On neurosexism


On neurosexism

Cordelia Fine talks self-engendering, social determinism and aggressive men.

Cordelia Fine

Topics Long-reads Politics

Published in 2010, The Delusions of Gender: the Real Science Behind Sex Differences was a tour de force of calm, reasoned iconoclasm. Its author, Cordelia Fine, now an associate professor of psychology at Melbourne Business School, systematically debunked the claims made for there being essential neurological and psychological differences between the sexes.

To those who claimed that the testosteronal surges during pregnancy, which affect the sex of a child, also shaped the male/female brain, Fine offered a detailed, scathing rebuke: ‘Does accuracy on a mental rotation test at age seven correlate with amniotic testosterone? No. Does a four-year-old’s skill at copying a block structure, understanding number facts and concepts, and counting and sorting increase with higher levels of amniotic testosterone? No, it decreases in girls, and has no relationship in boys. Puzzle solving? No. Classification skills (for example, “find all the small ones”)? No. A test of spatial ability? No.’

And to those who cite the countless tests which purport to show that women are more empathetic, better at reading body language than men, or that men are whizzes at puzzle solving, better at logical thinking than women, Fine pointed out that the tests themselves primed participants to adopt stereotypical gender roles. Prime the tests differently, offer payment in return for the correct identification of people’s emotional states from their body language, for example, and men perform no differently to women.

Over and over again, Fine showed that gender was not the product of biology, neuro- or otherwise; it was the product of an environment in which gender remains salient. We decided to catch up with Fine to discuss gender ahead of the publication early next year of her new book, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds.

spiked review: ‘It’s hardly news that women are more empathetic than men, or that they tend to play more of a caring role’, wrote a female broadsheet commentator earlier this year. A Conservative peer echoed these sentiments when backing Theresa May for UK prime minister: ‘I think people feel that at a time of turmoil, a woman will be more practical and a bit less testosterone-driven in their approach. More collaborative, more willing to listen to voices around the table, less likely to have an instantly aggressive approach to things.’

It seems that the belief that men and women are fundamentally different, that we have different types of brain, remains commonplace. So is there any more evidence for such claims as ‘women are more empathetic than men’, or ‘men are more rational/logical than women’?

Cordelia Fine: There are two main problems with these kinds of claims (‘if we put a woman in the role, she’ll be more this, while a man will be more that.’) First of all, even when there are average differences between the sexes on some kind of characteristic, there is usually so much overlap that knowing a particular individual’s sex isn’t that helpful for guessing whether they’re going to value supposedly masculine values like social status, prestige, control and dominance or assumedly feminine values like caring for others. A review of sex differences in these values across 70 countries found that, generally, differences were so small that your chance of guessing someone’s sex from their score was barely above chance.

These kinds of claims also ignore the power of organisations’ norms and culture in shaping how people behave (and who moves up the ladder). By saying, ‘we need to be a bit more caring, less aggressive and listen to others so let’s bring in a woman’, the underlying message is that the problem lies, not in the system, but in the inevitable fact that ‘boys will be boys’. Of course, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t worry about increasing the number of senior women in male-dominated organisations, which could go some way to eroding hyper-masculine norms and destigmatising supposedly ‘feminine’ values and ways of behaving. But we shouldn’t insult men by assuming that they’re only capable of behaving in an aggressive, autocratic, callous fashion.

Finally, there’s a side effect to this point of view. The idea that women are perfectly suited to ‘mopping up the mess’ – as opposed to leading towards bold visions in good times – seems to lie behind the so-called ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon (identified by University of Exeter psychologist Michelle Ryan), whereby women tend to be chosen for precarious leadership positions.

review: The case for essential gender differences is now made on the basis of neuroscience. But in what ways are these neuroscientific arguments little more than updated versions of the moralistic theories of, say, Thomas Gisborne in his 1795 work, ‘An enquiry into the duties of the female sex’?

Fine: There has been an evolution, of sorts, in the argument for essential differences between the sexes that underlie the different roles women and men tend to take in society (in addition to the move from appeals to God to appeals to science). Perhaps the largest shift has been from arguments that women aren’t capable of achieving high status in science, politics, business, arts, and so on, to arguments that they are less interested in achieving such goals, because their priorities, values and interests are weighed more strongly towards home and family. But at core, the assumption remains the same: men are designed for public life, and women for private life.

review: There is a seeming paradox running through The Delusions of Gender; how do you explain why almost old-fashioned gender differences are being reasserted with such vigour in developed, self-avowedly egalitarian societies?

Fine: That’s probably a question best answered by a sociologist. However, psychologists have found that essentialist ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ beliefs seem to serve a system-justifying function.

review: The Delusions of Gender features a fascinating discussion of the individual psyche not as a self-contained entity, but as the site of the interplay between the mind and the social world. In one sense, then, you seem to be saying that we are a born into a world in which gender is salient, and this therefore shapes our self-perception. But in another sense, you seem to be saying that we play a role in this self-formation. To what extent, then, do we actively become a gender, indeed, actively engender ourselves?

Fine: What I found really fascinating in researching The Delusions of Gender – particularly as a parent of youngish children – was the research looking at childhood as a site for this active self-gendering. Research in the developmental psychological study of gender has evolved from models that simply assume that gender roles and stereotypes are forced on to the child by parents and others, to the understanding that children play an active role in self-socialising themselves – sometimes to the consternation of gender-egalitarian parents.

This makes sense. Children are born into a world that emphasises gender as one of the most important social categories, supplemented with rich, daily information about what ‘goes with’ being female and male. It would be remarkable if this didn’t influence children. But, at the same time, it’s also becoming clear that children can be a bit flexible about what goes into their gender schemas, and children also differ in the degree to which they see the world through a gender lens.

Review: Is there a danger in focusing so much on the social, cultural construction of gender that one ends up creating a social-cultural determinism every bit as fatalistic as the naturalising, biological determinism you so brilliantly critque?

Fine: No and yes, I think. On the one hand, because we don’t need to look very far back in time to see how much social constructions of gender can change, that kind of focus doesn’t seem to lend itself so well to fatalistic hand-wringing as does talk of sex chromosomes, hormones and ‘hardwired’ sex differences in the brain. But on the other hand, there’s a reason they’re called ‘social constructions’ rather than, say, ‘social Legos’ – they’re robust and long-standing, and not easily ripped apart and rearranged.

review: You provide a scathing summary of today’s gender politics, or what you call gender equality 2.0 – ‘a revised version of equality in which men and women are not equal, but equally free to express their essentially different natures’. What would your version of gender equality 3.0 look like?

Fine: I don’t have a simple answer to that, but I think a gender equality 3.0 in which masculinity and femininity had truly equal status would be a big step in the right direction.

Cordelia Fine is an associate professor at the Melbourne Business School, senior honorary research fellow at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, and the author most recently of Amazon(UK)The Delusions of Gender (Icon Books, 2010) and Amazon(UK)Testosterone Rex (Icon Books, 2017).

Picture by: Karol Franks, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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