Delusions of Gender: Cordelia Fine

I am reading all the depressing news for ladies these days. First, I find out that no one wants me, and now I learn that society is working hard to keep my math-loving brain down. What is a science nerd to do?

Oh, right, ignore all that bullshit and keep loving math. (Here’s a fun math-y treat!) But what if my math potential has been hindered by my very own math-loving brain?!

That’s basically what Cordelia Fine discusses in the first and third sections of Delusions of Gender. She takes a look at all the ways our society constructs gender, how gender-neutral parenting is a lot harder than refusing to buy your daughter a Barbie, and how the environment in which you are raised is inextricably intertwined with the genetics that code your physical self. Obvious culprits are brought to the forefront, like stereotype threat, but what was really fascinating to me was the myriad of ways these factors are subtly affecting you each and every day. Like, the simple fact of checking a box “male” or “female” is enough to trigger stereotype threat effects on your subsequent behaviour. And how many forms start with that simple checkbox? (A frustrated aside: So binary! What if you are neither?) 

Not to mention the fact that one very effective prevention against stereotype threat disappears as women move up the ladder in fields like math: “a female role model to look up to.” I can definitely attest to this. The one thing I noticed constantly while studying for my degree was the complete lack of women above me. I mean, total. I had one woman professor the entire time I was doing my undergraduate work. One. And she was relegated to teaching a summer course as a part-time instructor, despite the fact that she was clearly a talented number theorist. Every other professor and TA I had was a man. And the majority of my classmates were men, especially in the last two years of my degree. Which was, and is, seriously depressing. And reading this book made me feel guilty about not continuing with math, even though I am completely not suited to academia (which is your career option if you are in love with theoretical math. Get a job as a professor when someone dies).

Fine also discusses with eviscerating wit the stereotypes each gender faces, and how women are generally damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If you display the assertiveness needed for most top-level jobs, you’re a bitch. We get stabbed by both “the descriptive (‘women are gentle’) and the prescriptive (‘women should be gentle’) elements of gender stereotypes”. Fine rolls out study after study that show how gender stereotypes play out in the minds of a woman herself and everyone around her when she tries to assert herself in worlds that have been traditionally men’s. Unsurprisingly, that old adage of women having to work twice as hard for the same position may actually be true. More than one study has shown that women who are primed to forget about their gender actually far outperform men on tests and in other activities. Because when you are constantly working to mitigate stereotype threat in your brain, it turns out that takes brain resources you could be putting to work on actual stuff. (Also unsurprisingly, this applies to people of colour and other minorities.)

But the basic premise that Fine jumps off from into all these discussions of how society affects the brain is the brain itself. She confronts the “neurosexism” of the subtitle “How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference” in the second part of the book, by basically tearing new assholes for every single researcher and self-help book author insisting that differences in gender are biological and found right there in the brain, so we should stop our silly work towards equality and accept the fact that men and women are just different. It’s rare to read such sarcasm in a scientific book. As she comments in the first pages of the book, “What awfully good luck that these womanly talents should coincide so happily with the duties of the female sex.” Or in reference to contradictory hypotheses of how lady brains are inferior: “[T]he Gurs [researchers] should stick to the lower maintenance hypothesis that optimal performance requires whatever features of the brain happen to be observed in males.” Or when she discusses her own attempts at equality in her marriage: “When, for example, are a few dirty cups a symbol of the exertion of male privilege, and when are they merely unwashed dishes?” Or in reference to businesses entertaining clients at lap-dancing clubs: “How on earth did men ever manage to get business done in the days before establishments where they can pay to have their penises massaged by the genitalia of a naked woman?” She particularly takes to task Simon Baron-Cohen, a developmental psychologist who has spent a great deal of time and effort on the idea of feminine and masculine brains. By the time Fine is done with his studies, you’re left wondering how he even still has a job.

Her take on popular books on the differences in the brains of men and women had me alternately giggling and fuming. For instance, at the start of the chapter called “Brain Scams”, she gives four pieces of “advice for anyone considering incorporating neuroscientific findings into a popular book or article”, number four of which is “don’t make stuff up.” She then gives ample demonstration of people making stuff up, and tears it all down.

Fine covers a lot of ground in Delusions of Gender, and at times, it can feel rushed, like there is too much information in too few pages. But the very thorough notes and bibliography fill in any gaps, and Fine herself has such a compelling and slightly snarky voice that it’s worth the occasional rushed feeling. And she gives me so much to be righteously outraged at, like the separate-sex school program from the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which has boys reading Lord of the Flies from the perspective of trying to construct a map of the island, and girls solving math problems as if they were relationship issues. No, really: “the graph is put in the context of a relationship between two people.” Quite honestly, this makes me want to stab someone. And as Fine herself notes, “why focus on difference? If we focused on similarity, we’d conclude that boys and girls should be taught the same way.” And one assumes, be treated in the same way.

(The one non-insides thing that I can’t stop thinking about, though, is why on the book jacket is “Cordelia Fine”, but on the actual spine of the hardback itself is “Cordelia Fine, PhD”. I’d be interested in the story of that. Did Fine herself insist on not putting her degree on the book, fearing it would put off readers? Or was it the publisher? Or was it just some kind of crossed wires somewhere along the way? In any case, it’s interesting given that this is a book arguing against inherent differences in men and women, but the doctorate degree of the woman author is not on the cover, but tucked away where buyers won’t look.)

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