In which Lindsay looks to science to find out why all men love twins, finds no answers, and cracks open an ice cold Coors Light instead.
Gender stereotypes are everywhere, but we feminists like to think we are resistant to them. We know that there is not really a “birthday forgetting” gene exclusive to the Y chromosome; we know that the love shared between a woman and her mop is not innately strong enough to warrant the power ballad with which it’s soundtracked in every Swiffer commercial ever. Of course, we’re all aware of these stereotypes, but we’re smart enough to know better. Right?
Well, Cordelia Fine’s got some bad news for you. In Delusions of Gender, she relays some pretty distressing finds about the mind’s absorption of stereotypes. After questioning some of society’s most tired and persistent gender binaries (women are “compassionate, dependent, interpersonally sensitive;” men are “aggressive, ambitious, analytical”), Fine notes:
Even if you, personally, don’t subscribe to these stereotypes, there is a part of your mind that isn’t so prissy. Social psychologists are finding that what we can consciously report about ourselves does not tell the whole story. Stereotypes, as well as attitudes, goals, and identity also appear at and implicit level, and operate ‘without the encumbrances of awareness, intention and control.’
Now, it’s easy to see why, from a basic biological standpoint, having an implicit mind is a pretty good thing. It allows for one to react quickly to one’s environment employing mental shorthand rather than painstaking analysis; it’s the sort of thing that comes in handy if you’re assessing danger — if , say, you’ve just run across the biggest bear ever. But out in daily life, it’s easy to see how this can also cause us some serious gender trouble: “Most likely, [your implicit mind] picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media and advertising, which may well be reinforcing implicit associations you don’t consciously endorse. What this means is that if you are a liberal, politically correct sort of person, then chances are you won’t very much like your implicit mind’s attitudes.”
For us feminists, it’s a pretty distressing notion that all of this cultural gunk is able to actually get inside our heads — that no matter how hard we try to resist, there’s a part of our brain in which all of the laws of the universe in every godforsaken beer commercial we’ve ever seen reign supreme. “No man will ever love me!” cries the implicit female mind. “For all I know is that men love twins, and I am an only child!”
But wait, ladies — it gets even worse.
Fine also details the havoc these stereotypes can wreak on our behavior thanks to something called stereotype threat. Studies have suggested the totally and completely unfair irony that the more aware you are of the negative stereotypes against a group to which you belong, the more these stereotypes will hamper your performance and mess with your mind.
One particularly illuminating study dealt with women taking a math test (bet you couldn’t muffle your implicit mind before it blurted out how it thinks that turned out). Two groups of women took a test comprised of GRE math questions. The first group (the “stereotype threat” group) were told beforehand that this test was designed to “measure math ability and try to better understand what makes some people better than math at others.” (Subtle as it seems, Fine notes that a statement like this can “trigger gender;” most women are “well aware of their own stereotyped inferiority in mathematics.”) A second group was given the same test but told beforehand that in previous testings, no gender difference had been found in comparing the results. Though they were all of comparable abilities, the second group dramatically outperformed the first.
This tells us that when women are primed to think of their gender, they are also primed to call negative gender stereotypes to mind (and, studies suggest, then spend valuable mental energy suppressing those stereotypes). And proven gender triggers are frustratingly subtle: they can be anything from checking the male-or-female box before taking a standardized test, being in a room where one gender far outweighs the other, or having an instructor who displays sexist attitudes. Though these studies show stereotype threat at work in test-taking environments, it’s easy to see how these dynamics can play out in life outside the classroom too.
So, to recap: your mind is indeed feebly vulnerable to society’s most abhorrent gender stereotypes, these stereotypes can all too easily become self-fulfilling, and the more consciously you think about them, the more they will throw you off your game. But there, there. Take your head out of your hands. There’s good news yet.
As we mentioned yesterday, Fine’s research supports the idea of gender difference being “softwired” (rather than hardwired) in the mind. Supporting currently prevalent ideas about neuroplasticity, she writes, “[O]ur brains, as we are now coming to understand, are changed by our behavior, our thinking, our social world…And thinking, learning, sensing all can change neural structure directly.”
All of which I find incredibly comforting. And studies show that you should too! For as easy as it is to trigger gender, it’s also easy to empower the ever-malleable mind. Fine discusses a study that focused on the effects of counterstereotypical information in female participants. After women were asked to read “a series of short biographies of famous women leaders” like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Meg Whitman, they “found it easier to pair female names with leadership words” in an implicit assessment test. She also cites another study which found that women who were “given a journal article to read that claimed that men are better at math because of innate, biological and genetic differences performed worse on a GRE-like math test than women shown an essay” suggesting that “experiential factors explain sex differences in math.” And yes, these are changes in the implicit mind. Which goes to show if we begin to put more faith in neuroplasticity rather than innate, hardwired ideas about gender, there might be hope for changing the implicit mind after all.
Of course, all of these findings amount to what feminists often call internalized sexism. Fine provides not only proof that this phenomenon exists but also scientific evidence of the gravity of its effects. In reporting all this, though, she makes us that much more aware of how important it is to be a feminist — to challenge the media’s stereotypes, to dismantle perceived gender binaries and to create positive representations of women. As we’ve seen, these things have powerful effects on the mind. Gender wiring is “soft, not hard,” Fine reminds us at the end of her book. “It is flexible, malleable and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.”
Check back for Mia and Miriam’s posts about Delusions of Gender next week.