What does Delusions of Gender tell us?

Delusions of Gender is a book that is clearly going to stir up a lot of interest from both sides of the nature-nurture debate. Are girls’ brains hardwired differently from boys at birth, due to the testosterone surge at 8 weeks in the womb, or are the perceived differences all due to the way male and female children are treated as they grow up? A quick look at reviews on the web shows the predictable spread of reactions from the ultraconservative to the more measured. Starting at the ultraconservative end of the spectrum we find Australian Oz dismissing the author Cordelia Fine as ‘It turns out that she is a feminist with standard, orthodox ideas about autonomy’ and by implication can’t be taken seriously . The article goes on to say ‘Feminists sometimes claim that they are all for choice for women. But Cordelia Fine is yet another feminist who ends up pushing one option alone. Because she sees autonomy as the great prize, and careers as the way to get autonomy, she treats the motherhood option as an inferior, low-status pursuit associated negatively with oppression and inequality.’

The more measured tones of the Guardian says ‘In short, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.’ But what got me stirred up to write this post was the rather desperate and miserable young female scientist blogger who says ‘In it, the author throws down a gauntlet, taking particular aim at studies claiming that gender differences in ability are primarily biological. I’m glad to see books like this, in the sense that I think there are far too many people (okay, mostly men) out there who need convincing. However, I’m not sure that they’ll be convinced by anything like this….But for those who don’t have an open mind about the question, I’m not convinced that battling it out is going to help anyone. I’m so tired of fighting all the time….’

There are so many issues tied up in the nature-nurture debate, so many issues about ‘good’ parenting, that it looks as if people will simply take what they want from this book and use it to support their own position. Reading yet another review which focused on whether there are or are not sex differences in the corpus callosum structure reminded me of the furious debate between Owen and Huxley on just how substantial difference were – or were not – between human and gorilla brains (see Nicolaas Rupke’s extensive discussion in ‘Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin’) – and ultimately it was a matter of definition more than fact. It would appear that if human brains (or parts thereof) are so hard to size in a statistically meaningful way to tell just how different the male and female brains actually are, this will prove fertile ground for argument for a long time to come. And, as has frequently been said in many contexts, does size really matter anyhow?

But how do we move forward to anywhere fruitful, when many of the issues that youngfemalescientist feels she is fighting against are nothing to do with the size or wiring of the brains per se. It is what people do with those brains in recognizing what underlies their take on things that matters. Too often women find themselves at the end of unconsciously demeaning remarks (youngfemalescientist in that particular blog was complaining about the way people assumed, as a woman, she might be content to be a professor’s right hand person, running their lab but without independence, and she couldn’t imagine that position being proposed for a male in her position). And it is the fact that the speaker was unconscious of the offence being caused which makes this such a hard problem to solve.

It happens all too frequently. Most women, in science and beyond, will have phrases that stick in their mind as being offensive, while knowing simultaneously that offence was not really intended, as in that example above. My own particular hate is ‘you’re not a shrinking violet’. I find it offensive because it implies that actually, as a woman, I was expected to be exactly that – a shrinking violet. Is there a male equivalent? I asked a good colleague, a male, and he said the equivalent would be wimp, but it is hard to see a man being told after a committee meeting ‘well you weren’t a wimp’. Somehow I imagine the conversation would be more likely to go along the lines of ‘you were very forceful’ or ‘that was a strong argument’. In other words the positive is stressed, rather than the idea that you weren’t something that, actually, you didn’t want to be anyhow. Who wants to be a violet, shrinking or otherwise? But for the time being women such as youngfemalescientist may have to continue fighting to be allowed not to be one.

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