Oct 5, 2011

The Truth about Girls and Boys by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett

The Truth about Girls and Boys by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett

The Truth about Girls and Boys – Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children is a recent addition to the growing body of literature devoted to challenging the cultural dominance of gender essentialism and to exposing the many methodological flaws and unproven assumptions hiding behind the cloak of scientific jargon in essentialist discourses. As Rivers and Barnett say in the introduction,
From the media, you’d think that there is a scientific consensus that boys and girls are profoundly different from birth, and that these differences have huge consequences for aptitude and performance in such areas as math and verbal abilities, for how the sexes communicate, for the careers for which they should aim, and for the kind of classrooms they should attend.
Throughout the book, Rivers and Barnett particularly address parents and educators and challenge essentialist myths in areas such as brain differences, mathematical and verbal ability, toy preferences, aggression, caring, and learning styles, while also drawing attention to how these myths are often used as political ammunition. They scrutinise the work of several advocates of essentialism and expose bogus citations, distorted or unfounded conclusions, results that were clearly cherry picked, sweeping generalisations based on tiny samples, and all the other classic tricks of pseudoscience.

Sadly, these questionable practices don’t seem to prevent this sloppy research from getting constant media attention. But Rivers and Barnett also show us that peer-reviewed scholarly journals tell a very different story: they show that the similarities between the genders far outnumber the differences, that there are far more differences within groups of men and women than between them, and that we still know very little about the relationship between brain differences and immutable traits or patterns of behaviour. In short, there are no clear or simple answers, and we should be wary of anyone who claims otherwise.

The Truth about Girls and Boys is very clearly a Debunking Gender Essentialism 101 sort of book, but this is by no means a bad thing. The fact that the authors are a team of a neuroscientist (Barnett) and a journalist (Rivers) is visible in the book’s simple, direct and accessible prose. And since much of what the The Truth about Girls and Boys deals with has to do with the intersection between science (or what is perceived as science) and the popular media, their backgrounds are only appropriate. The fact that so many people, many of them informed and educated, believe the scientific consensus about gender differences to be the opposite of what it actually is signals a huge disconnect between scientific research and popular culture. Perhaps we need more partnerships of this kind if this problem is to be overcome.

Having said this, The Truth about Girls and Boys seemed to repeat the same points a little too much at times, and to cross the line between accessibility and overexplaining. But then again, the problem could easily have been me – I’ve just finished writing a dissertation that touches on this subject, which means that over the last five months or so I’ve read countless articles and books that make use of many of the same arguments presented here. My threshold for finding things repetitive is probably considerably lower than that of the general reader at this point.

Another thing I noticed was the language Barnett and Rivers use – at first it seemed a little too simple, but then I came across a passage that gave me pause:
Even scarier, recent evidence finds that college-educated individuals, even if they have had courses in neuroscience, are strongly influenced by irrelevant neuroscience language. If such people are unconvinced by your argument, all you have to do to change their minds is to toss some neuroscience jargon into your pitch. No wonder teachers and school administrators are swayed by best-selling books filled with such jargon.
This passage makes it clear that the authors’ decision to avoid jargon was very deliberate, and it caused me to wonder if my initial reaction had to do with the fact that I too have been trained to privilege technical language and to perceive it as more authoritative. The fact is, Barnett and Rivers’ use of everyday language doesn’t detract of what they’re saying in the least, so it would be unfair and a little ironic to dismiss this book on that account.

The number of books devoted to debunking gender essentialism seems to be growing, which makes me very happy – it’s about time to challenge the ever-growing flood of Men are from Mars Women are from Venus publications. The Truth about Girls and Boys may not be the best of the lot – Cordelia Fine, who is both a rigorous scientist and an incredibly engaging writer, has set the bar pretty high – but it is nevertheless a useful, readable and very informative introductory book. Besides, the fact that it’s specifically aimed at educators makes it unique. I hope it finds a wide audience, and that it encourages decision-makers in education to take a closer look at the story the media are telling us.

