‘When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do. And these thoughts, attitudes and behaviours of yours, in turn, become part of the social context. It’s intimate. It’s messy. And it demands a different way of thinking about gender’.
I remember attending a talk a long time ago when I was still living in London, at the WOW Festival, about a concept that was completely new to me – ‘neurotrash’. Of course, I had heard of the whole ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ tripe but I didn’t realise there was a name for pseudo-science based more on outdated stereotypes rather than true scientific findings. That talk – entitled ‘Fighting the Neurotrash’ with neuroscientist Gina Rippon (you can watch it on Youtube here) – led me to picking up a copy of the psychologist (and daughter of the classic children’s author, Anne Fine), Cordelia Fine’s study, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. I’m embarrassed to admit that I only read Delusions of Gender this year (almost four years after purchasing it) but it still strikes a chord of relevance today, especially considering an article I posted in my latest Feminist Sunday post about a recent campaign to get the book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Science That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini into every state school in the UK.
Using a wide range of scientific studies and data throughout the past few decades, Fine unpacks the myths surrounding differences in male and female brains which have been based on traditional, archaic sexism. You know, the kind of sexism that has permeated western civilisation for millennia and effectively positioned women as inferior to men, except with the relatively ‘new’ technology of brain mapping these old stereotypes can be backed up with shiny new data. They go something along the lines of: ‘men use the left side of the brain more so tend to be rational thinkers better suited to logical pursuits in science and maths, whilst females use the right side more so are emotional and therefore better suited to caregiving roles’. Or, put simply, ‘men think women feel’. Just read this vomit-inducing article published on Huffington Post in 2016: Different Brains, Different Behaviours to see how stereotypical roles have permeated – and still are permeating – science, particularly when it comes to the brain.
Picking apart well-known professors and neuroscientists, from Simon Baron-Cohen to Louann Brizendine, who persuasively declare that ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains exist, Fine highlights the inaccuracies within these studies the ‘experts’ have based their conclusions on. Reading Delusions of Gender has taught me a hell of a lot about the file drawer problem, sample sizes, financial backing for certain studies and publication bias. The truth is – and Fine backs this up with solid, though not as highly publicised, findings – that there aren’t any significant differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. Any study that states we are ‘hardwired’ to be a certain way is ‘neurotrash’ because our brains are pliable and can be moulded by outside influences, for example, the environment.
‘As Hines has explained, sex is ‘easily assessed, routinely evaluated, and not always reported. Because it is more interesting to find a difference than to find no difference, the 19 failures to observe a difference between men and women go unreported, whereas the 1 in 20 finding of a difference is likely to be published.’ This contributes to the so-called file-drawer phenomenon, whereby studies that do find sex differences get published, but those that don’t languish unpublished and unseen in a researcher’s file drawer”.
From an incredibly young age we are confronted with ‘gender’. As Fine describes it, young children unsurprisingly take on the ‘occupation of gender detective’: ‘They are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance’. It’s impossible to ignore or avoid these indicators of gender and they can have serious rippling effects as girls and boys grow into women and men. And now, with the advent of neuroscience, ‘differences’ found in male and female brains re-cement these archaic and damaging stereotypes.
It’s no wonder then that there are fewer women in STEM subjects if the traits associated with these areas are stereotypically seen as ‘male’ and now backed up by ‘science’. Young girls are encouraged from a young age to be caregivers (note the disparity between ‘girl’ toys and ‘boy’ toys) and as they progress through the education system, despite outperforming boys in science and maths, fewer girls enter higher education in these subjects. Not only is there a lack of support for girls and women in these fields, but they are purposely made to feel inferior and lacking due to their biological make-up as well as the environment in which they have grown up in.
Fine’s Delusions of Gender brilliantly highlights the danger of accepting these popular scientific findings as fact, giving the reader tools in which to distinguish neuroscience from the more popular ‘neurotrash’.