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Science proves gender is a social construction.

April 8, 2011

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.

Many would agree that a feminist revival is well overdue and, if the recent comments of Tory MPs are anything to go by, it would seem that the elected representatives of patriarchy are launching pre-emptive strikes. Sexism and misogyny in popular culture have increased exponentially over the past decade or so. A glance at children’s fashion suggests that girls graduate from princess dresses to stripper outfits before they reach puberty and television now presents cosmetic surgery as liberation. But perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the new sexism is the pseudo-science of gender difference. We have been bombarded by news-stories claiming that another stereotype has scientific backing: ‘Study shows: women really are bad drivers’, etc. Meanwhile a sizeable library of books has been published which claim ‘bravely’ to speak the truth’ about gender difference (presumably against the opposition of publishers who just hate to get their titles in the bestseller list).

As Cordelia Fine is careful to point out, this is nothing new. Ever since women started agitating for greater power men have tried to use science to keep them in their place: phrenology yesterday, neuro-imaging today, plus ça change… In Delusions of Gender Dr Fine takes apart the claims of the ‘scientific’ sexists and shows them to be based on bad science, false assumptions and prejudice. The first of these false assumptions is that we have tried gender-neutral parenting yet gendered behaviour persists. The fact that a few liberal parents gave their daughters toy cars in the 1970s does not constitute a large-scale social experiment. Anyone attempting to create an ungendered environment today would have to exclude television, newspapers, magazines and most children’s books. In her description we live in a half-changed world with half-changed minds and we see half-changed genders. The second false assumption is that there are major gender differences which demand explanation. For example, it is a common claim that men have a greater mathematical ability than women and various scientific-sounding reasons are given for this. This is easily tested and the interesting thing is that the results vary depending on what the subjects are told beforehand. If subjects are told that women usually do less well on the test than men then the women taking the test will do less well. If, however, subjects are told that women usually do just as well as men then the results show no gender difference. Similar results have been found testing other supposed gender differences. This not only shows the claim of gender differences in maths and other areas to be nonsense but has much wider implications. It seems that the triggering of a gender stereotype has a negative effect on these subjects’ performances but gender stereotypes are constantly reinforced in daily life and so would seem to have an impact on people’s behaviour all the time.

Experimenters unwittingly prejudicing the outcomes of tests is one example of bad scientific practice in the field of gender research. Fine uncovers many more. As is common in bad science she uncovers examples of cherry-picking of data, non-existent references and faulty methodology. Added to this is the famous ‘desk-drawer phenomenon’ in which studies which have inconclusive results are never published; left in the desk-drawer. As a result only those results which please the researcher see the light of day and so provide a biased view of the actual research. Other studies from which bold conclusions have been drawn have never been replicated. It is also worth bearing in mind that most of this research is done in the west with little attempt to provide evidence which is cross-cultural, a sine qua non, one would think, for making any argument that gender has a biological basis. Fine picks her way through the studies to show us how flimsy much of the evidence commonly cited actually is.

The culprits most commonly fingered for gender difference are hormones. We are told that our brains get fixed in the womb by hormones but Fine shows that this is pure speculation, there is simply not enough evidence to make this claim, partly due to the difficulty of measuring foetal hormone levels. There is no doubt that hormones are important in sexual development but the evidence has tended to show that they do not affect behaviour in the simplistic causal way which is often claimed, neither is it clear how great an effect they have on the brain.

For it is the brain which is often central to these arguments. It is worth pointing out that the brain is plastic: it does not get ‘fixed’ or ‘hard-wired’ at any point. Victims of brain-damage are often seen to completely rewire their neural circuitry to compensate for the damaged parts. Brains are created as much by nurture as by nature and one might argue that nature’s most important contribution is to give us brains that are so flexible, adaptable and responsive to the cultural environment. It follows that finding differences in the brains of adult women and men does not necessarily tell us anything about biology but may be a symptom of a gendered culture. The fact is that neuroscience is in its infancy and our understanding of the brain is severely limited. Fine points out that the claims made by the neurosexists today will soon look as naive and ridiculous as those made a century ago, or a few decades ago. The once popular claim that women have a larger corpus callosum (the connection between the two sides of the brain) and are therefore more ‘whole-brained’ is no longer tenable as the evidence shows no such difference. Anyone working in this field would do wisely to be extremely tentative about the claims they make.

Having demolished the claims made by the determinists, Fine goes on to show how gendered our culture is and the evidence that this does have an effect on our behaviour. Anyone who has been to a toyshop recently will have noticed how divided the world of children is. I was stunned to see that globes (as genderless a piece of equipment as one could imagine) are now sold in boys’ and girls’ versions. This kind of environment has a huge impact on children’s self-conceptions and beliefs. When educationalists argue that schools should account for ‘inherent’ sex differences in their curricula they are in fact creating the differences they claim are inborn. If girls are told that they are not suited for maths then they will not grow up to be mathematicians. The influence of gender stereotypes on our daughters and sons as they strive to create their identities reduces their potential and narrows their possibilities. When feminists complain about the portrayal of women in advertising or on children’s television they are not nit-picking. This is a crucial battleground for any further progress toward a fairer world for women and by extension men. Of course, it is not impossible that biology plays a role in behavioural sex difference (I should point out that the title of this piece is meant to parody over-excited newspaper headlines), though it seems to me that any such differences would cluster around reproductive behaviour rather than more abstract cognitive functions. Apart from anything, the cultural explanation for gender differences in maths are far more plausible than the myths of the evolutionary psychologists.

Throughout this book Dr Fine methodically picks her way through the scientific literature, providing copious notes and extensive references. At the same time, however, she maintains an ironic wit and a readable style. She is careful to explain the evidence she is examining and does not assume prior knowledge, making the book perfectly accessible to the non-scientist. While some may find the painstaking attention to detail a little trying I think this is necessary. Writing on such a topic Fine will attract criticism, particularly from those she criticises, and any mistakes would be seized upon and used to invalidate her argument. For anyone interested in gender equality this book will be invaluable not only to help refute the pseudo-science of conservatives but also because it shows us how much there is still to do.

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From → Gender, Review, Review, Science

2 Comments
  1. Lucy Nevard permalink

    Did they try telling the subjects that males do less well on the maths test? it’d be interesting to see if it affected them in the same way.

    The problem is that even if inconclusive research was published, people just wouldn’t remember it. Once an attractive idea has stuck (like the “whole-brained” hypothesis) it remains there. Like you said, the research is already based on an assumption that male and female brains are inherently different.
    It seems to be taking too much effort to falsify it yet the burden of proof should surely be on its original supporters. In an immature science, though, it seems inevitable that novel theories will quickly become part of the paradigm (or research programme) without much evidence supporting them.

    I don’t really have much to add to this piece; I’m mainly just glad someone’s written a really good book on the topic – I will be buying it.

  2. Paradigms are there to be shifted.

    I think the useful research can be done by looking at socialisation, rather than running around falsifying dubious claims. I don’t think the maths test did show a similar reverse effect, but maths is already a strongly gendered behaviour so one would expect the bias to run in the favour of males. The trick would be to test an ability which was ungendered (if you could find one) and see how much effect expectations had on results.

    I think the book is really most useful for feminists who are constantly assailed with ‘you can’t argue with science’ type comments. Knowing that science is actually on their side will give them more confidence. It’s a bit like arguing with Tories who will just say, ‘it’s economics, there’s nothing we can do to change that.’ Once one has taken the five minutes or so required to master economics to a greater degree than boy George Osborne you can wipe the floor with them.

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