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Cordelia Fine: Delusions of Gender

Marion Cromb reviews the book that reveals the neosexism all around us

Gender stereotypes are extremely pervasive, but is there any truth to them? In ‘Delusions of Gender’, psychologist Cordelia Fine picks apart the notion that different behaviours of the sexes are somehow innate. With a comprehensive review of the scientific literature (over 80 pages of references!), Fine wittily debunks the essentialist notions found in pop science books with titles such as ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ and ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’. She takes a three-pronged approach, firstly focusing on how the mind is intimately influenced by its social environment, secondly taking a close look at ‘neurosexist’ claims about differences in the brain, and thirdly examining how gender is thrust upon us from childhood (and even before birth!).

Fine attacks, with characteristic sarcasm, the current trend she terms “Gender Equality 2.0, a revised version of equality in which men and women are not equal, but equally free to express their essentially different natures”. As legal barriers to equality have fallen and arguments that different sexes lack the same basic abilities become increasingly socially unacceptable, arguments that (justify sexual inequality by claiming) different genders just have inherently different interests have sprung up.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is in how it exposes just how big an effect context has on stereotypically gendered behaviour. When gender is made salient in the environment (even by small cues, such as the mix of people in a group, the use of pronouns, the sign on a toilet) it can ‘change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability and trigger unintentional discrimination’ without us even being aware. Simply checking a gender box on a test will skew the results towards conforming to stereotypes; men suddenly get worse at communication skills and better at maths, and women vice versa. With effects such as these resulting from the subtlest, most everyday things in our gendered culture, it is no wonder that external limitations are so often falsely identified as inherent.

Going one step further and reinforcing this unequal gender status quo with flawed neurosexist science is nothing new, emphasises Fine. While laughable now, it was once seen as acceptable- even correct - to say that women had inferior intellect because of their smaller brains and the ‘delicacy of the brain fibers’. These historical examples allow us to conceive that the gender differences justified with modern science might be perceived as equally ridiculous in the future. The brain scan studies we might have unquestioningly accepted beforehand as proof of the inherent nature of different genders are masterfully scrutinised by Fine. She points out how significant results from small study samples can often be from pure chance, and even reproducible findings can easily be over-interpreted and extrapolated in order to misinform.

This book is a highly recommended read. It will challenge your own biases, encourage your scepticism, and make you more aware of how the brain is transformed by its environment. The book is somewhat limited in that it focuses on Western, white middle class gender stereotypes, and the examples can get a little repetitive sometimes, but on the whole the book is an accessible, often laugh out loud funny, look at how gender stereotypes are constructed and perpetuated by society.

From Issue 13

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