The Lady Gaga school of gender delusion

Cordelia Fine’s new book skewers the trendy idea that men and women act differently because we are ‘born that way’.

Various Authors

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In the early Seventies, both feminists and psychologists argued that men and women were more alike than different and that any differences were largely imposed by social pressures. In 1972, for example, Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society first made the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Sex, explained Oakley, is a biological term whereas gender is a psychological and cultural term. Oakley concluded that sex has little influence over gender; identifying oneself as man or woman is a consequence of cultural learning and not biological predisposition.

Today, feminists and psychologists are more likely to argue that men and women have different traits born of different psychological profiles and brains. Feminists typically paint women as enlightened, wiser, kinder, more compassionate and in touch with nature, and less destructive and aggressive than the average corrupt male. Psychologists typically focus on more pragmatic issues such as the apparent inability of women to read maps and the inability of men to multi-task, and on technical sounding details such as the apparent fact that women have more connected brains and men more specialised brains. In turn, these differences are used to explain why men start wars and women start crèches, why women prefer shoes and men prefer guns and why men work in engineering and women work in teaching.

Remarkably, this shift from trying to explain how men and women are the same to embracing differences has happened during a period when the gap in terms of education, jobs and pay has narrowed. Across the EU, 80 per cent of women complete secondary education, compared with 75 per cent of men, and in the USA women are as likely as men to attend university and just as likely as men to complete a bachelor’s degree. In Britain, the employment rate for women (70 per cent) approaches that of men (79 per cent) and in the USA the employment rates for men and women are almost equal. In the UK, women earn 90 per cent of men’s pay, which is an improvement from 82 per cent in 1997, and in the USA, women earn 77 per cent of men’s pay, up from 72 per cent in 1990.

Even in mathematics, a subject where males have typically performed better than females, the gender gap has narrowed considerably. In the US, the gap between boys and girls has consistently declined since 1973 when measurements began; by 1994 there was no measurable difference in the mathematics proficiency of male and female nine-year-olds and 13-year-olds. By age 17, there remains a gap favouring males for both mathematics and science but that gap has also been in steady decline since 1973.

Given that objective measures show gender differences are in decline, it is surprising that there has been such an increase in books and reports describing hard-wired differences in male and female brains and that so many people are using them to explain why men and women live different lives. The most famous British example is Simon Baron-Cohen who has extrapolated from his research on autism (a predominantly male disorder) the more general conclusion that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy while the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender brilliantly demolishes these overly simplistic and, essentially, wrong conclusions about male and female brains. She does this in two different ways. First, she points out that supposedly fixed differences between men and women are quite plastic. For example, merely asking men to consider the social value and benefits of empathising will lead them to be more empathic. And when men are paid to detect and correctly identify emotional states they perform as well as women. Similarly, when women are told that women perform better on a spatial rotation task their performance matches those of men. It appears that male and female differences in task performance can be fairly easily overcome by changing the motivation to do well or by changing the way the task is framed. That doesn’t sound like something hard-wired or fixed in the brain.

Second, Fine points out the severe weaknesses of the science underlying supposed biological gender differences. There is, for example, a large literature describing the potential influence of fetal testosterone on a variety of behaviours. Male infants are exposed to a greater level of testosterone around week six of fetal development. The surge in testosterone, in fact, shifts fetal development from female to male; without the testosterone there would be a girl and not a boy. Researchers have suggested that this testosterone surge affects brain development and thus leads to behavioural differences between boys and girls. What is more, we are all (boys and girls) exposed to different levels of testosterone due to a variety of factors such as being twinned in the womb with a member of the opposite sex or being the sister of several older brothers and so forth. Researchers suggest, rather crudely, that the more testosterone you are exposed to in the womb, the more male your behaviour will be, regardless of whether you are male or female.

It is a nice idea, but as Fine summarises: ‘Does accuracy on a mental rotation test at age seven correlate with amniotic testosterone? No. Does a four-year-old’s skill at copying a block structure, understanding number facts and concepts, and counting and sorting increase with higher levels of amniotic testosterone? No, it decreases in girls, and has no relationship in boys. Puzzle solving? No. Classification skills (for example, “find all the small ones”)? No. A test of spatial ability? No.’

So, the evidence for testosterone influencing behaviour in a male direction is limited, at best.

Fine then moves on to brain imaging. Powerful scanners that can detect changes in neural activity in a reasonably non-invasive fashion are now very common in psychology departments around the world. It is difficult to imagine that there is a behaviour or thought that has not been scanned in someone, somewhere, to generate the colourful brain blobs that are now a familiar sight. Do these images demonstrate gender differences? Not exactly.

One proposed influence of fetal testosterone is to make the brain more right-side dominant and so it has been proposed that men tend to use only their right hemisphere for language whereas women use both their left and right hemispheres. Linked to this are other claims about the structure of female brains, such as the greater connectivity of left and right in female brains, and a host of speculation about the greater behavioural flexibility and superior language use of women compared to men. The cost for women is less space for spatial processing and, thus, deficient spatial processing skills. Brain imaging provides no support for any of these ideas. A review of all the brain imaging studies of language, involving data from over 2,000 people, found no evidence for any difference in brain-hemisphere activation between gender. Similarly, reviews examining differences in left and right connectivity have found no evidence of any gender influence (1).

