Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Like the parents described by Cordelia Fine in this incredibly informative book, I had come to the “fallback conclusion that there must be hardwired psychological differences between the sexes,” because I’d done my best to parent gender-neutrally and seen disparities between my son and daughter emerge anyway. Fine writes, “The neuroscientific discoveries we read about in magazines, newspaper articles, books and sometimes even journals tell a tale of two brains—essentially different—that create timeless and immutable psychological differences between the sexes. It’s a compelling story that offers a neat, satisfying explanation, and justification, of the gender status quo.” I wanted to know if it was true.

As it turns out, the science supporting these claims has about the same validity as the cranial measurements upon which nineteenth century assertions of African American intellectual inferiority were based. “The tape measures and weighing scales of the Victorian brain scientists have been supplanted by powerful neuroimaging technolog[y]” that “sounds so unassailable, so very . . . scientific, that we privilege it over boring, old-fashioned behavioural evidence.”

Fine cuts through the pseudo-science and discredits those “position[ing] themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness” to declare differences between the sexes biologically hardwired and inevitable (authors like Simon Baron-Cohen, Michael Gurian, Allan and Barbara Pease, John Gray, and Louann Brizendine—as well as researchers such as Norman Geschwind and Ruben and Raquel Gur).

She examines each of the supposed indicators of hardwired gender difference—such as prenatal testosterone, hormone receptors, neuronal density, brain/language lateralization (“the Geschwind theory”), corpus callosum size, proportions of grey and white matter, brain region size, and “greater male variability.” Fine identifies “a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.” Specifically, she debunks a body of research plagued by small sample size, “dangers in extrapolating from rats and birds to humans,” a too-low threshold for statistical significance, lack of replication, the file-drawer phenomenon, “the likelihood of spurious findings,” and the “teething problems of new technology.”

Fine concludes that “what is being chalked up to hardwiring on closer inspection . . . look[s] more like the sensitive tuning of the self to the expectations lurking in the social context.” Most of the supposed differences simply don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Yes, there do exist some sex differences in the brain, and “there are sex differences in vulnerabilities to certain psychological disorders,” but these few proven differences do not indicate hardwired gender capabilities or behaviors for two key reasons.

First, “bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better with regards to the size of brain structures, neither does more [brain] activation necessarily mean better or psychologically more. . . . [E]ven though a part of the brain might light up during a task, it may not be especially or crucially involved.” Also, “sex differences in the brain may . . .  ‘prevent sex differences in overt functions and behavior by compensating for sex differences in physiology.’” In alternate terms, different wiring may be biologically necessary to produce identical functioning.

Second, “[t]he circuits of the brain are quite literally a product of your physical, social and cultural environment, as well as your behaviour and thoughts. What we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression. This neuroplasticity means that, . . . the social phenomenon of gender ‘comes into the brain’ and ‘becomes part of our cerebral biology.’” “‘[H]ow we behave or what we think about can [even] affect the levels of our sex hormones.’” In other words, because of “[t]his continuous interplay between the biological and the social,” “‘the existence of sex differences either in means or variances in ability says nothing about the source or inevitability of such differences or their potential basis in immutable biology.’” It therefore “makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality.”

Fine delves into this area, discussing how “associative memory . . . picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media and advertising, which may well be reinforcing implicit associations you don’t consciously endorse.” She covers stereotype threat, gender priming, social identity, and other proven explanations for why girls both perform and choose differently with respect to maths and science. She discusses lack-of-fit bias (the gap “between the communal stereotype of women and demanding professional roles”) and the resulting difficulties women, particularly mothers, face in the workplace. Finally, Fine reviews studies that show (1) a lack of behavioral gender difference in very young babies, (2) a difference in parental behavior, even in those attempting gender-neutral parenting, and (3) increasing behavioral gender difference as children age.

