Jan 14, 2011

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender Delusions of Gender

In the brilliant Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Cordelia Fine draws from neuroscience, social psychology and sociology to provide one of the most satisfying rebuttals of gender essentialism I have ever come across. Gender essentialism – the idea that men and women are so different as to be almost members of different species, and that these differences are hardwired – is as alive and thriving today as it was in the time of our Victorian ancestors. Cordelia Fine doesn’t dispute that hormones, brain chemistry and other bodily processes and characteristics affect our personality and behaviour. Her point is rather that differences among individuals are much, much larger than differences across entire groups like males and females; and thus that in the end, organising the whole of society around these categories is no less arbitrary than to do so around left-handed versus right-handed people.

If I were rich, I would purchase a couple of hundred copies of Delusions of Gender and then stand in a street corner handing them out to random passers-by: that’s how much I loved this book, and how important I believe it to be. As Fine herself acknowledges in the afterword, Delusions of Gender doesn’t really present any new ideas, but it provides a critical overview of what is (or isn’t) known about gender and the brain. This is actually what I think makes it such an important book: it’s a brilliantly condensed and lucid version of issues that continue to impassion both the scientific community and the popular press – and that continue to affect real lives to a degree that we tend to underestimate.

Fine is herself a neuroscientist, and she approaches every piece of research she analyses seriously. She carefully considers every hypothesis, even the ones that go against her instincts. So when she critiques ideas that some take to be “scientific truths”, she’s certainly not coming at it from an anti-intellectual or anti-scientific perspective. What she does is both take a close look at the methodology of several studies and provide counterpoints to their conclusions. When it comes to gender and the brain, there’s a lot we still don’t know. But it turns out there’s also a whole lot that people are claiming has been “scientifically proved” based on a small handful of studies with serious methodological flaws, or even on simple anecdotal evidence. This happens both in popular books of the Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus variety and in serious scientific publications that ought to know better. Fine also comes down hard on what she calls neurosexism: the recent tendency to wrap up age-old prejudices in pretty, shiny, pseudoscientific language and thus make them sound like The Latest Discovery.

Furthermore, Fine takes issue with the concept of Equality 2.0: the idea that men and women are equal but different. One gender isn’t better than the other, but we want different things: men want to lead public lives and have careers, and women want to stay home and look after their families and make everyone in their lives happy because that’s what makes them happy. Of course, there will be some men and some women who want exactly that, which is fine. But the idea that this is the Way of the World is nothing but a return to the Victorian ideology of the separate spheres. And it’s also a way of justifying the status quo; of reinforcing the dangerous myth that we’re equal now and feminism’s work is done. Whatever hasn’t changed really can’t change, because of hardwired limitations (oh wait, differences) in our brains.

Equality 2.0 books often portray men as logic and public-life oriented, but emotionally dim and incapable of the most basic acts of sympathy; and women as irrational, passive, unambitious, and a hundred percent relationship-oriented. Where have we seen this before, I wonder? Such portrays are of course deeply insulting to both sexes: the passages Fine cites from actual books had me blinking in horrified disbelief. The scariest thing of all is that these ideas have an actual impact of education: there’s a whole association of people out there whose aim in life is to put an end to co-ed education, because they believe that boys and girls are entirely different sorts of creatures and thus the idea that they could ever learn in the same environment is simply absurd.

You’d think nobody would take this seriously, but Fine gives the chilling example of a school that decided that the only way to teach literature to boys was to have them draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies, for example, instead of expecting them to do silly girly things such as empathise with the characters or discuss their inner lives. And in another school, girls were put in special maths classes where every exercise used examples relating to the domestic sphere or interpersonal relationships – because surely you can’t expect girls to learn maths on an abstract, conceptual level like boys do? Not only would they not be interested, but you apparently need a penis to be able to do that.

Infuriatingly enough, these people often present themselves as courageous innovators, as the Brave Voices of Dissent. As Fine puts it in the introduction:
Writers who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness. Yet claims of ‘essential differences’ between the two sexes simply reflect – and give scientific authority to – what I suspect is really a majority opinion. If history tells us anything, it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science.
Another frequent problem with research that confirms the biological basis of gender stereotypical behaviour is the fact that, as Fine points out, even scientists who ought to know better are very quick to assume that any differences found in the brain equal innate or genetic differences. And yet, where else but in the brain will socialisation manifest itself? Our brains constantly interact with our environment, and from a very early age our culture is part of what helps map our neural circuits. This isn’t really a nurture versus nature debate, because that’s almost too simplistic a way to put it. The two are not at all easy to separate. What we should be thinking of instead is malleable versus fixed, immutable categories. Gender is the former rather than the latter. And on a relate note, it’s dangerous to assume that physical differences in the brain will necessarily correspond to differences in how the mind operates. As several studies have shown, sometimes the brain will use very different pathways to arrive to the exact same process or function.