A few interesting bits:
The reemerging “difference” ideology is perhaps most pernicious when it comes cloaked in the academic terms of scientific or scholarly research, making it all sound deeply embedded in objective reality. But it is not. To make the breathtaking leap from a mixed and often speculative body of lab studies to the conclusion that men are equipped by their brains to make better pilots, engineers, and mathematicians and women to make better nurses, child-tenders, and caretakers is beyond absurd. It certainly goes against the grain of what makes and females are actually doing in today’s world. It also flies in the face of a great deal of solid behavioural research.

In the early 1900s, urgent polemics appeared in newspapers, books, and magazines, warning that young men were spending too much time in school with female teachers and that the constant interaction with women was robbing them of their manhood. They were becoming too “bookish”. In Congress, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana railed against overeducation. He urged young men to “avoid books and in fact avoid all artificial learning, for the forefathers put America on the right path by learning completely from natural experience.
(This passage amused me because of the ironic parallels with the situation today – and of course, in both cases female educators are held responsible.)

Other points of view:
The Feminist Librarian
Bookshelf Bombshells

(Have you read it too?)

I requested a copy of this book from Columbia University Press via NetGalley


  1. Wonderful review, Ana! This looks like an interesting book on a fascinating subject. I love the fact that the authors try to not use technical jargon but use simple language to advance their arguments. Your description of the book made me remember a documentary I watched a few years back which was called 'Battle of the Sexes' (I think that was the title). I also think it was produced by the BBC or another British production company. In that documentary a few men and women were interviewed and observed to find out whether there were any essential differences between men and women and if I remember right, the conclusion was that though on an average the general perception seems to hold true - that men are good at things like logical thinking and women are good at things like managing relationships with other people - there are situations when the general perception doesn't hold true - in one of the scenes there is a guy who knows how to hold a new-born baby comfortably and naturally, by instinct (something which he has never done before), while some of the women struggle to do that and are scared to do that, while in another case, one of the women featured in the documentary is an aeronautical engineer, who is good at science, technology and mathematics but she struggles with the so called feminine traits.

    I liked both the passages that you have quoted. I can't believe that there were polemics published in the newspaper about women teachers. I also can't believe what that American senator said - it is really sad.

  2. Very interesting, indeed. I like that the authors made a conscious effort to avoid jargon - that really does build the trust between the reader and the authors. While I do believe that there are some fundamental differences in the way women and men are made up (mostly emotional), I also believe it's more like a spectrum than pure male v. female. And I certainly don't think that there are jobs better suited to one gender over another. Perhaps I need to read this book and get better educated on the topic! :)

  3. So true! And not only "If such people are unconvinced by your argument, all you have to do to change their minds is to toss some neuroscience jargon into your pitch." I think all you have to do is say "studies have shown...."

  4. I think this book would be of interest to me, and since I haven't read much about this subject before, I probably would find it a bit less repetitive than you did. It's hard to believe that that gender stereotypes still hold so much sway these days in an enlightened society. Very perceptive and thought-provoking review, Ana.

  5. When my son was in school, I noticed that schools teach to boys differently than they do to girls, so this topic is of interest to me. I have a feeling the repetition would bother me, though.

  6. "it caused me to wonder if my initial reaction had to do with the fact that I too have been trained to privilege technical language and to perceive it as more authoritative" This is soooo interesting, and I believe that it is often the case.
    I love it when something like this makes me contemplate whether or not I too am influenced in such a way. Very enjoyable review. Thank you :D

  7. Interesting review! I think gender stereotypes are probably the most deeply ingrained stereotypes in any culture, to the point where we all probably have preconceptions of men and women that we don't even realize are gendered stereotypes. Add that to an institutionalized study and there's sure to be all kinds of bias. And who's paying for these various studies? Toy manufacturers?

  8. Neuroscience language convinces people, does it? Fascinating! And useful to me in future arguments, in which I will cease to invent statistics and instead invent claims relating to brain chemistry. Which I think will be easier to make up on the fly anyway. :D

    (I'm kidding. Mostly.)

