). Or alternatively, get one group to identify their gender before the test; get another group to do so after the test. You will get the results that you asked for: men do better where they’re told that men do better, and vice versa. Women asked to identify their gender before a maths test do worse than otherwise similar women asked to identify their gender after taking the test. And so on. Fine lays it out extremely thoroughly, and it’s likely to be useful next time you find yourself in a fight with a gender essentialist, but this material wasn’t new to me, at least.

On the other hand, some of the material – mostly that which spends time breaking down popular science on men’s and women’s roles – is brand new and galvanising. For example, in “Gender Equality Begins (and Ends) at Home”, Fine examines work on the “second shift” – homework, housework, and childcare performed by working women and men. The second shift notoriously affects women much more than it does men: in (opposite-sex parented) families where both parents work, women do about twice the amount of unpaid work as men do. People generally understand this as being produced by unequal power generated by who brings the most about of money to the table. And it’s true that as a woman’s salary approaches her partner, the second shift becomes less unequally distributed. But when a woman’s salary exceeds her partner’s, she starts doing more of the second shift. In fact the more she earns, the more housework she does – even when her partner is unemployed. This is bad enough by itself, but Fine is in brilliant form when she skewers popular science that attempts to justify this. One book, for example, suggest that women derive a physical benefit (oxytocin production) from housework: so it’s actually more healthy for a woman to work all day, and then come home and do the dishes and the laundry. On the other hand, producing oxytocin is bad for men, and if they do too much housework they become dangerously testosterone-low. “One can only hope that Mrs. Gray finds it gratifyingly oxytocin-producing to have to remind her husband where the plates are kept,” remarks Fine.

The second part of the book, “Neurosexism,” I found the most dense. Reviewing a (large: one-third of the book’s thickness is footnotes) number of neurological studies which purport to demonstrate essential gender differences, Fine spends a lot of time breaking down the studies’ methodology as well as their conclusions, wondering on the one hand whether the notable Baron-Cohen/Connellan baby study (in which girl babies were found to be more interested in faces, and boy babies in mobiles) might have been affected by the scientists knowing the gender of the babies as they were testing, and on the other hand whether studies on the lateralisation of the brain (which purport to explain why men are worse at multi-tasking than women) really explain anything: “I find these intuitive leaps from brain structure to psychological function unconvincing … As an example of just how wrong our intuitions can be in these matters, despite the popular assumption that a more lateralized brain will be worse at multitasking, neurobiologist Lesley Rogers and her colleagues found precisely the opposite to be the case in chicks.” This section, though dense, is also occasionally screamingly funny, such as in the summary of this paper (the neurological responses of a “post-mortem” Atlantic Salmon).

The final section on the book is the one I most want everyone to read. Called “Recycled Gender,” it covers gendered and supposedly non-gendered childrearing, along with implicit associations and what we (say we) think versus what we do. Essentially, this chapter discusses how easy it is for children to begin to understand what it means to have gender and what their gender is and how it should be performed. I didn’t find it as funny as the earlier sections mostly because I found it depressing: we just keep passing everything on to our kids, basically, and more or less involuntarily.

Anyway. Delusions of Gender is a thorough, well-researched book that manages to be an easy read without being slick or suspicious. It’s funny and scathing, but also it’s honest – something that deserves some emphasis. It’s very easy for people who write about gender differences to describe themselves as fearless anti-PC warriors who are Just Telling the Truth About Men and Women: but as Fine points out, these ideas have always been popular and the eagerness with which they are grasped by parents, educators, employers, and scientists does not exactly point to a generalised disfavour. Fine has a fantastic post on this which is really worth reading, and keeping in mind as you read this book – which absolutely everyone must do.

Further reading:
Interview with Fine at Neuroanthropology
Review at Neuroskeptic
Interview with Fine at Salon


2 Responses to “The Sunday Read: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine”

  1. the_antichris 08/05/2011 at 5:35 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes, all of this! It was really striking how close the current pseudoscientific rhetoric is to the 19th century’s – I’d never seen it laid out like that before.

  2. Eavan 11/05/2011 at 2:48 pm #

    It’s now on the to-read list.

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