Sexism, psychology and pseudo-science

Review: Delusions of Gender By Cordelia Fine, Allen and Unwin, $29.99

In Delusions of Gender, neuro-scientist Cordelia Fine takes an axe to the drivel of biological determinism that self-help books like Why Men Don’t Listen, Women Can’t Read Maps and What Could He Be Thinking? are pumping out on an unsuspecting public.

She exposes the shoddy science and leaps of sexist logic behind the idea that traditional gender roles are biologically, or more fashionably neurologically, hardwired. Those fighting for women’s freedom from unpaid housework, undervalued paid work, and underestimated human potential will need Fine’s incisive arguments to break through this thickening fog of gender essentialism holding women’s oppression in place.

The sexual difference “hardwire”
Sex-difference gurus would have us believe that women are not winning Nobel prizes, sitting in parliament or presiding over corporations as frequently as men because they literally don’t have the brains.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a respected psychology professor and author of The Essential Difference, says that hormones and brains “hardwire” women for caring, nurturing roles, whereas men are “hardwired” for mechanical, logical work. Given this science, we are advised not to struggle against nature, and instead adjust our expectations of each other to the physiological reality.

Fine tears the science of sexual hardwire to shreds. The “discovery” of a connection between structural brain differences and gendered psychological function turns out to be just as crude as 19th Century phrenology, that explained racial and sexual inferiority by skull shape and size.

Pseudo-scientists like Louise Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, tell flagrant lies about neuro-imaging science. And Baron-Cohen’s foetal testosterone theory (in-utero testosterone reorganises the male brain so it is better at maths) turns out to be bogus. There is zero connection between estimated foetal testosterone levels and “masculine behaviours” in children.

The social expectation “softwire”
The sex difference theorists assert with obtuse circularity that the behaviour of men and women confirms that brain differences create typically feminine and masculine behaviours. Women’s behaviour conforms to the norms of the invented category “female brain” (which is emotionally intelligent) and men’s behaviour is of the systematically intelligent “male brain”.

But there is no consistent gender behaviour pattern. Fine cites endless studies that reveal how “systematically” or “empathetically” a person behaves is highly sensitive to the weight of social expectation.

For example, when psychologists tell women they are likely to perform as well, or better than male peers in “masculine tasks” like maths exams or mental rotation tests, their skills prove equal or superior to men and better than women who were not told of their equality or advantage.

When men are told their spatial awareness test is to discover aptitude for needle work, knitting and interior design they perform far worse than those men who are told performance is linked to “engineering… nuclear propulsion engineering, undersea approach and evasion, (and) navigation”. There is absolutely no evidence for a female or male brain to be found in comparisons of our “systematic” or “empathetic” skills. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that behaviour is overwhelmingly socially conditioned.

The gender choice?
Why then, ask the sexual difference theorists, don’t women break the glass ceiling at work? Women must simply be made for housework if they do more of it than their male partners. Female toddlers must be sating a deep need to nurture when they choose the doll over the truck.
But, chemical imbalances in career driven women are not corrected during housework, says Fine, and nor are men physically less capable of absorbing the sensory detail of an untidy home.

From cradle to grave there is an unchanging, relentless message that the possibilities for men and women are different. Fine draws our attention to the endless, unnecessary social gender alerts (“who’s a good boy?/go play with that girl”), highly gendered toys, toddler magazines, picture books, clothing, accessories, hair cuts, colours and TV shows.

She details the sometimes conscious, often sub-conscious discouragement of cross-gender behaviour by child carers, parents, the media and advertising, and the attitudes of fellow workers, employers, partners and teachers that range from unhelpful to brutally discriminatory. These are just a few reasons why women and girls reach for the vacuum and barbie doll and don’t automatically seize the truck and the high powered career.

Biological determinism comes to us in 2011 just as it did under Queen Victoria. With both the ideological buttress of nature and scientific pre-destination there is an “explanation” for the insanity of sex-segregation in the work force, unequal pay and the three hours a day of unpaid domestic work women do.

But Fine reminds readers that there is no such excuse—that gender is a social condition, not a biological one. No hardwire fixes women’s oppression in place, only the (not so) soft-wires of a sexist society—and this is something we surely can reconfigure.

By Lucy Honan


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