Fine also points to a problem that is, perhaps, more important. The brain is a complicated organ that we barely understand in anything but the most basic detail. Furthermore, brain imaging is a technology that is in its infancy and the data generated by imaging is also highly complicated. A typical brain imaging study will generate a matrix involving hundreds of thousands of numbers replicated across time and people. Analysis of these kinds of data sets is difficult, tedious and complicated, often requiring many years of experience and containing a surprising element of subjectivity and argument about what is the right and wrong thing to do. It is perhaps understandable that brain imaging throws up contradictory results and that brain researchers reach contradictory conclusions. Fine notes that this can lead to theories about brain function being untouched by the collection of brain activation data:

‘As the contradictory data come in, researchers can draw on both the hypothesis that men are better at mental rotation because they use just one hemisphere, as well as the completely contrary hypothesis that men are better at mental rotation because they use both hemispheres. So flexible is the theoretical arrangement that researchers can even present these opposing hypotheses, quite without embarrassment, within the very same article.’

It is a strange science where exactly opposite data support the same interpretation. Fine’s conclusion is scathing. She suggests that neuroscientists are merely projecting cultural assumptions about the sexes on to the vast unknown that is the brain. This process she dismisses as ‘neurosexism’, which is part of a larger discipline called ‘neurononsense’. It is hard to argue.

Fine argues that if there are differences in behaviour and thinking between genders, then it is a consequence of socialisation and not inherent biological differences. In the final section of her book, she explains how parents gender their children even before they are born. Male fetuses, for example, are described as more active even though objective tests demonstrate no difference in the activity patterns of male and female fetuses. After birth, parents continue to ascribe gender-specific abilities. Mothers converse more with girl babies and pay better attention to their emotional expressions. They believe that boys are better at crawling and will do more dangerous activities, even though there is no evidence that boys are less attentive to speech, less emotional, better crawlers or more reckless.

And that’s just the parents. If a parent were to try and raise a child in a gender-neutral fashion, they would find it a hard job neutralising the information that lets children know what toys, behaviours, skills, personality traits, occupations, hobbies, responsibilities, clothing, hairstyles, accessories, colours, shapes, emotions and so on go with being male and female. Fine describes the efforts of Sandra and Daryl Bem who went to quite unbelievable lengths meticulously to eliminate all gender associations from their children’s lives.

The Bems systematically divided all household chores to be completely evenly distributed between Sandra and Daryl Bem. All reading and visual material was monitored and selected so as to ensure the children saw men and women doing cross-gender jobs. They deleted or altered all sex-stereotyped text and pictures in the family books. When reading books, they used pronouns to avoid sex-associated implications (for instance, ‘And what is this little piggy doing? Why, he or she is building a bridge’) and they re-drew pictures such as adding long hair and the outline of breasts on to pictures of male truck drivers. If gender differences were addressed by the Bems, they were only addressed by the hard facts of anatomy and reproductive function and not through typical gender roles and preferences. If the children asked about someone’s gender, the Bems would typically deny any definitive knowledge because they could not see the person’s penis or vagina. The Bems efforts, as Fine notes, step well beyond the typical attempts at gender-neutral parenting. The world is not gender neutral and so it is little wonder that we think in gender categories. Fine suggests that this socialisation of men and women creates gender stereotypes that hold women back.

Despite the progress noted at the beginning, it remains the case that women still earn less than men, are more likely to be employed part-time, take on greater domestic and childcare responsibilities and are under-represented in top managerial, science and engineering positions. Fine argues that these differences are caused in part by the automatic activation of gender stereotypes. For example, merely asking someone to state their gender on a maths test will cause women to perform poorly because the question activates the stereotype that women are poor at maths. More perniciously, Fine suggests that men still maintain sexist attitudes and will deliberately exclude women from some business activities. For example, Fine argues that managers deliberately entertain important clients at strip joints and lap-dancing clubs in order to exclude women.

These arguments are less convincing. In the first instance, Fine cannot argue that stereotypical behaviours are both easily overcome ‘by changing the way a task is described, bringing a particular social identity to the fore, or telling a simple fib’, and simultaneously argue that stereotype activation is maintaining a stubborn social division. Fine wants it both ways, describing gender stereotypes as simultaneously fragile and robust. The stereotypes are indeed fragile and women are not hapless followers of environmental cues, unable to withstand the barrage of acne ads and their implicit messages. They are active people who can reject stereotypes if they want to.

No doubt men also hold stereotypical views of gender but that is no reason to condemn men as sexist and as a barrier to women’s equality. Stereotypes about women and maths ability, for example, reflect the fact that most mathematicians are male. Someone having a stereotypical view of the typical mathematician as male reflects what is familiar rather than a sexist view that mathematicians should only be male.

Fine’s argument about strip joints is also problematic because in arguing that strip joints exclude women she is making the case for an essential difference between the sexes. Fine makes a bold assumption that because of their gender, women are offended by certain things that men are not offended by. There is no law, or inherent female morality, preventing women from attending strip joints.

On the one hand, we have the social injustice problems of men and women being treated differently on the basis of their gender, largely to the disadvantage of women. On the other hand, as things progress we have an issue of women choosing to take on more part-time, lower-paying jobs than men because of other, more political, factors, such as poor childcare facilities or the belief (held by women as well as men) that women are meant to do the primary child caretaking and are not meant to go to strip joints. Fine does not consider any distinction between top-down, imposed gender inequity and bottom-up, voluntary gender inequity. Consequently she describes a way forward that tends to paint women as hapless victims of a male-dominated society and that, ironically, recreates the gender division so beloved of neuroscience and so skilfully demolished in Delusions of Gender.

Stuart Derbyshire is reader in psychology at the University of Birmingham and is taking part in the debate Is there a ghost in the machine? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

Nina Powell is a final-year PhD student in psychology at the University of Birmingham and is taking part in the debate What is feminism for? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

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