The Delusion of Gender by Cordelia Fine is the recent offering from my Feminist Book Club.
Cordelia Fine is a Neuroscientist by training and this shows in her methodical analysis of the theories that claim that Men and Women are different because of differences in the brain and genetic makeup.
It is Fine’s razor sharp intellect that makes this book such a challenge to read. My knowledge of science and psychological research is very limited (this is not because of my gender, I assure you) so I found some parts of this book difficult to understand and rearticulate. However some of her common themes and narratives I found especially interesting.
One common theme at the beginning of the book is how context influences the role of women in society and how they are perceived by men. She begins by quoting a Joan Smith who argued that ‘very few women, growing up in England in the late eighteenth century, would have understood the principles of jurisprudence or navigation, but that is solely because they were denied access to them’ (2010, page xvii). So it is not that women are incapable to understand complex legal problems or to navigate difficult paths, it is that the cultural context in which we operate that places boundaries on what is considered acceptable activities and behaviours and therefore limits female participation in particular activities.
While I didn’t truly grasp her chapters on why male and female brains are not as different as what you might think, I did grasp what seemed to be 3 major themes: firstly, that the quality of research is not as good as it should be.
Secondly, it seemed that popular scientists often make a quantum leap from the actual scientific evidence to arguing that there is a difference between the brains of women and the brains of men. She does argue that this area of science is still in its infancy and we simply do not know how different the brains of women and men are.
Thirdly, she highlights how the brain isn’t a static organ that doesn’t stay rigidly the same from birth right through to moment of death. She also goes into how the brain as well as our genetics responds to the cultural context and social environment that we live in. The plasticity of the brain and how it changes and responds to the external environment growth is one aspect of neuroscience that has received quite a bit of attention.
It seems that Fine reminds the reader not to simplify a highly complex organ.
Fine points out that ‘with the right social identity for the occasion or the companion, this malleability and sensitivity to the social world helps us to fit ourselves into, as well as better perform, our current social role. No doubt the female self and the male self can be as useful as any other social identity in the right circumstances. But flexible, context-sensitive and useful is not the same as ‘hardwired’ (2010, 13). She shows that while our behaviour is strongly influenced by our context, it is not pre-programmed and installed before birth.
Again and again, Fine gives many examples that show how expectations and social norms influence how well we do in things such as Maths test as well as the choices we make throughout our lives. Her book could influence how we bring up children with disabilities and could empower minority groups. As she says ‘we saw in the previous chapter that social demands of a situation can change how motivated men and women are to perform well. And psychologists are beginning to uncover other ways in which the social context can change, for better or for worse, the minds power and effectiveness. There turns out to be a striking number of ways that being in the ‘wrong’ social group creates a trickier psychological path to navigate’ (2010, 29). This shows how easy for people to be affected by social norms and kids have to be encouraged to rise above the limitations and expectations placed on them by society.
In the later part of her book Cordelia Fine writes about how young children seem to self socialise themselves in to the gender roles without much conscious effort from their families and carers. She argues that ‘as we have seen, children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, language, colour segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is of great importance’ (2010, 227). If you remember back to your school playground days, there were so many unspoken rules that the kids made up among themselves and there were many perennial ones surrounding gender rules and behaviour. Even as children we maintain how each of the genders are expected to behave through scrutiny and punishment.
Even in the twenty first century when people are aware of the damaging results of stereotypes, humans seem to be naturally predisposed to perpetuating the gender roles regardless how much they try not to. She tells a story of a gender studies PhD Candidate who, on finding out that she was expecting a boy, spoke in a “less tender” way to her unborn male foetus. She also tells of a mother who despaired of her young daughter’s love of everything pink despite being raised in a gender natural environment.
This review has only touched the service of Cordelia Fine’s book but I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about the science behind gender and how complicated gender roles are as well as how blurred the lines are between culture and science.