One of my favourite sections of Delusions of Gender was the one about the interaction between gender stereotypes, social expectations, and performance in several tasks. Fine summarises several studies that show that in environments that make gender salient (and I would argue that there are very few real-life environments that don’t), expectations of how well girls will do in a certain tasks can very easily affect their performance. For example, girls who are told before a maths test that scientific research has shown that they are less likely to achieve excellence than boys will actually do worse than girls who are told no such thing. The implications of this for career choices, for example, are huge. Not only can stereotypical threats affect performance, but they can lead girls and women to “choose” not to follow certain careers where they will likely feel incompetent, threatened, and like they don’t belong:
What psychological processes lie behind turning away from masculine interests? One possibility is that, as we learned in an earlier chapter, when stereotypes of women become salient women tend to incorporate those stereotypical traits into their current self-perception. They may then find it harder to imagine themselves as, say, a mechanical engineer. The belief that one will be able to fit in, to belong, may be more important than we realise – and may help to explain why some traditionally male occupations have been more readily entered by women than others. After all, the stereotype of a vet is not the same as that of an orthopaedic surgeon or a computer scientist, and these are different again from the stereotype of a builder or a lawyer. These different stereotypes may be more or less easily reconciled with female identity.
I’ve gone on for a long while here, but the bottom line is: READ THIS BOOK. I seriously wish the whole world would, and there are very few books I’d be this evangelical about. Cordelia Fine is not only incredibly smart, but she’s great at explaining all the science in a way that makes it perfectly accessible to a layperson. She’s also funny and often deliciously sarcastic to boot. If you’re a fan of Natalie Angier, I think you’d love Cordelia Fine. And if you’re not, well, read her anyway.

I’ll leave you with a few more interesting bits:
When women display the necessary confidence in the skills and comfort with power, they run the risk of being regarded as ‘competent but cold’: the bitch, the ice queen, the iron maiden, the ballbuster, the battle axe, the dragon lady… The sheer number of synonyms is telling. Put bluntly, we don’t like the look of self-promotion and power on a woman. In experimental studies, women who behave on an agentic fashion experience backlash: they are rated as less socially skilled, and thus less hireable for jobs that require people skills as well as competence than are men who behave in an identical fashion.

As Hines has explained, sex is ‘easily assessed, routinely evaluated, and not always reported.’ Because it is more interesting to find a difference than to find no difference, the 19 failures to observe a difference go unreported, whereas the 1 in 20 finding of a difference is likely to be published. This contributes to the so-called file-drawer phenomenon, whereby studies that do find sex differenced get published, but those that don’t languish unpublished and unseen in a researcher’s file drawer.

I also understand that speculation is an important part of the scientific process. Nor is the topic of gender differences by any means the only area in which overinterpretation can occur. And I certainly don’t think that research into sex differences in the brain is wrong or pointless. There are sex differences in the brain (although, as we’ve seen, agreeing on what these are is harder than you might think); there are sex differences in vulnerabilities to certain psychological disorders, and hopefully a greater understanding of the former might help to illuminate the latter. My point is simply this: that neither structural nor functional imagining can currently tell us much about differences between male and female minds. [My emphasis.]
Reviewed at:
The F-Word

(Have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)


  1. Okay, I'll look for this one. I wish I could get my brother and sister-in-law to read it, partly for the sake of my nieces. They assign themselves the most throwback kind of gender roles I know; I thought it was an effect of living in Texas but then they moved to the north and it's gotten, if anything, worse.

  2. I wish a book like this were required reading for every parent. Thanks for the introduction! Hope you've had a great holiday season. I've been on an unannounced hiatus due to moving and am s..l..o..w..l..y getting back.

  3. I wish the girl's teacher could read this. Perhaps I will buy him a copy to help him reassess his views and ideals. I found I was reading parts and it was making me angry, especially about the Lord of the Flies paragraph. I don't normally read books like this, but I am finding that I need to know more about it.

