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Delusions of Gender

How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference

November 2, 2013

It’s 2013 – we live in an open, developed and evolved society. Those crazy days our parents or grandparents went through when women couldn’t vote and girls were a lesser sex don’t exist anymore. We’ve moved on.


Or have we?

Are women truly less able to read maps than men but so much better at understanding other people’s emotions? Are men truly unable to multi-task and women the polar opposite?  Are men from Mars and women from Venus?

At least one author, psychologist and researcher thinks not.

According to Cordelia Fine the world continues to hide behind a curtain of convenience rather than address some of the deeper more-entrenched perceptions around men and women.

“There is a very common social perception that women are better at understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings,” she says.

“When you look at one of the most realistic tests of mind reading, you find that men and women are just as good at getting what their interaction partners were thinking and feeling.

“It even surprised the researchers. They went on to discover that once you make gender salient when you test these abilities [like having subjects check a box with their sex before a test], you have this self-fulfilling effect.”

Fine challenges our current notions of “packaging” male and female differences in order to cope with gender stereotypes; creating a strong argument in her second book, “Delusions of Gender“, that those differences are not hardwired between the sexes and that our inability to raise unisex children is just that – an inability.

The book explores “how old myths, dressed up as new scientific finery, are helping to perpetuate the sexist status quo” and explores “how profoundly culture influences the way we think about ourselves”.

Fine, a senior research associate at the Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics  at Macquarie University, also wrote “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives” (W.W. Norton and Co., 2006) was one of 12 books long-listed for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, another book about brain science.

The case in point, which she clearly articulates through the book, is that gender differences are primarily culturally created:

I started to look more closely at the scientific literature itself, I was surprised to discover just how little really concrete evidence there is for the idea that there’s such a thing as a “male” brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world, and a “female” brain hardwired to understand people. Instead what I found was a great deal of evidence that our minds are exquisitely attuned to the social environment, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes. The problem then becomes that these very confident popular claims about “male” brains and “female” brains reinforce gender stereotypes in ways that have self-fulfilling effects on the way we think and behave. And so at that point my aim for the book became to explain this much more complex, and actually much more interesting, picture of the state of the science in a way that would be accessible to everyone. I hope it will help to dispel the belief, encouraged by many popular commentators, that science has shown that hardwired sex differences mean that it’s pointless to hope or strive for greater sex equal.


Fine has received glowing reviews for her approach and her book but was criticised early on for cherry-picking the best of what science had to offer to back her argument.

“It’s simply not the case that, my book—while rightly wresting the maverick shoddy science to the floor—overlooks more solid research,” responds Fine.

“Much of the research I critiqued was published in the most prestigious journals of science, has been cited heavily, and furnishes the very foundations of claims of essential differences. I certainly did not pick off only the weakest prey.

“There are three important issues that apply to all research supposedly showing evidence of sex differences in biological predispositions. First, researchers often have an impoverished view of the social influences of which they must take account before coming to the conclusion that sex differences in ‘hardwiring’ or ‘biological predispositions’ explain behavioral differences. A second important issue is that methods really matter, yet researchers are often not careful enough about them. As a result, what from a distance seems like a solid scientific structure can be seen close up to be resting on a web of unsubstantiated assumptions. Third, when it comes to interpreting sex differences in the brain, there are numerous reasons for caution. The differences may be spurious—surprisingly few sex differences in the brain are uncontroversial. The differences may also be a result of brain size rather than of the individual”.

It’s strong stuff, but Fine stands by her stance.

“To say that the difference between two schools in average maths scores might be due to differences in the school environments isn’t to claim that mathematical ability is socially determined. My conception of development is one in which the developmental path is constructed, step by step, out of the continuous and dynamic interaction between brain, genes and environment. And the ‘it’s a bit of both’ line raises an interesting point. While researching the book I struggled to reconcile a conception of brain development as the emergence of experience-dependent neural structures with the idea that prenatal hormones permanently organise a ‘male type’ or ‘female type’ brain. What, exactly, is organised? The concept of prenatal brain organisation acknowledges ‘a bit of both’, sure. But I’m not sure it embraces the inextricability of the two.”

Perhaps the main point to be learned from the book is how the environment makes gender salient, and the ripple effect this can have on the mind.

“I don’t like really like to give parenting advice – it conjures up too uncomfortable an image of people who know me, and have seen me parent myself, sniggering behind their hands!

But perhaps I’ll risk a general plea to parents not to assume that their kids won’t enjoy playing with toys that are ‘for’ the opposite sex. One of the studies investigating the effect of fetal testosterone levels on children’s play preferences had to replace Lincoln Logs (a construction toy) as a ‘boy toy’ because the girls in their study loved it so much.

Out of curiosity – and I acknowledge that this isn’t very scientific – I took a look on the Fat Brain Toys website, which tells you what proportion of every kind of toy is bought for boys versus girls. The vast majority of Lincoln Log purchases, about 80 percent, were made for boys.”

Fine has a strong point on gendered marketing:

“Gendered marketing contributes to a culture in which girls have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘boy toys’, (e.g., physicality, competition, construction) and boys have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘girl toys’ (e.g. fine motor skills, caring, co-operation). Emphasising gender has also been shown to reduce children’s interest in mixed-sex play,” she says.

“I think we need to ask ourselves if this is what we want in the twenty-first century? Surely our goal as parents and as a society should be for our children to believe that what sex they are makes no difference to what they want to do, what they are interested in, or what they want to be. We should be equipping all children, regardless of their sex, to be caring, empathic, competent, ambitious and assertive. These goals are undermined by a childhood culture that relentlessly genders children’s toys.”

Delusions of Gender was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction 2011, The Best Book of Ideas Prize 2011, The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize 2010 and the Warwick Prize 2013.

Fine’s blog contains more reviews and purchasing information.

We’re big fans, you should be too.

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  1. Antonia says:

    I advise people to read, “Why Gender Matters” – because it does. From the review on Amazon: “Are boys and girls really that different? Twenty years ago, doctors and researchers didn’t think so. Back then, most experts believed that differences in how girls and boys behave are mainly due to differences in how they were treated by their parents, teachers, and friends.

    “It’s hard to cling to that belief today. An avalanche of research over the past twenty years has shown that sex differences are more significant and profound than anybody guessed. Sex differences are real, biologically programmed, and important to how children are raised, disciplined, and educated.”

    As a mother of four sons and one daughter I found it fascinating and wished I had known about the differences in the brains of males and females.

  2. James B says:

    Antonia, I really think you’re missing the whole point – or what I believe to be the point.

    Maybe there are differences between boys and girls, maybe there aren’t. But how does having a toy store decide which toys are best suited for your daughter or which toys are best suited for your son do anything other than restrict access to choice? These large toy store operators run their business based on promotion and generating sales, not on created a balanced play environment.

    Sure, as a parent, you have the option to override this by shopping for your son in the girls section but most people don’t because they feel a social pressure to stay within the lines.

    Personally I think this is a great start to eliminating some of biased and sexualised messaging that is thrown at children from all angles – the media, the fashion industry, cosmetics manufacturers, advertisers … I won’t go on.

    Thunb’s up from me guys!

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