Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds Society And Neurosexism Create Difference Paperback – Aug 9 2011
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Starred Review, Pick of the Week. A fabulous combination of wit, passion, and scholarship. . . . This marvelous and important book will change the way readers view the gendered world. — Publishers Weekly
Forceful, funny. . . . These are the right questions to be asking. — Boston Globe
Fine turns the popular science book formula on its head. Chapter-by-chapter, she introduces ideas about innate differences between the sexes… and then tartly smacks around studies supposedly supporting them. — Dan Vergano (USA Today)
[Fine] effectively blows the lid off of old tropes… Weaving together anecdotes, dense research and quotes from numerous experts, she offers a well-balanced testament to the many ways in which cultural rules inform behaviors often mistaken as organic to our brains, as opposed to learned… [An] informative and often surprising study. — Kirkus Reviews
Cordelia Fine has a first-rate intellect and writing talent to burn. In her new book, Delusions of Gender, she takes aim at the idea that male brains and female brains are ‘wired differently,’ leading men and women to act in a manner consistent with decades-old gender stereotypes. Armed with penetrating insights, a rapier wit, and a slew of carefully researched facts, Fine lowers her visor, lifts her lance, and attacks this idea full-force. Whether her adversaries can rally their forces and mount a successful counter-attack remains to be seen. What’s certain at this point, however, is that in Delusions of Gender Cordelia Fine has struck a terrific first blow against what she calls ‘neurosexism.’ — William Ickes, author of Everyday Mind Reading: Understanding What Other People Think and Feel
In Delusions of Gender Cordelia Fine does a magnificent job debunking the so-called science, and especially the brain science, of gender. If you thought there were some inescapable facts about women’s minds—some hard wiring that explains poor science and maths performance, or the ability to remember to buy the milk and arrange the holidays—you can put these on the rubbish heap. Instead, Fine shows that there are almost no areas of performance that are not touched by cultural stereotypes. This scholarly book will make you itch to press the delete button on so much nonsense, while being pure fun to read. — Uta Frith FBA, FMedSci, FRS; Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London
About the Author
Cordelia Fine, the author of A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender, is a research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics at Macquarie University and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychology. She lives in Victoria, Australia.
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She has two main points: Neuroscience is not nearly advanced enough to reach any conclusions that link brain structure to behaviour. And it is difficult to distinguish between genetic and culturally acquired characteristics from observing society, because there are so many confounding factors and sources of bias. So what is all this recent writing really based on?
Things Don’t Seem So Bad in My Bubble
I appear to live in a bubble. The reports I read about sexual discrimination and harassment are shocking, and do not reflect my personal experience. I realize that my brain’s shrivelled left hemisphere renders me oblivious to any social interaction that is not blindingly obvious, but I am married to a successful female senior manager. We even talk sometimes (when she makes me). I don’t hear much about discrimination, while I do hear about a lot else. And there are plenty of women in senior positions where she works. But society is not uniform, and large parts of it are clearly very different from where I stand.
Beyond Reason: Why I Would See it That Way
Why is gender stereotyping so persistent when many of us claim to have moved beyond that? She tells us,
“One can be reflective about explicitly held (rational) knowledge, and it may be reasonably consistent.Read more ›
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The central myth that the author confronts is that men and women have widely different sets of ability that are mostly innate, hard-wired, and unchangeable. The author argues that this has not been demonstrated. In fact, it is not even clear that these differences in ability exist.
Take empathy. If you test people's empathy by asking them how empathetic they think they are (and yes, some scientists actually do this), then women test much higher than men. But if you actually test their abilities (by, for instance, asking what emotions are being expressed in a particular face), women do only a tiny bit better than men. And if you design the study to get rid of gender biases (the author shows how researchers do this), then women do no better than men.
Or take the ability to mentally rotate objects in space which, for a long time, has been considered to be necessary for success in math and engineering. Usually men do better than women. But if you fib and tell a group of test-takers that "women perform better than men in this test, usually for genetic reasons," then women perform as well as the men.
And on it goes. The author shows how subtle cues in our environment affect our identities and thus our behaviors and thus our life course. And how our implicit beliefs are often diametrically opposed to our explicit beliefs and how this can wreak havoc in our societies.