  4. Jeanne and Elisabeth: one of the most depressing chapters in the book was the one about how quickly people give up on gender-neutral parenting, if they ever consider it at all. They'll buy a girl a toy car, and if she doesn't play with it and asks for a pink teddy bear instead, they'll say "it must be genetic then!" (this is particularly ridiculous when it comes to colour preferences, since our current blue for boys and pink for girls colour coding is only half a century old, but people do make such claims). What these parents completely disregard is the fact that - shock! horror! - they are not the only people with an influence on their kid's choices, tastes and thought patterns. There's a whole culture out there that you can't isolate your child from. I imagine that parenting isn't easy under any circumstances, but do we have to give up and settle for the status quo that easily? Gah!

    (And Elisabeth, it's great to see you around again! I hope you had a nice holiday season yourself.)

    Vivienne: A lot of it made me angry, but not in a bad way! I'm sorry to hear your girls' teacher has ideas of these sort :\ But then again, I suspect that the hard thing is to find teachers who don't, to a smaller or larger extent

  5. Ana, this is exactly why your blog is on my must list. Who else reviews such books? I agree this should be required reading. I'm wondering if our generations shares some of these insane views? It's funny, in the advanced math classes in my daughter's grade, there are only a handful of girls (Emma's one of them). The other girls are busy putting on lip gloss and worrying about which boy likes them. Why is that? Is that something they get from their parents? I'll have to remember this one once I'm through with The Dare.

  6. I hope that somehow I can get my future children to move away from gender stereotypes, but I am always worried about when they go to school. I was bullied in school and it was miserable. Like that little girl who had a Star Wars water bottle and suddenly wanted a pink one. Sure, she had the whole interwebs behind her, but that can't happen for every child. I definitely want to read this book. In college, my roommate did a lot of research on advertisements and gender roles and it was really interesting stuff.

  7. Sandy: It's so difficult to isolate the cause of something like that. But Fine suggests that even in a society that claims to be as open and advanced as the Western world does these days, there are subtle hints that make the maths and sciences a "no go" area. And that then leads to a lack of interest, and it snowballs from there. It's complicated, and not easy to change :\

    Lu: That's a very good point. Fine gives a similar example, of a little girl who dressed as a cat for Halloween, only to arrive at school and see every other girl in a pink princess dress. She then burst into tears and said she wanted to be a princess too. The pressure to conform is HUGE in childhood, and I can see how any parent would hesitate to put their child through that even if they deeply believe in social change. And yet how else are we going to achieve it? Hopefully the environment will become more and more permissive as the number of little girls with Star Wars bottles increases.

  8. great review! I need to get my hands on this one and then pass it on:)

  9. :( That example you just told Lu about about the Halloween costume sounds so familiar. Gray went to school as a cute little Dalmation puppy...all the other boys were ninjas, Spiderman, or a pirate...a few made fun of his costume and he promptly removed it. He didn't suddenly want to be a ninja, but he did just want to disappear and be "nothing."

    Anyway, I want this book sooooooo badly now!!! (And the cool thing is, I know all I have to do is have Rich read your review and he'll buy it himself...and then I can just borrow it from him. :P )

  10. Neurosexism—what a fantastic word for all that bull.

    And this is going directly on the reading list.

  11. This sounds like a really important book, and you have done a lot to convince me that I need to read it. It actually sounds fascinating and like it explores a lot of old and new ideas from a different mindset. I will be reading this one and letting you know what I think of it. Fantastic review, Ana.

  12. Okay, this one is now on my hold list at the library. As an educator, I am always pushing against these stereotypes but iy is difficult when the culture surrounding us reinforces them.

  13. This is really interesting. Considering I studied science and tried hard not to be pigeon-holed, it is only now that I'm beginning to realise how ingrained a lot of assumptions about gender similarities/differences are when I find myself making these very assumptions. I'm definitely going to read this at some point.

  14. This sounds like a must-read book, because gender essentialism is so pervasive, even in my own mind. I need this book for myself as much as to counter the self-styled crusaders of gender essentialism.

    The anecdotes shared in the book and in the comments are so sad!

  15. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I'm putting this on my tbr list with the intention of reading it later this year. Great post!

  16. I added this book to my wishlist when I saw it on Jessica's reading list for her students. Great review! Hopefully I'll be able to get it soon. I actually think there might be some benefit to homeschooling the early years for this precise reason. Sure you'll still have your kids socializing in groups of kids but you'll have a lot more control over things. I'm actually a fan of homeschooling for a number of reasons. But I know it's not possible for everyone.

  17. I want to read this book SO. BADLY.

  18. I for one am thrilled that when you win the lottery, you intend to buy books and hand them out instead of buying, say, a Porsche. Especially if you had intended to buy a BLUE one.

