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Dismantling the new sexism

Delusions of Gender: The Real Science behind Sex Differences - Cordelia Fine

I really think all educators need to read this book. Fine's target is the new gender essentialism, the reconstructed sexism that attempts to put women back in their traditional roles as 'unbenders of husbands' brows' and caregivers to children, and to keep them out of politics, mathematics and the sciences, by asserting that they are fitted for their place by essential female abilities and incapacities. In 1869 the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his book The Subjection of Women, was severe on this fallacy, but like a zombie it just keeps getting up, backed by the bad-science fad of the day. 'Neurosexists' are advising school-leaders to adjust their teaching for gender differences, and with the threat of 'empathy-based math' looming Fine felt she must call a halt. She selects some choice quotes to show us how little the new sexism differs from the old (this is a very funny book), then proceeds to dismantle it with a three-pronged attack.

First, she explores the construction of gender and explains aspects of the present inequality from her perspective in social psychology. She quotes trans woman Jan Morris who describes her former competence in matters of car-reversing and bottle-opening evaporating after her transition in the face of others' assumptions about her. The power of stereotyping is not to be ignored; Fine quotes study after study to show how strongly most people, whether consciously or not, associate women with empathy and caregiving, and men with maths, science and power, and how priming gender affects subsequent thinking and performance. Simply reminding a candidate that she is a woman drastically reduces her score on a maths test, demonstrating an effect called 'stereotype threat' which is amazingly easy to remove - including an introduction to a test telling participants that 'in ten years of data-gathering, no gender-related performance difference has been found' dramatically boosts the performance of women and girls. Cross-cultural comparisons also prove instructive, making nonsense of ethnocentric gender assumptions.

Fine explores how stereotypes and the lack of role models work against women in the workplace and in education. This section is more broadly relevant to racial, social class, disabled, LGBTQ etc representation and the double bind problem of administrators appointing people like themselves on one side, and aspirations being damped by the invisibility of marginalised groups on the other. CVs with female names are rated lower and receive fewer responses than identical ones with male names. Fine also indicts sexist work practices such as entertaining clients in strip-clubs. Stereotypes also operate in the home, where men are conditioned to believe themselves incompetent (the hunter brings home the the carcass and collapses to stare into the fire) unless jar-opening brawn or plug-wiring brains are required. Fine demonstrates that men are very competent parents. Even rat-dads, with no hormone-tampering, are readily able to raise perfectly adjusted rat-kids.

Surveying the data, Fine finds very scant evidence for the assumption that women are more empathic than men; there is no magical female ability to read people's thoughts, and slight differences in young children could easily be due to parents talking more to infant girls. The evidence for male superiority in mathematical/analytical tasks is also thin, restricted to performance at mentally rotating 3D objects. Even this could be due to more exposure to active toys, and in any case hardly constitutes an excuse to exclude women from the workplace. Fine is hilarious when exposing the loaded survey questions that have been used to find gender differences. Research makes it very clear that people will rate themselves higher or lower on abilities stereotyped to or against their gender, especially when that aspect of their identity has been primed. 

The search for gender-determined ability differences continues with a painstaking survey and critique of the popular literature enthusiastically claiming they exist and the neurological and psychological research which has supposedly found them. Fine is incisive in her discussion and criticism of studies around the effect of testosterone, including play differences, but she is damning when it comes to the shocking dishonesty and misrepresentation employed by 'neurosexist' popular 'science' books. Oh, and if you don't manage to read this book, please take it from me here and now, that anyone trying to persuade you of a gender difference on the basis of pictures from brain scans is to be scornfully ignored.

The final section deals with how children are socialised to perform gender. Many parents assume they are providing gender-neutral parenting and 'fall back' on a biological explanation when their little girls demand pink dresses and dolls. Fine shows just how far parents have to go to eliminate the pressure to perform gender by recording the hilarious experience of the Bem family, forced to such lengths as denying that they knew the gender of friends, and erasing beards from picture books. How can a preference for pink be genetic? In Victorian times, it was a male colour, while girls wore tranquil Virgin-Mary blue. Fine demonstrates with survey after survey and study after brilliant study that gender roles are pushed on us by our culture, not our chromosomes.

'As neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier put it over two decades ago, we should "view biology as potential, as capacity and not as static identity. Biology itself is socially influenced and defined; it changes and develops in interaction with and in response to our minds and environment, as our behaviours do. Biology can be said to define possibilities but not determine them; it is never irrelevant but it is also not determinant"'