She concludes, “Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable.” “[F]rom the seeds of scientific speculation grow the monstrous fictions of popular writers.” As “this ‘popular neurosexism’ . . . finds its way into apparently scientific books and articles for the interested public, including parents and teachers,” it “promotes damaging, limiting, [and] self-fulfilling stereotypes.” In “echo[s] of the insalubrious past,” stereotypes are “dress[ed] up . . . [in] scientific finery,” and create the inequality they purport to report.

Fine’s scientific review of all the evidence currently available finds no support for the finding that there are “psychological differences hardwired into the brains of the sexes that explain why, even in the most egalitarian of twenty-first-century societies, women and men’s lives still follow noticeably different paths.”

Delusions of Gender is a tremendous accomplishment, delving deeply into many complex areas of science and social science while largely maintaining readability, even humor. The book is so comprehensive that this review leaves out a huge amount of helpful and interesting information, if you can believe it. My only complaint is that the book starts to feel like a slog thanks to a lack of roadmapping. A clearer, more simply expressed summary of each chapter and its relation to the others (plus a bit of reordering) would make for pure perfection. As is, however, Fine’s work clearly merits five stars.

The following quotes provide a sense of the book’s style and content:

  • “Imagine, just for a moment, that we could reverse the gender imbalance in maths and the maths-intensive sciences with a snap of our fingers, fill people’s minds with assumptions and associations linking maths with natural female superiority, and then raise a generation of children in this topsy-turvy environment. Now it is males whose confidence is rattled, whose working memory resources are strained, whose mental strategies become nitpicky and defensive, and who look in vain for someone similar to inspire them. It’s the boys in the classroom, not the girls, in whom researchers discover evidence that stereotype threat is already at work. It is women who can now concentrate on the task with ease, whose alleged superiority brings creativity and boldness to their approach, who need only glance around the corridors of the department, the keynote speaker lineup, or the history books to see someone whose successes can seep into the very fabric of their own minds. What, we have to ask ourselves, would happen? Would male ‘inherent’ superiority reassert itself, would we quickly settle into some kind of equality, or—is it possible?—would the invisible hand of stereotype threat maintain the new status quo for decades to come?”
  • “[A] person’s talents in the workplace are easier to recognise when that person is male.”
  • “In other words, both the descriptive (‘women are gentle’) and the prescriptive (‘women should be gentle’) elements of gender stereotypes create a problem for ambitious women. Without any intention of bias, once we have categorised someone as male or female, activated gender stereotypes can then colour our perception. When the qualifications for the job include stereotypically male qualities, this will serve to disadvantage women (and vice versa).”
  • “[T]he alternative to being competent but cold is to be regarded as ‘nice but incompetent’. This catch-22 positions women who seek leadership roles on a ‘tightrope of impression management.’” Similarly, “women leaders may be in the tiresome double bind of directing, commanding and controlling their teams without appearing to do so.”
  • “[W]hile expressing anger often enhances men’s status and competency in the eyes of others, it can be very costly to women in terms of how they are perceived.”
  • “When . . . are a few dirty cups a symbol of the exertion of male privilege, and when are they merely unwashed dishes?”
  • “One legacy of the neat breadwinner/caregiver division of labour is an expectation of the ‘zero drag’ worker who, because home and children are taken care of by someone else, can commit himself fully to his job.”
  • “[T]he more a woman adapts her career to family commitments, and the longer the accommodation goes on, the wider the gap between his and her salary and career potential becomes. And so it becomes increasingly rational to sacrifice her career to his.”
  • “Contrary to the idea of shared care as a modern, misguided fad, contemporary fathers may be less involved with their children than they were two to three hundred years ago.”
  • “Behind every great academic man there is a woman, but behind every great academic woman is an unpeeled potato and a child who needs some attention.”
  • “[There is a] so-called file-drawer phenomenon, whereby studies that do find sex differences get published, but those that don’t languish unpublished and unseen in a researcher’s file drawer.”
