Book Review: Delusions of Gender

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is so funny and insightful that I read it twice in a month. In her exploration of how differences between men and women are created, exaggerated, and then enforced, Fine presents a two-part argument supported by a staggering amount of literature review. First, she tears apart the ways in which we are all “relentlessly gendered” from before we are born and how incessant gender policing can and does account for the differences between men and women. Second, she examines how shoddy, poorly thought-through neuroscience research is being touted as the latest “proof” of gender difference, much like finger length and skull ridges were used not so long ago to show that men and women are inherently different. This argument was described by Booklist as “devastatingly effective,” and I agree. I’m going to go over the two parts of her argument and the stories and studies that have stayed with me since reading Delusions of Gender.

Part I: Socialization and Difference

The cover of "Delisions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine.

There are a few important concepts from the first part of Fine’s argument that have changed how I think of gender difference as concocted by society. The first is the idea of the “active self.” or the parts of your identity you are primed for and acting from in any situation.  Fine argues that it is the salience of gender norms and expectations that often results in differences on math, spatial reasoning, and empathy tasks, rather than differences in the brain. One of the studies I have been thinking about a lot is a study with college students where they were asked to write about the life of a male college student named Paul as if they were Paul. Afterwards, the participants rated themselves on various personality dimensions. Women who had mentally spent time as “Paul” rated themselves lower on emotional sensitivity and higher in analytical abilities, a pattern that is closer to male self-perception. As the active self changes, so does self-perception, and Fine would argue that self-perception leads directly to motivation and self-efficacy, which directly impacts our behaviors.

In fact, our understanding of how good we “should” be on a task always impacts our performance. For example, men are generally better at studies of rotation tasks, unless they are presented under specific circumstances. Rotation tasks involve looking at a picture and then seeing that same picture rotated at an angle, and then deciding if you’re seeing the original or a mirror image. There are reliable studies of men being better at these types of tasks, and people are quick to attribute this to spatial reasoning needed for cavemen survival (like mental maps to go hunting). However, if men are presented with the now-infamous rotation task, but they are told it is useful in tasks like interior decorating or fashion design (which it is), they score much worse than women. How inherent can this ability be, how hardwired is it into the spatial-reasoning gifted brain of men if the mere suggestion that it helps them do something girly makes them do worse than women? Fine presents a lot of similar studies, and they all point to the incredible power of socialization and priming as determinants of our abilities.

The second concept that she brought up that was a huge “aha!” moment for me was this idea of “relentless gendering,” which is a very good way of describing what it is like to grow up in our society. There is so little gender-neutral stuff you can buy for children, and as Fine writes, “How should children ignore gender when they continually watch it, hear it, see it; are clothed in it, sleep in it, eat off it?” One of the most memorable anecdotes Fine shared was of a family devoted to raising their child in a truly gender-neutral way. This meant a huge change to how they lived their lives. Children learn gender not only from what is taught to them explicitly, but also what they observe – who does the housework, who takes care of them when they are sick, who is involved with their school. The couple went through extraordinary trouble to make this equitable. They also altered children’s books to show a more even balance of male and female characters, and they were careful about the way they talked about other people and themselves. There were countless other small and large modifications they had to make. Telling your child “you can be anything you want to be” is not gender-neutral parenting. Truly achieving this requires an amount of effort and resources that is unthinkable for an average family. I am not advocating that everyone goes through all of this or can afford to do this for their child, and neither is Fine. It’s just mind-blowing that this is what it takes to gender a child as little as possible. You have to alter your whole world.

Part II: Neurosexism

Fine’s in-depth exploration of the file-drawer phenomenon and its implications was the first eye-opener for me in this section. The file-drawer phenomenon refers to the fact that the vast majority of studies of the brain do not find differences between men and women (you know, because we’re the same species, with the same brain), but those are not the studies that get published. The ones that find sex differences are more likely to get published simply because they are more likely to generate attention. That’s all there is to it. So when looking at published studies, people could be misled to think that there are a lot of gender differences. In reality, they are just more interesting and likely to get media attention.

The next big realization for me from this section was that the concept of “hardwiring” is not a useful way to think about the brain. “Hardwiring” comes from computer science terminology, and there is no analogous process in the brain. Nothing in the brain is set in stone. Neural circuits respond to life and experience. They change. They change all the time. Hardwiring is not a thing that happens to the brain, and anyone who says it is is dumbing things down for you to a profoundly dumb level. At most, the brain is demonstrating certain patterns of activity.

In fact, as Fine shows, we don’t even know what those patterns of activity may mean. There is an enormous amount of individual difference in the brain. The wiring of one brain may be different from another brain simply because of the size of the person in question. A short male and tall female have very differently shaped and connected brains, because the simple size of the brain has enormous implications for the chemical energy usage. Patterns in the brain may mean nothing. My favorite example of meaningless brain patterns was when researchers showed emotionally charged photographs to a dead fish, and compared that brain activity to a dead fish at rest. They found significant differences in brain activity. So is this dead fish good at empathizing with the emotion of the photograph? Nope. As Fine succinctly states:

The researchers conclude not that this particular region of the brain is involved in postmortem piscine empathizing, but that the kind of statistical thresholds commonly used in neuroimaging studies are inadequate because they allow too many spurious results through the net.

In short, we don’t know enough about what the brain is doing to be able to really figure out what is important and what isn’t yet. Scientists and the media should be very, very careful about drawing conclusions from this data, but they refuse to be. In part, it is their job to figure out what this all might mean, but really, it comes down to the fact that they want to say there are differences. Everyone is so eager to turn a small difference in brain patterns into huge implications for all 7 billion of us. I think it is really funny that humans love to talk about how much smarter and more evolved we are than animals, and yet when it pleases us, we resort to biology to keep each other down. Unfortunately, Fine’s devastating massacre of junk science is not enough to stop people desperately clawing for ways to find biological differences.

This book is hilarious. It is well thought-through, thoroughly researched, and a pleasure to read. You don’t have to know much about the structure of the brain or about feminist theory. It is accessible and awesome. It tears apart the evolutionary arguments that women and men are different, the modern neuroscience that insists that we are, and shows how our differences are invented and sustained. After all, there is nothing out there more similar to a woman’s brain than a man’s brain. If there is any part of you that doubts that, read this book.

4 replies on “Book Review: Delusions of Gender”

Hmn, this reminds me a little of “Women Can’t Park, Men Can’t Pack.” Back on topic, though. The premise of this sounds really interesting, and I’ve been wanting to read something of the sort, too. The whole gender-neutral parenting thing, though. Argh! So hard to find things that are gender-neutral/unisex. It’s something we’ve tried to do with the boys, but it was – for us – very hard to do beyond about age one.

Right!? It seems like it should be way easier to find something as simple as a gender-neutral toy, but it isn’t! A lot of my friends are starting to have babies and the feminist in me dies a little when I go out looking for a present.

I haven’t read Women Can’t Park, Men Can’t Pack, but it looks like something I’d enjoy, thanks for the recommendation!

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