In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine, PhD sets out to debunk the prevailing opinions about the male and female genders. The subtitle says it all: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.
She reviews large quantities of studies, articles, and opinions throughout the book. Her premise is that gender differences are learned rather than hard wired. According to Fine, it is virtually impossible to raise or teach a child in a completely gender neutral environment. I particularly love her reference to the “pernicious pinkification of girls.” In fact, Fine details the many ways that parents begin to utilize gender stereotypes even before birth. This goes way beyond decorating nurseries in pink or purple versus blue. She tells of studies where mothers spoke differently to their in utero children once they knew the sex. Or mothers who described the kicking style of that unborn baby differently, and according to prevailing gender stereotypes.
We are regularly told that male and female brains are just “wired differently.” It’s almost as pervasive as the centuries ago belief that women’s brains were smaller than men’s. But Fine reviews the studies referenced in these claims, and generally finds them to be either poorly designed or vaguely interpreted. She even discusses a particular book on the topic where points presented as “facts” are completely without any basis in truth.
I’m fascinated by the brain’s plasticity, and the debate about whether an older brain brain is actually able to change. Fine discusses how hard wired gender differences fly in the face of what we know about neuroplasticity. For example, if a child’s brain is still plastic (able to change and adjust) after birth, how can we assume that gender behaviors are hardwired at birth? It doesn’t make sense. So ultimately, neurosexism steps in and overrules the facts about neuroplasticity. Fine shines a light on this faulty process.
Fine’s discussion of neurosexism sometimes includes the scientific concept of false equivalence. When a study purports to show gender differences in the brain, it is often giving that concept the exact same weight as the study’s principal theory. So, an incidental finding related to gender is presented as being just as proven as a more thoroughly studied premise. The more these neurosexist “findings” are discussed, the harder it is to dig back into the original study. And as a result, the spurious conclusion is given more and more weight. It also begins to be used in vital environments like the classroom, so that girls are often not given the same learning opportunities as boys.
Naturally, these neurosexist beliefs continue to affect women as they proceed from elementary school into high school, college, graduate school and careers. Fine discusses the impact these beliefs have on women—especially in science, technology, engineering, and medicine careers. She also references plenty of old-school “science” from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and discusses how it continues to be used today.
I loved the concepts Fine covers in this book. She introduces feminism versus sexism, while wrapping the whole debate in science. Yet she still injects plenty of opinion in the book, which keeps it from being too dry. And I particularly appreciated the narration from Marie Brendel, who captures the author’s scoffing tones while also making the science palatable.
There were significant parts of the book where I wondered if Fine would ever stop talking about research studies. I’d have to be in a certain mood to read or listen to this book. But once Fine starts to tie all the pieces together, the delusions we live with regarding gender become striking and engrossing.