  19. Wow, this book sounds amazing, I will add it to my wishlist ASAP. The cover (covers?) also looks great.

  20. This does sound like a very important book. We just helped our son move back to the town that he attended college in, and had dinner with him and a friend of his. They remarked that our son's girlfriend is the only female coder they've ever known. That really frustrates me because I know females are perfectly capable of work like that.

  21. Valentina: Hopefully it'll make you want to stand in the middle of the street like me :D

    Debi: Poor Gray :( You and Rich will both love this - I have no doubt at all!

    Clare: Yes! Isn't it an awesome term?

    Zibilee: Thank you! Looking forward to your thoughts!

    Gavin: I can imagine! But nevertheless I want to give educators like you a hug for trying instead of giving up!

    Sakura: There's a pretty scary section on implicit assumptions versus explicit beliefs whose bottom line is: no matter how much you believe in progress and change, there are certain gendered associations we can't help but make, living in the world as it is. And they can affect our behaviour, decisions and expectations even when they go against values we hold dear. You're definitely not alone in catching yourself thinking like that!

    Christy: Yes, aren't they? And as I was telling Sakura, it's understandable to find ourselves thinking like that. It takes A LOT to counter such pervasive cultural programming.

    Linda: You're most welcome! Enjoy.

    Amy: Good point about homeschooling. I know it's not a feasible possibility for every parent, but it does seem to be the only way to avoid certain things.

    Carina: I hope you'll love it as much as I did!

    Jill: lol. And I WOULD do it ;)

    Savrina: I love that it comes with two different covers! It was a nice touch :P

    Kathy: Yes, they are. And I don't doubt that many more would be interested if not for the not-so-subtle "no trespass" signs.

  22. I need to read this. A lot of what you talk about in Fine's book is also mentioned in Natasha Walter's excellent book 'Living Dolls', but not in as much detail. She argues that sexism is on the rise again, supported by the gender essentialists.

    Thanks for the review.

  23. You've convinced me, lady. It's on my wish list as we speak!

    (@Sandy: Not to detract from your point in any way, but when I was in high school I was putting on lip gloss and worrying about which boy liked me while taking notes in Calculus II and AP Physics...good times.)

  24. I feel like gender essentialism is one of those things that's going to suck on a much more personal level when I have kids. I'm already annoyed with the expectations and assumptions society's going to put on my future kids and they do not even exist yet.

  25. :( I think I want to have a cry session for Gray right now.

    Ok...I need this book right now. And I don't have a current nonfic read going on right now. Totally going to the bookstore tomorrow. I've been hoping for a book like this for ages. I've never fit my "role" as the stereotypical male..though I've always felt perfectly comfortable as a male. Cisgendered as the term has come to be. But it's societies ridiculous standards that can make one FEEL uncomfortable...books like this are SO important!!

  26. There is a big push here to teach boys in the way you write about, because girls are getting the best university entrance scores, so of course there MUST be something wrong with the teaching method! Oh, that kind of thinking is infuriating!

    I was a "tomboy" as a child and my life was made hell by my mother who tried to force me to be more "feminine". She wanted me to conform to her idea of how a girl should look and behave. Her behaviour was abusive. We no longer have any contact.

    I've noticed in a couple of gossip magazines here that Shiloh, Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt's daughter comes in for close scrutiny, because the mags have decided she is a "tomboy". They write that she is copying her older brother to try and get attention, and other vile things that they just make up to go along with the pictures they have bought. What a horrible thing to do to a small child, and how many women reading the mags form the idea that there must be something "wrong" with their daughters if they prefer wearing jeans to dresses. It's dangerous territory the mags are straying into, but then their whole existence is based on reinforcing gender stereotypes.

    Yeah. It's a big topic!

    And, once again, a great review of an important book. Thank-you.

  27. Fingers crossed that you get rich!

    This book sounds really amazing, and it's interesting that the author comes from a medical background. I mostly read humanists' papers about the gender binary.

    It's scary but fascinating that some people really do believe in these binaries of male/female, logical/emotional etc. Of course I would have been a maths genius, had I only had a penis! ;D

    But there's also pressure from the other side. I've gotten petty comments from women about studying such a feminine thing as literature and culture. Apparently we're just a bunch of giggling females studying until we marry doctors and lawyers.
    (another point goes to patriarchy for successfully dividing women :( ).