  • “[T]hose coloured spots on the brain represent statistical significance at the end of several stages of complicated analysis—which means there’s plenty of scope for spurious findings of sex differences in neuroimaging research.”
  • “Sommer and her colleagues reviewed (twice) all functional imaging studies of language lateralisation in a meta-analysis . . . [and] found ‘no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization.’”
  • “Several researchers have recently argued that gender differences in language skills are actually more or less nonexistent.”
  • “There just isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between brain regions and mental processes, which can make interpreting imaging data a difficult task.”
  • “‘Using fMRI to spy on neurons is something like using Cold War–era satellites to spy on people: Only large-scale activity is visible.’”
  • “Understandably, given all these interpretative gaps, many neuroscientists hesitate to speculate what their data might mean in terms of sex differences in thinking.”
  • “Are early twenty-first-century neuroscientific explanations of inequality—too little white matter, an unspecialised brain, too rapacious a corpus callosum—doomed to join the same garbage heap as measures of snout elongation, cephalic index and brain fibre delicacy? Will future generations look back on early twenty-first-century interpretations of imaging data with the same shocked amusement with which we regard early twentieth-century speculations about the relevance of sex differences in spinal cord size? I suspect they will, although only time will tell. But to any[one] considering trying to relate sex differences in the brain to complex psychological functions … well, let’s just say . . . unless you have a time machine and have visited a future in which neuroscientists can make reverse inferences without the nagging anxieties that keep the more thoughtful of them awake at night, do not suggest that parents or teachers treat boys and girls differently because of differences observed in their brains.”
  • “‘[D]espite the author’s extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general.’ The reviewers later go on to say that, ‘[t]he text is rife with “facts” that do not exist in the supporting references.’”
  • “[S]elf-fulfilling prophecies are being delivered alongside the new-look, single-sex curriculum.”
  • “[H]e proposed that intellectual labour sent energy rushing dangerously from ovaries to brain, endangering fertility as well as causing other severe medical ailments. . . . From our modern vantage point we can laugh at the prejudice that gave rise to this hypothesis.”
  • “The error of these gloomy soothsayers, it’s easy enough to see now, lay in their failure to adequately stretch the sociological imagination. So focused were they on locating the cause of inequality in some internal limitation of women – the lightweight brains, the energy-sapping ovaries, the special nurturing skills that leave no room for masculine ones – that they failed to see the injustice, as Stephen J. Gould put it, of ‘a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.’”
  • “[T]he ‘biology as fallback’ position, as Kane called it. Only by process of elimination did they come to the conclusion that differences between boys and girls were biological. Believing that they practised gender-neutral parenting, biology was the only remaining explanation: Parents see their young children behaving in stereotypically boyish or girlish ways and, as Kane puts it, ‘assume that only something immutable could intervene between their gender-neutral efforts and the gendered outcomes they witness.”
  • “You can learn a lot from birth announcements. In 2004, McGill University researchers analysed nearly 400 birth announcements placed by parents in two Canadian newspapers, and examined them for expressions of happiness and pride. Parents of boys, they found, expressed more pride in the news, while parents of girls expressed greater happiness.”
  • “In modern, developed societies, males and females are legally—and no doubt also in the eyes of most parents—born with equal status and entitled to the same opportunities. Yet of course this egalitarian attitude is very new, and it’s poorly reflected in the distribution of political, social, economic and sometimes even personal power between the sexes.”
  • “Alison Nash and Rosemary Krawczyk inventoried the toys of more than 200 children in New York and Minnesota. They found that even among six- to twelve-month-old infants, the youngest age group they studied, boys had more ‘toys of the world’ (like transportation vehicles and machines) while girls had more ‘toys of the home’ (like dolls and housekeeping toys).”