There are also sections on more obvious instances of gender bias in the workplace and at home, the difficulties interpreting MRI studies, the subtle ways that parents "teach" gender to their children even while claiming (and believing) that they are being gender-neutral, the effects (or not) of pre-natal testosterone, sex differences in animal behavior (did you know that a male rat will take care of an infant rat if it's placed in it's cage?), the "seductive allure" of neuroscience, and more.
A wonderful book. I think I'm going to go and read it again. . . .
It is nowadays commonly accepted knowledge that there are profound innate differences between genders. I'm not talking about the obvious anatomical ones, but about the allegedly (radically) different ways in which male and female brains work. It seems that at every corner we hear statements to the effect that gender XX or XY is better or more capable or more attracted to a litany of tasks and behaviors, from spatial abilities to mathematics, from aptitude toward science to liking the color pink. When prominent figures -- like former Harvard President Larry Summers -- get in trouble for talking about behavioral gender differences as if they were established facts backed by the power of evolutionary and neuro-biology, a chorus of defenders rises up to decry political correctness and to present the Summers of the day as a valiant fighter for rationality in the face of relativism and demagoguery.
Not so fast, says Cordelia Fine in her Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. Fine is an academic psychologist and freelance writer, and her book ought to be kept side by side with the likes of the (antithetical) The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, to provide a bit of balance to what has become common and yet largely unfounded knowledge about gender differences. Let us be clear at the outset that nobody is seriously suggesting that genetics and evolution have nothing to do with human behavior, including gendered differences. Rather, Fine's claim is that a lot is being taken for established these days on the basis of much too flimsy evidence -- and more importantly that the widening consensus among scientists and the general public about the innateness (and consequent inevitability) of gender differences has a measurable and pernicious effect on women.
Nature and nurture surely interact in complex ways, particularly in an animal so behaviorally flexible as a human being. But the danger of "neurosexism" (and evolutionary sexism) is that public pronouncements by scientists far outpace the evidence, with the result of reinforcing stereotypes and negatively affecting millions of lives. Scientists have an ethical duty, as Wittgenstein put it in another context, to remember that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
And she's funny!
No one will ever again have to sit through a dinner party with some parent going on about how 'I thought that too, but you only have to LOOK at my two children to see there are innate differences... bleh bleh'. She unpicks it all and shows how social pressures are so important and the brain differences that are so often claimed are, essentially, neurotosh, aka neurosexism. I think I shall carry a copy round with me.
While I admire Fine's questions, I think she makes some researchers and conclusions out to be more unreasonable than they actually are. She points out that researchers often make much of small studies and highlights two claims that originated in studies with a limited number of participants: the idea that males are more lateralized for language than females and that they have larger corpus callosums. Fine contends that when meta-analyses are done, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. It's not that clear cut. Daniel Voyer conducted a meta-analysis and concluded that there are sex differences in lateralization (Voyer, 1996). Similarly, the corpus callosum claims often depend on how the measurement is done. It's important to take into account study quality as well ( Holloway 1998). She downplays the ambiguity on these questions. Also, even Hyde's Gender Similarities Hypothesis documented sex differences in some language-related skills(Hyde, 2005). Girls outperform boys on standardized reading and writing tests (Program for International Literacy 2006, US Department of Education 1997). Moreover, Fine's discussion of the mental rotation and math relationship does not note some compelling findings that might alter a reader's impression. For example, Casey and colleagues found that spatial abilities mediated the gender gap on the SAT-M (e.g. Casey et. al 1995, Tartre 1990). She cites Ceci et. al 2009 for a statement of dispute, but doesn't go into detail about the issues they raised. They don't think the research showing SAT-M scores and mental rotation are flawed, per se. That said, Fine raises some legitimate issues about how the scientific community and press responded to some papers, especially in light of subsequent findings and controversy.
Although one can easily beg to differ with some of Fine's takes on the data, many of the questions she poses are important and worthwhile. Much of the book features Fine explaining this technology and its limitations. She spends a lot of time indicting particular studies, illuminating how ambiguous some data is, and how it gets wildly interpreted. She emphasizes how challenging it is to interpret what's really going on in the mind. One need not agree with Fine's take on certain controversial issues on the topic to see her point about popular writers gone wild. She also rightly stresses that people tend to be particularly impressed with this research (Weisberg et. al 2008). Fine's text is well-suited to instilling skepticism into readers and enabling them to look critically at the claims they might encounter in press reports. This is especially valuable because press reports typically mention methodological details, but don't cover some of the limitations in procedures.