  28. Okay this one might be enough to make me break the TBR Dare and run out and buy it!

  29. Ela: I've been meaning to get to Living Dolls for a while now - thank you for the reminder!

    Emily: I'd love to hear your thoughts on it! (And I agree - more than possible to do both :P)

    Jenny: I hate how discouraging this sounds, but you're probably right :\ Fine says at some point that it's possible to dress your very young child in a colour associated with the opposite sex, and it's possible not to have people look at you like you're insane, but it's not possible to do both.

    Chris: Did you find it? I have no doubt you'll love it!

    Violet: It really is infuriating :S And ugh, magazines like that just make me want to break something. That poor girl :\ And like her, so many others.

    Bina: We can only hope ;) And yep, pressure comes from all directions. It really all comes down to the same process, though, I think.

    Trisha: Dooo eeet!

  30. I am going to read this one -- as always you give an incisive review that makes a person want to immediately get a copy.

    Something interesting from a developmental psych course I've just finished -- in self-identity, when an individual self-identifies as 'androgynous', that is, not solely or primarily 'feminine' or 'masculine' according to societal standards, that identification is linked to the highest levels of being well-adjusted. We are all a bit of everything, and gender essentialists make me want to scream as I know full well that I am not "feminine" and domestic ONLY.

  31. Please tell me she calls out Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus at some point.

  32. Melanie: I remember that as well from my days as a psych major - and it makes perfect sense, really. Who would want to fit into a narrow little box?

    Heidenkind: Yes she does! With plenty of sarcasm and awesomeness :D

  33. Yup, I think I need to read this. I struggle sometimes with the mindset differences between Scott and I and joke a lot about men v women, which I know is a fallacy but I do think that we are conditioned by our parents or society to believe certain things about ourselves and our genders.

  34. What a FANTASTIC cover! I love it. I also really like the whole Equality 2.0 description you put in your review. How fascinating, and horrifying. As they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions...

  35. What an excellent review, and nearly as effective as handing out copies on a streetcorner, judging by my own and some of your other commenter's response: immediate addition to library queue! I absolutely rejected gender essentialism as a child. Then was in the uncomfortable position of discovering I was both bored by and bad at math and physical sciences on my own terms. Because I was aware of the stereotypes, it felt like a betrayal of my person code whenever any of my likes and dislikes happened fall strongly along gender lines. It still does. "No, no, I don't hate team sports and like needlework because *I'm a girl!!*" There is always a mental defense, explanation, and apology going on in my head. The whole issue can turn itself inside out.

  36. It is a very difficult topic and your review is lovely, I'll have to read it. It's actually remarkably DIFFICULT to raise children in a gender neutral fashion, if not impossible. There are always these moments where you know that someone will hurt them for being who they are - and then what's worse, the sort of paradox that others have mentioned. When Morrigan got to school, and suddenly decided he didn't like pink anymore, and liked black instead, it's difficult to know how to respond. It's difficult to believe he REALLY just changed that suddenly - but then, who is to say he really liked pink before? And how do you say 'I think you should keep liking pink?' Some children (and you can tell quite yougn) WANT to fit in, desperately, want their parents to help them know how to behave to 'fit in'. What do you teach their children? Nto to want to fit in? I'm not sure that's really possible. This isn't to say you SHOULDN'T try to teach children to be who they are, but rather... well, I guess, first that one must understand that it's a very difficult thing to succeed at, and beyond that that 'who you are' is such a tricky thing to define. AFter all, we are who we are around, as well, right? We want our children to be influenced by us, but not by others. IT's a difficult thing. Not to soudn like I think you're wrong, I don't. I hope this doesn't sound argumentative...

  37. Sounds like a fascinating book. I had one of those children who didn't seem to fit the rough-and-tumble boy at all, instead preferring to do intense pretend play. Many of his friends along and along have been girls. Now that he is nearing 12yo, though, the divisions between girls and boys have gotten even more intense. Watching my son try to navigate these waters has been fascinating.

  38. This definitely is a must read. I'd like to stand out on that street corner and help you hand out the books (ha). I'm adding this to my list right now!

  39. OK OK Point taken :D Added to the 'buy after TBR Dare ends' list!!!

  40. I just saw the paperback of this book being highlighted at my store today, and I told myself I can't get it because I'm cutting down on book-buying, because I'm broke, etc etc. But I couldn't resist checking to see if you've reviewed it (it seems like the kind of book you might like and review ^^) and when I saw that you did, and read your review, everything else flew out the window and I'm buying the book, TODAY. So, thank you. And I love this post <3 (~marineko)


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