“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

A friend mentioned Delusions of Gender to me a few weeks ago, and, sucker for a good pun and a spot of neuroscience, I knew I’d have to read it.

This is an absolutely fascinating book, packed with wit, scholarship, and good ol’ fashioned feminism. Essentially Fine uses a combination of wry humour, memorable analogies, and her hugely impressive assimilation of information from a range of academic fields to dissect the ways in which popular neuroscience perpetuates a deeply pernicious kind of sexism. Bookshops are full of paperbacks telling us that men and women are simply wired differently; that girls are preconditioned to want to nurture, dust, and wear pink. Not only is that a very dangerous fiction, but it’s supported by what Fine reveals to be fatally flawed scholarship from the highest level: “The results of this study suggest that girls are born to be prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects,” writes Leonard Sax in his book “Why Gender Matters”, a conclusion echoed in the popular media around the world. The implications for career choices are clear. Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, citing the newborn study, argues that men and women are “constitutionally different” and thus unlikely to ever become professors of physics and literature in equal numbers….

What she shows, very compellingly, is that society conditions us to associate traits, jobs, colours and shapes with maleness and femaleness almost from the moment we’re conceived. Once a mother knows the sex of her foetus, she quite literally starts to talk to it in a different way – she’ll soften her voice for a girl, focus on describing emotions, and speak to it more frequently. Even before our children are born, we’re trying to compartmentalize them according to their gender.

Which is greatly exacerbated as soon as children start to interact with the world around them. Liberal, educated parents with the best of intentions with regard to gender-neutral parenting reportedly attribute their daughters’ inevitable fascination with dolls and princesses all too readily to biology – if they’ve spent two years giving their little girl trucks and building blocks, but she still insists on cradling the truck like a baby or wrapping it in a pink blanket, surely it shows that her preferences are innate? Nonsense – what Fine portrays so shrewdly is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Even liberal, feminist parents probably own a T.V., and as Fine points out, the adverts which run between cartoons betray a startlingly sexism, which inevitably shapes children’s views of what’s “normal” for their gender (hence the brilliant campaign Let Toys Be Toys). Children develop their tastes not in response to their parents’ politics, but as a direct result of the way in which they learn to engage with their peers –and if every little girl in a pre-school group comes to a party dresses as a princess (an image which has been sold to her relentlessly from birth), the solitary female pioneer dressed as an astronaut will feel distraught, and instantly beg her parents for an Elsa costume. The same applies just as much to boys as it does to girls, of course – a young boy who might enjoy playing with dolls at home will soon learn to feel embarrassed by it at school, because those aren’t the sort of toys consumerism pushes onto his “group”. Grimly, but entirely logically, it isn’t enough to raise a family in an equality bubble if the rest of the world still runs along astonishingly gendered lines.

And it only gets worse as the years roll by. As children, we grow up watching Disney movies in which the lead female characters are left in the shade by their male counterparts when it comes to dialogue. When we get to school, we’re separated more and more – we play different sports, are encouraged to pursue different hobbies, are told that girls are somehow genetically disadvantaged when it comes to STEM subjects. Again what I found so astonishing was Fine’s explanation of the immediate and crippling effect these stereotypes have: if a group of girls are told just before taking a maths test that women are genetically less able at those sorts of tasks than men, they get a worse score than girls of equal ability who aren’t told anything of the sort. These stereotypes instantly become self-fulfilling prophecies. As she points out so effectively, if we were applying the same kind of segregation to left-handers and right-handers rather than to men and women, these societal pressures and assumptions would look nonsensical. And yet they persist.

It really made me think. As I was walking around the park on my lunch-break earlier today, I decided to listen to the Woman’s Hour podcast (with which I am currently obsessed). The topic up for debate was the controversial new junior doctor’s contract on the cusp being imposed on the NHS (for those of you not in the UK, the government is trying to overhaul the contracts of our national health service’s junior doctors, and it’s proving to be hugely inflammatory – in part because the new terms arguably discriminate against young female doctors). The show’s host asked the Tory MP being interviewed if the move was in fact a cynical way of trying to de-feminize our medical profession. I have to say that I agreed with a lot of what he said in general terms – but my hackles flew up when he suggested that female doctors are particularly useful because they demonstrate empathy, and a rapport with their patients. No! This is exactly the sort of language Cordelia Fine calls out in her excellent book. Empathy is a human quality, not a female quality; skilled female doctors, like skilled male doctors, are valuable because they’re good at their job, irrespective of their supposed ability to emote; and we shouldn’t take issue with sex discrimination just because we think women make up the “caring” part of the workforce, and are therefore useful in emotional situations. It’s utter madness, and does neither gender any favours.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in gender politics; psychology; genetics; education; advertising; children; being left-handed; the human condition; and good jokes. Everybody, really. In the meantime, I just need to work out what’s to be done in the face of so much deep-rooted bias…

delusions of gender