The downside, though, as Diane Halpern notes is it not as helpful to distinguishing between cautiously executed studies with reasonable conclusions. Note also, such investigations do exist. (e.g. Allen et. al 2003; Koscik et. al 2009; Hanggi et. al 2010). Researchers who care about these sorts of issues, exist too. Consider Tor Wager who conducted a meta-analysis of 60+ brain imaging studies, and noted he was speculating in his discussion of them. Wager and one of his colleagues also opened a discussion of sex differences in the emotional brain by pointing out Aristotle's views on women's inferiority, and ended by emphasizing sex similarities. I suppose there are still limitations in the research, and some of this could be misconstrued. It's not a researcher getting overly excited about a single spurious finding that conforms to stereotypes.
Genes, hormones, and their impact on brain structure and function contribute to making the lives of men and women different (Hines, 2005). Yet, the awe that some neuroimaging studies inspire may not always be conducive to understanding how. New York Times editor wrote that Fine's book helped her "see how complex and fascinating the whole issue is." I do worry that this comes at the expense of dismissing legitimate scholarship.
Ultimately, Fine posits that some of this research will wind up in the sorry scrap heap of the past. That's not beyond the scope of possibility. Maybe in retrospect, we will see some bias, some flaws and gaps. But it won't just be a bunch of over-eager researchers to
Allen JS, Damasio H, Grabowski TJ, Bruss J, Zhang W. Sexual dimorphism and asymmetries in the gray-white composition of the human cerebrum. Neuroimage 2003;18:880-894.
Casey, M. B., Nuttall, R., Pezaris, E., & Benbow, C. P. (1995). The influence of spatial ability on gender differences in math college entrance test scores across diverse samples. Developmental Psychology, 31, 697-705.
Ceci, S.J., Williams, W.M., & Barnett, S.M. (2009, March). Women's underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin.
Fitch, RH., & Denenberg, VH. 1998. A role for ovarian hormones in sexual differentiation of the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 311-352.
Hänggi, J., Buchmann, A., Mondadori, C. R. A., Henke, K.,
Jäncke, L., & Hock, C. (2008). Sexual dimorphism in
the parietal substrate associated with visuospatial cognition
independent of general intelligence. Journal of Cognitive
Neuroscience, 22, 139-155.
Hines, M. (2004). Brain gender. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592.
Koscik, T., O'Leary, D., Moser, D. J., Andreasen, N. C., & Nopoulos, P. (2009). Sex differences in
parietal lobe morphology: Relationship to mental rotation performance. Brain and
Cognition, 69(3), 451-459.
Program for International Literary Report, pp. 63-64. Accessed November 9th 2009
U. S. Department of Education. (1997). National Assessment of Educational Progress (Indicator
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Voyer, D. (1996). On the magnitude of laterality effects and sex differences in functional lateralities. Laterality, 1, 51-83.
Wager, T. D., Phan, K. L., Liberzon, I., & Taylor, S. F. (2003) Valence, gender, and lateralization of functional brain anatomy in emotion: A meta-analysis of findings from neuroimaging. Neuroimage, 19, 513-531.
Wager, T. D. & Ochsner, K. N. (2005). Sex differences in the emotional brain. Neuroreport, 16(2), 85-87.
What Fine does in this book is 1) survey some of the best known literature concluding that there are biological or innate gender differences 2) expose very real problems in methodology and reasoning in this literature 3) and uncover some of the little-known work that does not suffer from such appalling errors which casts doubt on the claim that there are biological or innate gender differences. Fine is extremely careful about how she states her conclusions; she's no messianic fanatic who declares that there are no such innate differences. She is too smart to think that the data out there give us a firm answer either way. What she shows, brilliantly, is that those who pretend that there is such definitive evidence are guilty of a rush to judgment.
Fine is a serious academic who has done the public a great service by making clear to ordinary people how shibboleths about gender difference that permeate our culture do not have firm grounding in the neuroscientific studies on which they often draw. At the same time, she does the academy a great service; gender studies in neuroscience needs to up its game.
And while she is accomplishing all this, you, the reader, will be laughing, gasping, smirking, grinning, and just plain enjoying the fun way she presents her material. Kudos to such a young talent! This is going on my holiday gift list!