  • “[One] study, for example, found that mothers conversed and interacted more with girl babies and young toddlers, even when they were as young as six months old. This was despite the fact that boys were no less responsive to their mother’s speech and were no more likely to leave their mother’s side. As the authors suggest, this may help girls learn the higher level of social interaction expected of them, and boys the greater independence.”
  • “[G]ender stereotypes, even if perhaps only implicitly held, affect parents’ behaviour towards their babies.”
  • “Implicit attitudes can also take the upper hand when it comes to our behaviour when we are distracted, tired or under pressure of time (conditions that, from personal experience, I would estimate are fulfilled about 99 percent of the time while parenting).”
  • “And, even though they sincerely claim to hold the two sexes as equal, parents simultaneously devalue the feminine and limit boys’ access to it.”
  • “Babies . . . seem to be primed to like what is familiar and are remarkably sensitive to their social world. So what, then, are we to make of recent evidence that children show gender-stereotyped interests before they are even two years old? . . . Does a six-month-old girl look longer at a pink doll than a blue truck because that’s how she’s wired or because she’s seen more pink and more dolls in her short life (especially paired with pleasurable experiences with caregivers) and less blue and fewer trucks? Does a one-year-old boy really play less with a plastic tea set because of hardwiring? What are we to make of boys’ greater interest in looking at balls and vehicles over feminine toys at nine months of age, given that six months earlier they looked at dolls, ovens and strollers just as much?”
  • “Infants and toddlers don’t need to know whether they are a boy or a girl to nonetheless be responsive to their parents’ ‘structuring, channeling, modeling, labeling, and reacting evaluatively to gender-linked conduct’, as psychologists Albert Bandura and Kay Bussey have pointed out.”
  • “[C]olour-coding for boys and girls once quite openly served the purpose of helping young children learn gender distinctions. Today, the original objective behind the convention has been forgotten. Yet it continues to accomplish exactly that, together with other habits we have that also draw children’s attention to gender . . . .”
  • “As we’ve seen, children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.”
  • “‘[A] parent,’ suggests David, ‘no matter how loving or loved, cannot be a model for appropriate gender behaviour, unless the child’s exposure to the wider world (for example, through friendship groups and the media) suggests that the parent is a representative or prototypical male or female.’”
  • “[B]oys and girls alike are treated to little pointers when other children praise, imitate and join in certain types of play, but criticise, disrupt or abandon other activities. Unsurprisingly, this peer feedback seems to influence children’s behaviour, making it more stereotypical.”
  • “Rather than embrace the opportunity to present an imaginary world that offers children a glimpse of possibilities beyond the reality of male and female social roles, children’s media often continue to constrict gender roles, sometimes even with more rigidity than does the real world.”
  • “[P]icture-book women are still cracking their heads against the glass ceiling . . . .”
  • “[I]n the forty-one Caldecott winners and runners-up from 1984 to 1994[, o]ne gender was most commonly described as, among other adjectives, beautiful, frightened, worthy, sweet, weak and scared in the stories; the other gender as big, horrible, fierce, great, terrible, furious, brave and proud.”
  • “‘[G]irls are often left out of the adventure, the thrill, the plot, the picture’ even today in the Caldecott award winners, point out Packaging Girlhood authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Brown, who combed through them all in search of a female adventuress.”
  • “Even so, it is easier to find an adventurous girl than a sissy boy.”
  • “‘Children scanning the list of titles of what have been designated as the very best children’s books are bound to receive the impression that girls are not very important because no one has bothered to write books about them.’”
  • “As within the pages of books, females tend to be underrepresented on TV and computer screens, and to miss out on central roles in advertisements and even cereal boxes.”
  • “The power of the media to dish up a stripped-down, concentrated version of cultural values enables it to represent the higher status of males in [an] uncomfortably blunt fashion.”
  • “At seventeen months, boys and girls were equally interested in the doll, tea set, brush and comb set and blocks, although girls spent less time playing with the truck. But four months later, girls had increased their doll play and boys had decreased it.”
  • “[These are] the less-visible cultural waters in which the sponges that are our children are immersed . . . .”
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