Delusions of Gender

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.

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22 Responses to Delusions of Gender

  1. I have this book on my kindle, you’ve made me really excited to start it! I took a few neuroscience modules at university so I’ve been looking forward to this one.

    • Jenny says:

      I think if you know some neuroscience, you’ll enjoy it even more than I did! I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. Teresa says:

    Heh. I wonder what’s wrong with me for finding housework exhausting. Is my oxytocin supplier broken? Or am I just denying my hard-wiring and letting society tell me that it’s exhausting? And some men I know have testosterone enough–perhaps they need to do some tasks that don’t supply more. It is exasperating how these ideas hang on. You’d think we’d know better by now.

    Did you hear about this from Ana, perhaps? She’s written enthusiastically about it multiple times. I’ve been interested in it, too.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it must have been Ana. And I am so grateful! You’d really like this book, Teresa, it’s so well-written and clear, and the ideas are really interesting (if sometimes infuriating.) If I ever get the chance to strangle John Gray of Mars & Venus fame, I probably will.

  3. nymeth says:

    Excellent review, Jenny! I don’t want to presume it must have been me you got the recommendation from, but like Teresa said above I’ve been in love with this book since I read it last year. I then went on to read multiple books about gender essentialism (they were background reading for my MA dissertation) and none really compared to Fine’s: like you say, her writing is an absolute delight.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sure it must have been you, Ana! Thank you so much, and I’m actually glad to hear you say that none has compared to this one, because it means I read the right one!

  4. boardinginmyforties says:

    Wow, I would love to read this one. I find the subject fascinating and would love to know more about the latest studies and research.

    • Jenny says:

      This is the perfect book for that. I actually went and looked up Cordelia Fine to see what she’s at work on now. She is a busy woman with a punishing speaking schedule! I hope she writes something else that’s readable by amateurs, because I really enjoyed this.

  5. Jenny says:

    I too bet that you heard about it from Ana, and I am extremely sad I didn’t know you were reading it! I just read it this weekend and it would have been fun to do a joint review. Not because I’m jealous of your and Teresa’s joint reviews. That’s not the reason. it’s not. STOP LOOKING AT ME.

    But yeah, I thought the book was wonderful. The first section was interesting, and then I absolutely loved the second and third sections. I ended by having a bit of a crush on Cordelia Fine, PLUS I learned interesting things about brain science. Every bit as good as Ana has said all along it was.

    • Jenny says:

      I got a crush on her, too! I kind of web-stalked her a little. Plus some of the people she quoted a lot. Neuroethicists, ahoy! It was wonderful. AND I am also sad I didn’t get to do a joint review with you! That would have been great! Aw, I wish there were some way I could know what you are reading ahead of time, shoot.

  6. aartichapati says:

    Oh, wow, you really had me at the title and the cover, but NOW you have me based on the substance of this book. I think what bothers me so much about sex discrimination these days is that people don’t even seem to realize it’s happening. All you really need to do is watch the way people talk about Hillary Clinton or Condeleeza Rice or any other woman, really, and see how objectified she is to realize that it still exists, in a really horrible and disgusting manner. Definitely putting this one on my list!

    • Jenny says:

      My students are prime examples of this. They think we live in a “postfeminist” world. Even in the US, let alone globally, you don’t have to go far to see that’s not true. This book should be required reading for a lot of people!

  7. cbjamess says:

    Well, I’m not convinced, but it does sound like a good book. I may end up reading it this summer. (I’ve just put it on hold at my library.) It’s always good to read opinions you’re not exactly in agreement with. I’m begun to suspect that soon we’ll find everything about us is the result of genetics. I just see more and more of that everyday. That probably means men and women are basically ‘hard-wired’ in certain ways. What those ways are is up for debate as far as I’m concerned. (The housework business is simply nonsense. Lots of men have very tidy workshops with all the tools in their exact place and lots of women would have no idea what the difference is between a bolt and a screw. Plenty of men, too.)

    What I have a problem with is the notion that there are firm lines that can never and should never be crossed. I think it was George Sands who said, “There are more differences within the sexes than between them.” It may have been Patti Smith.

    I’ll definately post a review of the book sometime soon and I promise to read it with and open mind. Thanks for another excellent review.

    • Jenny says:

      I think I agree with what you’re saying — it’s just that much less of our hardwiring falls along gender roles than we tend to think in our society. We construct those roles and then adhere to them, and then we think they are hardwired because we’ve created our ruts, and the ruts affect our brains and hormones… at least that’s the argument of the book. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. I found it really compelling.

      • Teresa says:

        Another neuroscientist who’s done work in this area, Lise Eliot, says that there are very small differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, and that those differences get magnified over time through socialization. She also says that men and women are more similar than different, and in agreement with James’s quote, that the differences within sexes are greater than those between them.

      • Jenny says:

        That’s another great point, Teresa. Fine says in several different contexts that there is nothing on earth so much like a male brain as a female brain.

  8. ravingreader says:

    I’m happy to see that another reader found this book and loved it. I am fascinated by well-articulated and well-researched gender studies, and thought this was a good review of a fine book…. Any others like it out there that you know about?

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve heard good things about The Truth about Girls and Boys, by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett, but that’s a shorter book. To be honest, this is the book that has gotten the best reviews that I’ve found. I’d like to hear about other books of this kind, as well!

    • nymeth says:

      A while ago I created a board on Pinterest with the most interesting (or interesting-sounding) books on the subject I’ve found to date. Here is the link if you’re curious:

      Also, I read the Lise Eliot recently, and while the research is very interesting I thought the writing dragged a bit.

  9. Pingback: Review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine « Jenny's Books

  10. Christy says:

    The whole thing about how rare it is for a husband and wife to share equally in the housework even if both work full time just makes me depressed. And has seriously been at least a small factor for my wariness of getting married at all.

    I do need to read this book.

  11. amymckie says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this myself, so glad to see another review of it that points out how great it is!

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