Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Delusions of Gender

[TW: Brief mention of sexual harassment in the workplace]

Don't you wish people had to read certain books before they began blogging about gender issues? Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference is a book* that should be on that pre-req list.

Fine holds a PhD in psychology and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Department of Psychology. Her latest book is devoted to synthesizing the research that challenges common assumptions about the "ingrained" differences between men and women. Although her book contains more than 80 pages of end notes, the text itself comes in at a somewhat breezy 239 pages. Fine's writing style is both clear and humorous, making it very readable for a book that summarizes study after study.

For many feminist readers of this blog, I question whether Fine's arguments will be all that new. Many feminists are already highly skeptical of the notion that there are vast psychological "in-born" differences between men and women (for a general audience, I'm sure many of Fine's observations would be groundbreaking). Where the book may add the most value to feminist audiences is that it's a study-based resource one can use when countering that pseudo-scientific Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus bullshit that passes for "common sense" and which serves to justify both gender policing and the gender status quo.

Weaving in historical accounts of "experts" (mis)using science to assert a variety of explanations for women's "natural" inferiority to men ("women lack sufficient heat to boil the blood and purify the soul, that their heads are too small, their wombs too big, their hormones too debilitating"), Fine draws parallels to the newer field of neuroscience and warns against making similar mistakes.

One neuroimaging study used to support the proposition that "men are thinkers and women are feelers," for instance, relied on observed sex differences in blood flow to different parts of the brain. To demonstrate that such "differences" might be spurious, another set of researchers scanned a dead salmon while showing it "emotionally charged photographs." Then, "[u]sing standard statistical procedures, they found significant brain activity in one small region of the dead fish's brain while it performed the empathizing task, compared with brain activity during 'rest.'"

The study serves as a reminder to be wary of "inferring a psychological state from brain activity" and, consequently, of inferring sex differences in psychological states. Fine includes many more examples and counter-arguments to various neuroscience claims.

She also takes some big names in gender essentialism to task for their claims regarding the innate differences between women and men and for writing books and arguments that lack in scientific rigor and accuracy.

Simon Baron-Cohen's "Empathy Quotient" questionnaire that asks people to rate their skill and inclination for empathy, for instance, labels those who score high on the test as having a "female brain." And yet, less than half of all women tested, Fine notes, score high enough on the test to have a brain that's considered a "female brain." Then, undercutting the assumption that Baron-Cohen's test even measures empathy are the studies Fine cites demonstrating that "people's ratings of their own social sensitivity, empathy, femininity, and thoughtfulness are virtually useless when it comes to predicting actual interpersonal accuracy."

Whooops. It looks like maybe women report that they're super-empathetic because women are supposed to be super-empathetic, not because they are actually more empathetic than men.

Fine also highlights studies on stereotype threat, including (1) how even reminding girls that they are girls before a math test can negatively affect their scores, compared to girls who were not reminded of their gender (by having to check a box saying whether they were female or male), and (2) how women and men have less confidence and interest in a subject if they believe that the other sex is inherently better at it, even if their skill is the same. Relevant to stereotype threat, Fine also observes that the Greater Male Variability hypothesis that asserts, in a nutshell, that men are more highly represented at both ends of the intellectual spectrum does not hold up across cultures and changes from country to country.

I don't want to make this review overly-specific, but because many MRA's bring up men's greater numbers in dangerous occupations and how this supposedly "proves" that men are more noble and/or more interested in dangerous/physical work than women, it's worth highlighting the research Fine examines showing that men often create a hostile work environment for women who try to "infiltrate previously all-male workplaces." Specifically, in a review of class-action lawsuits against the auto and mining industries, Michael Selmi found "'an all too familiar litany of harassment- groping, grabbing, stalking, pressure for sex, use of sexual language and pornography, men exposing themselves and masturbating on women's clothes.'"

If men have to resort to these methods of harassment to keep women out of "inherently male" professions, it severely undercuts the argument that women are inherently less interested in such professions.

The big take-away of this book, for me, is that people's preferences regarding dress, occupation, and interests are not created in a vacuum. Rather, "they are formed by the society they live in." Biological differences between male and female humans exist, but we know much less about these differences than we think we know. I'll end with some of Cordelia Fine's parting words:

"Some commentators declare themselves to be courageous taboo-breakers, who shout the scientific truth about sex differences into the hushed silence demanded by political correctness. But this is exactly how they shouldn't be regarded. For one thing, neurosexism is so popular, so mainstream, that I think it is difficult to argue that our attitude toward the supposedly unmentionable idea of innate sex differences is usually anything other than casual and forgiving.... But also, to those interested in gender equality there is nothing at all frightening about good science."

It's just that good science, when it comes to sex differences, can be hard to find.

[*Note: WW Norton provided me with a review copy of this book. I am open to reviewing other works that are relevant to the topics of this blog. In accordance with this blog's non-commercial purpose, I do not guarantee positive reviews.]

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