  9. I could use a 101 book on the subject; it's been too long since I've read a nonfiction look at gender stereotypes (rather than straight up female-centered reading).

  10. When I read the first partr of this I had to put it down because of the overexplaining and repeat of information. BUt then I can't really face nonfiction at this moment anyway. I do wonder about the comment about jargon. It may be because it is the kind of comment used in a political setting here a lot, to legitimize calling muslims names ("because the left refuses to name the "real thing" and hides behind scholarly language, or so Wilders would have you believe) that I do not agree with it. I feel that yes, at times jargon can be really bad and I try to avoid some of it in my own thesis, for example, but I do think their statement is too bold and doesn't show much faith in readers/students.

  11. Vishy: To me one of the most important things to remember in discussions of this kind is that arguing that gender differences are not innate doesn't mean we can't acknowledge that men and women DO behave in very markedly gendered ways in our world, and that therefore gender is a very useful category of sociological analysis. It sounds like that documentary makes that distinction, which is great! I'm going to see if I can get a hold of it.

    Julie: I personally disagree even about emotional differences, but I know there are many different opinions on the subject. I hope you enjoy the book if you get a hold of it!

    Jill: Sadly that also happens, yes :\

    Zibilee: Sometimes I worry that gender stereotypes are gaining strength rather than weakening as time passes, but that's the pessimistic in me :P

    Kathy: I do think it might have been mostly me. It's worth giving it a try, though!

    Kelly: We like to think we're immune to those things, but sadly a lot of the time we're not :\

    heidenkind: I completely agree! And it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Sometimes what's behind it are political interests rather than commercial ones. If we believe that men and women are "naturally" apt to certain tasks, it's easier to justify current social hierarchies.

    Jenny: lol! Your comment almost made me choke on my coffee :P

    Trisha: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up! It does a great job of introducing the topic.

    Iris: I didn't think they were making a statement about jargon in general - just pointing towards research that shows that there is a tendency to see it as authoritative even among the educated. Of course, that doesn't mean everyone will do that all the time, nor that jargon should be abolished altogether. We do need specific terms in academic/research contexts because they allow more clarity. And sometimes they're a place for them in mainstream journalism and everyday speech too. But at other times, they're used to obscure the meaning of what's being said rather than clarify it. I think the authors' main point was that we should be careful then. That's how I read it, anyway!

  12. I might read this at some point, but I think in the meantime I need to get around to the books I own on the same subject.

  13. this reminds me of a book I read in late teens that morrissey had read about gender roles in life the title escapes me now ,thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

  14. I'll definitely start with the Fine book.
    I can imagine that your view on this is very different after just completing a thesis on the topic but at least we get the opinion of an expert :)

  15. It's amazing how strongly most people believe in the inherent differences between men and women, and how much the media supports that. When I taught preschool, any time one of my students said something about a "girl's toy" or a "boy's toy" I always stepped in and told them it was an EVERYONE toy. I only ever had to say it a few times, usually in the beginning of the year, and after that, I rarely, if ever, heard the kids say it again. They all played with all the toys without hesitation.

    In the late evening, we often would let the remaining kids watch TV while waiting for their parents, and every time a toy commercial came on – every time! – you would hear choruses of, "That's for boys!" or "That's for girls!" It was ridiculous! I didn't usually hear it from my students as much as the others, but they also didn't speak up and contradict the other kids.

    Sorry for the ramble! I'm glad this book is out there. We need more like it.

  16. Kelly: Yes you do :P

    Stu: If you remember it at some point I'd love to know the title!

    Bina: It wasn't quite on the same topic, but it did deal with it, so yeah, lots of exposure to the same arguments!

    Emily: What saddens me the most is that the people use that kind of example to justify why those preferences must be innate, since they're expressed by such young children - all the while ignoring the many, MANY ways the world constantly tells young children what's for boys and what's for girls. It makes me happy to know there are teachers/librarians like you out there, doing your bit to change things!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.