Today we begin discussing our fifth book club selection, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference. Fine is a writer and psychologist with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, and her observations about gender are sharp, witty and thought-provoking. For this selection, we welcomed Canonball contributor and all-around awesome lady Miriam Callahan into the book club. Each of us will be writing an individual post about the book in the coming days, but for now, we discuss our initial reactions to the book.
Lindsay: We are gathered here today to discuss our fifth Canonball book club selection, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference. How many ladies does it take to have a conversation about neurosexism? Three, in this case. Great to have you with us, Miriam. And Mia, as always, hello.
Miriam: I’m glad to be joining you, not least because neuroscience is a particular interest of mine.
Mia: I’m pleased about Miriam’s involvement as well, as neuroscience is specifically not an interest of mine. Though! I’ll note that this book was very readable for us non-science-y types – who some people might refer to as “ladies.” Or so we thought before reading! Turns out women aren’t hardwired for flower arranging.
Miriam: Or anything, really! It turns out the brain is a lot more flexible than everybody thinks. The subtitle of this book is telling– it really is all about the way psychological, biological, and societal factors interact to create and perpetuate stereotypes.
Lindsay: For the less science-minded of us, and because I just took the trouble to Google it, let me throw out a working definition of neurosexism: “Neuroscience supported sexism, where dissimilarities between men and women are attributed to differences in brain function.” The main question animating Fine’s research is whether or not the male and female brain are “hardwired” differently. And her conclusion (spoilerz!) is that, while there are some structural sex differences in the brain, there is basically no evidence that the cliches and stereotypes that we attribute to the female brain (like, the empathy gene! or the “I love mopping!” gene!) are anything more than well-worn stereotypes penetrating the ever-permeable consciousness. Or, in simple terms, this book is basically the anti-Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus.
Mia: Yeah, and Fine gives us a ton of examples of studies – ones that we may have read about in newspapers that supposedly proved definitively that men aren’t capable of feeling emotions and that ladies be crazy or whatever – that, turns out, weren’t really scientifically sound: too much error, too small a sampling, whatever.
Miriam: And even those “smoking gun” MRI images of men’s and women’s brains lighting up in different places don’t necessarily translate to differences in the way men and women think. Not even the experts know how the firing of neurons translates into the thoughts in our heads — it’s impossible to stress this enough — so it’s entirely possible that men’s and women’s brains use different routes to the same result.
Lindsay: And to this end, Fine continuously stresses how modern neuroscience is still in its infancy and that there’s so much it still can’t precisely tell us about how brain structure does (or does not) translate into tangible, external behaviors. But still, people love to make all sorts of dramatic conjectures when they read scientific studies. “Information sounds far more impressive when couched in the grand language of neuroscience,” she reminds us.
Mia: Yes, and while many of us may fancy ourselves amateur psychologists or think that we know all the secret workings of the heart, very few of us toy around with amateur neuroscience. So it’s easy to put full faith into these studies, without questioning that, perhaps, even Science is deeply sexist.
Miriam: How could it not be? As much as Science purports to be objective, there’s no way for an individual scientist to put aside all of her/his prejudices when formulating questions, constructing experiments and looking at data. Then there’s the “file-drawer phenomenon” that Fine talks about. If 20 studies try to find differences between men and women, and 19 of them find no difference, the one that finds a difference will get published because it’s more interesting.
Lindsay: Yep, and naturally the media will ignore those 19 studies and come up with some sensational headline (Men Really ARE From Mars, Study Suggests). I really liked that Fine pointed out how the media perpetuates the “hardwired brain” stereotypes because they reinforce what a lot of people (well, men) want to hear. Fine notes, “I have heard neuroscientists who work in the area of drug dependency talk about the efforts they go to to prevent simplification or distortion of their findings by the media. This is not because they are worried about “upsetting” people, but because it is a sensitive area, and “brain facts” about dependency can change people’s attitutes and feelings about a particular social group.” Same goes for studies about gender difference; the brain is easily influenced. Her warning that “Neurosexism promotes damaging, limiting, potentially self-fulfilling stereotypes” pretty much sums it up.
Mia: One of my favorite/ least favorite parts of the books was all the anecdotes from parents who tried gender neutral parenting but – lo! – discovered in the end, that girls just like dressing up like princesses or something. And Fine points out that, no, you didn’t really try hard enough, and it’s nearly impossible to create a “gender neutral” environment for your child, just because society is so entrenched in this gender binary. But I also feel like a lot of people don’t want their ideas on gender changed. It’s comforting to know that, if your daughter ends up playing with dolls, it’s not your fault for not being a progressive-enough parent. It’s just her girly brain!
Lindsay: Yeah, the gender neutral parenting anecdotes were fascinating.
