We live in a world where all our perceptions — our notions of ourselves and others, our work, our families, our relationships, our parenting, our government, the media, what we read, everything — are colored by gender. From the time we’re in preschool, and some people say well before that, it’s “I have a boy and two girls,” or “Boys and girls, come wash your hands,” or, less innocuously, “No, honey, that’s for girls, come play with this puzzle.” And those perceptions, and consequent value judgments, continue all our adult lives. The premise of Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender is that despite the many recent claims that you can’t argue with MRIs and PET scans, in fact gender differences are not “hardwired” into our brains. Instead, they are socially constructed, malleable, soft-wired at best.
Fine spends easily the first third of the book talking about gender inequality, mostly in the United States. She wants to establish a case that, even in the 21st century, when women have the vote, property rights, and a strong presence in the workplace, gender inequality still exists, and that people are using biology and brain studies to back up the status quo. Most of the popular claims will not be news to the reader: that women are “naturally” more nurturing, more motherly, less aggressive and dominant, less fitted to be leaders in business, math, or science and more fitted to be teachers, nurses, and homemakers. Men, whose brain chemistry makes them stronger, more aggressive, and better at science, are “naturally” better CEOs, better doctors, lawyers, chiefs of staff, engineers, presidents. This works out in the home, as well: women do more housework (the “second shift” phenomenon), apparently because their need for oxytocin is satisfied by it, while men find housework exhausting, because it doesn’t provide them with testosterone. (!!!) Fine gives the results of many sociological and psychological studies linking gender with certain traits or words, and the results, while not earth-shattering, are sobering.
The second part of the book has to do with what Fine terms “neurosexism.” Fine is a neuropsychologist herself, and does not object at all to studies on the effect gender has on the brain, and vice versa. What she’s objecting to is sloppily constructed studies, or (far more common) misinterpreted or overinterpreted studies. I’m sure you’ve heard the following over and over: women are “naturally” better at language, because of the larger corpus callosum that links the two hemispheres of the female brain, while men’s brains mute their language and emotional capabilities and permit them, apparently in grunts, to do better math and science work. Fine shows that not only is it extremely problematic to talk about the size of a certain structure in the brain, but that it has not been demonstrated that women actually have a larger corpus callosum, and that it has not been demonstrated that if they did, it would give them superior language abilities, or that they even have superior language abilities to men, or that they have inferior quantitative skills to men. The data is simply not there. This deconstruction of real brain studies is, of course, is one tiny fragment of what Fine is doing, but it’s a decent example.
The final part of the book is a brief section on how all this neurosexism, performed in a gender-unbalanced world, is affecting children. Fine draws a delicate picture of how impossible a task it is to raise children in a gender-neutral environment, even if you want to do that. And even if the parents in your family do share tasks equally and embrace both parents’ work and leisure time (apparently a vanishing rarity), your child will see that you’re freaks as soon as he or she hits society. Despite the shaky scientific basis of neuroscience’s claims about gender, those claims are changing educational policies all over the country. Fine’s point is not to depress you (though gosh), but rather to say that our environment creates our brain as much as our brain creates our selves. Our brains and hormones respond to what is around us; our wiring is flexible and malleable. If we strive to change our environment to one that is just and equal, our brains will change, too.
Fine’s writing is delightfully clear. She is sometimes personal and often slyly witty, though her aim is serious, and it makes the book eminently readable. On John Gray’s notion, for instance, that men’s biology prevents them from doing housework:
It’s hard not to be a little cynical when Gray argues that it is in deference to his male neuroendocrinological status that when he helps with the dishes it should fall to “others [to] bring plates over, put things away, and clean tabletops.” As he explains, ‘[h]aving to ask your partner each time whether this food should be kept, and remembering where she wants things to be put away, can be a bit exhausting for a man.” One can only hope that Mrs. Gray finds it gratifyingly oxytocin producing to have to remind her husband where the plates are kept.
One of the great assets of this book is its strong sense of the past. Fine is not doing original scientific research here, but she draws on an enormous variety of sources, including philosophers, neuroethicists, business leaders, sociologists, psychologists, and historians. She frequently quotes 18th- and 19th-century scientists who attributed the lack of women in politics and science to their smaller brains, smaller spinal cords, ovaries, wider pelvis, and even the shape of their faces. She reminds us not to do the same today: we’ve never had a woman president because their brains light up differently on a PET scan! It’s science!… We may wind up looking as foolish as the phrenologists.
It’s comforting to think that science bolsters the roles we have already chosen, or that society has chosen for us. If, despite my best efforts, I see my daughter choosing the path of the pink princess, it’s soothing to think it’s biologically hardwired and there’s nothing I can do about it. Cordelia Fine takes that comfort away (which is the reason I think this book has some quite scathing Amazon reviews.) We always have choices. It may not be the most comfortable thing, to choose justice and equality for everyone, but it is always the right thing.
I wish I could remember who recommended Delusions of Gender to me. Whoever it was (and speak up in the comments!), thank you: I love good popular science, and it’s been a long time since I read something quite so satisfying along these lines.