Miriam: The kind of sad thing is, it’s just about impossible to raise kids in a gender neutral environment when gender is so important to the way people view each other. Part of the book talks about a hypothetical world in which right-handedness and left-handedness are as important as maleness and femaleness are in our world. Like, what if there were different bathrooms for left-handed and right-handed people? At least a little bit of the way gender stereotypes get reinforced is by constantly reminding people that they belong to one group or the other.
Mia: One thing that wasn’t addressed directly in the book, and that doesn’t have much to do with early childhood, but that constantly bothers me is the way people argue about whether it’s harder to raise girls or boys. And I think the popular consensus is that girls are really awful as teenagers – and this perception MAY have something to do with the fact that societal pressures on teenage girls are overwhelming and contradictory and make it pretty hard for any girl to succeed. But that’s a discussion for another time! From a faux-neuroscientific standpoint, I think the idea is that girls are hardwired to be difficult. Because women are difficult! Always crying, always having a hard time with algebra. But, astoundingly, it’s a lot easier and a lot more socially acceptable to pick on teenage girls than it is to pick on grown women.
Lindsay: Did this book make anyone else reflect on their own upbringing and get all depressed about how pervasive stereotypes about gender difference are when you’re very young?
Miriam: I don’t really remember running up against those typical stereotypes until puberty. I was a pretty science-oriented kid– you might say my salient identity was nerdhood rather than girlhood. All of a sudden at 13, I started growing boobs and figuring out that it wasn’t cool to say you wanted to be an astrophysicist. That’s when I switched to neurology, because it was more human, I guess? And therefore more okay for a girl to be interested in.
Mia: Girls are so caring! We make great veterinarians. I agree though. While there is likely a ton of social pressure on parents to not let their girls be too boyish or their boys to be too girlish, and while kids certainly internalize that, I don’t think we really, consciously start worrying about gender until adolescence.
Miriam: I would have loved to see more studies about adolescents in the book. There was a lot of focus on infancy and early childhood, and then a lot on adults, but that transition period is so fascinating and I really want to learn more about it. (NERD ALERT!)
Lindsay: Yes, and speaking of what we’d want to see more of in this book, one of my major quibbles was that I wished Fine would have included more studies about trans people and neurology. (Though perhaps there haven’t been many done? Scientists, get on it.) She wrote about a male-to-female transsexual who attested to the marked difference in the way she was treated after she transitioned, and more suprisingly, the way she began to internalize the gendered expectations. “The more I was treated as a woman,” she said, “the more woman I became.”
Mia: Yes! I’d hope there ARE studies on this topic. All I’ve read are blog posts here and there by trans people on how their gender presentation dramatically changed their lives. Which, on the surface, is like, duh. But there are so many aspects of life that are gendered that I’m sure we never consider. It’s hard to comprehend how deep gendering goes and how little we challenge it, even as feminists or what have you – precisely because we’re told that it’s not just our genitals or our hormones that make us “male” or “female,” but also our brains! Which, again, is hard for the layperson to argue with. Though Fine does a great job of citing ye old scientific papers on the circumferences of skulls or whatever, which prove to us just how ridiculous some of this stuff can be.
Miriam: And the fact is that how you’re treated might actually, physically change the brain. I mean, changes occur in the human brain from birth onward (it’s called “growing up” and “learning things,” even if we don’t really understand how those changes affect the brain yet). There’s a study in the book that examines how a specific action that mother rats do to their rat-sons (but not their rat-daughters) is correlated with the growth of a certain brain stem region, and if the same thing happens to the rat-daughters, that region grows larger in them, too. Rats aren’t people (obviously), but it’s clear there’s a potential for gender-based differences in treatment to affect the structure of the brain. So instead of our brains making us male and female, it could be that our maleness and femaleness, at least to some extent, makes our brains.
Lindsay: So, suffice to say, I loved this book and I can already see it influencing my thinking. I find the idea that the brain is “softwired” (very easily influenced by the exterior world and social context) kind of frightening but ultimately empowering. On the one hand, it is permeable to a lot of really awful gender stereotypes that are so prevalent in society. But on the other hand, those stereotypes are totally mutable if we continue to, as Fine says, “believe” in the fluidity of gender. Or, as Rocky said after defeating Drago in Rocky IV and effectively ending the Cold War, “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
Mia: Rocky: NOT a neurosexist!
Miriam: Too true. Thanks for letting me join you– it’s been fun!
Lindsay: And given how much of this book we didn’t even have time to touch upon, I’m really looking forward to what everyone writes about it in their individual posts. In closing, I think I speak for us all when I say the following of Cordelia Fine: she blinded us with science.
Miriam: Really, all the best science writing is poetry in motion.