I’m sort of sick of the word “feminism.” If I had my way, we’d replace it with something less gender-specific, like “caregiverism.” That’s ugly, I know. We’d have to come up with something better. But “feminist,” to me, falls short of the meaning that Adichie describes in the clip played by Beyoncé: “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” We won’t achieve that kind of equality just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious, as Adichie does. We have to go much deeper. We have to make it unacceptable to denigrate the work of care, which means challenging a hierarchy of values that goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks.

Feminists should become caregiverists as a way of establishing that the invisibility and unprotected status of caregivers is by no means only a women’s issue. … Work-life balance (that odious euphemism!) must also be seen as part of a larger structural problem. Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labor movement; even as the working day has grown longer and longer, this issue has dropped off the agenda—for many reasons … Nonetheless, without this broader perspective, we tend to think of our solutions to the problem of undone domestic labor as personal dilemmas—opting out, opting in—rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us by a shrinking amount of time available to do chores.


There are also some articles on feminist economics that seem to take a similar stance, at Women in Scotland’s Economy (I must admit I have not read them properly yet).

I think these ideas are important. Caregiving is hugely undervalued. “Success” is too narrowly defined, and feminism should not be about getting women to the top so they, too, can dominate and exploit others.

But I’ve been struggling a bit to reconcile this with a sense I have that caregiving should be less gendered than it is, too. If caregiving could be valued more, why would it still matter which gender did more of it?

I think it matters, partly because the dominance of any one gender in a particular area of life / field of work can lead to exaggerated gender traits and problematic behaviour. This is seen in overly competitive, overly confident or reckless behaviours in fields like banking, big business and science; and it is seen in perfectionism around “mothering” or housework to the point of being consumed by mindless drudgery and neglect of the self.

And it matters partly because the idea that women are more nurturing than men is doing harm. There are plenty of men and women who value caregiving within the family so highly that they believe it’s best done as a full-time job – almost always done by the woman, and of course, unpaid; although it could be argued that women are compensated for the lost earnings in the event of a divorce, through a settlement. But research suggests that mothers working and children attending nurseries (part-time, especially) is probably better for both than staying at home full-time (cited in Jessica Valenti, “Why Have Kids?”). And the world outside the home definitely needs women’s talents. (Would we want Mhairi Black chained to a kitchen sink in a few years’ time?) Am I denigrating caregiving by saying these things? Or am I denigrating a genderised form of it that is merely designed, by patriarchy, to keep women down?

Besides, it’s unlikely we will really value caregiving more highly until men start doing more of it.

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Some political thoughts

I think it’s been a while since a UK general election generated this much high feeling in so many people. This week saw the UK turn mostly blue (Conservative) over the border, and almost completely yellow (Scottish National Party) here – two sides of the political spectrum dominating at two ends of the country.

None of the major UK-wide parties were offering a real challenge to the neoliberal public spending cuts that seem to have become orthodoxy in Westminster. So, Scots voted in droves for the anti-austerity SNP, galvanised by last year’s referendum in which 45% of the population voted to leave the UK – many of whom were motivated by precisely these apparent ideological differences between North and South.

The geographic division only seems to be getting stronger; right-wing representations of so-called Scottish “nationalism” during this election have probably helped push voters in England towards the Tories. And now we all have to live with the results.

In the past months I’ve been reading introductory books on capitalism, socialism, markets, neoliberalism, Marx, capitalist realism… trying to understand history, trying to find some believable formula for a happy world or country. I think there is plenty we can learn from our experience so far, but haven’t yet: for example, that a market-based system achieves large-scale coordination better than any central planner could ever have the information to do; but that it is essentially a complex system, like tectonic plates or the climate, and as such it is prone to large-scale extreme events – crises, in other words. Many seem not to realise financial crashes are an inherent part of a capitalist system (and of course, certain politicians are all too keen to exploit that ignorance and blame them instead on government overspending). The extent of austerity and neoliberalisation is correlated with worse economic performance – that is an empirical finding we can take note of, and runs counter to what most people seem to believe. Unbridled capitalism reliably produces a hugely unequal power-law distribution of wealth – power laws being another hallmark of complexity (the distribution of fault sizes in the Earth’s crust is another example: loads of tiny ones, a few really huge ones, and all sizes in-between); and inequality is bad news, since it is correlated with a whole host of social problems across the board.

But does debt-financed public spending (i.e. Keynesianism) reliably help a market-based economy out of a slump? The answer from history seems to be, “maybe”. Sometimes it seems to have helped, sometimes it seems not to have. It’s one thing to make general statements characterising a system; it’s another to make specific predictions about what will happen if one strategy or another is adopted by a government in a particular time and place. It would probably be a lot easier to have political consensus if incontrovertible predictions were possible. All opinions are – in large part – faith. (Perhaps this is why politics is just as divisive as religion?)

It seems to me that if we want to live happy and healthy lives in a market-based economic system, we need the complexity of the market to be bracketed by strong social institutions that prevent the elite at the top wielding excessive power, that protect us from the worst of the economic earthquakes, that temper the incessant and unsustainable “growth” imperative, and that constantly seek to re-level the playing field – globally as well as nationally. The trouble is, capitalism will always by its very nature create an elite class, and achieving a counter-balance to their class power is an uphill struggle and any balance difficult to sustain. Countries that do it best have a long history of doing so; and even they struggle to maintain it in the very long term.

One difficulty is that the elite have always had the resources at their disposal to convince the masses into voting against their own class interests. And there is always a spurious reason to be found for the pain. The rise of far-right anti-immigration parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a logical consequence of the disaffection of the masses coupled with their lack of understanding of its structural causes. In UKIP people find an outlet for the same frustrations that have turned so many Scottish voters to the SNP; the difference is in where the blame is placed for the way things are going: on lenient policies that let too many foreigners in, or on the neoliberal policies that make conditions so hard for the poor – locally and globally.

But we live in an age where it is easier than ever to make yourself heard, to connect with others, to form groups, to become educated. Media, in the larger sense, is much more democratic than it’s ever been – and we’ve probably only just scratched the surface of how this can be utilised. Perhaps things are not as hopeless as they seem.

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Delusions of Gender: a gender instinct?

[This is the 5th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

In this post we get to what, for me, turned out to be the most interesting and exciting part of the whole book: a discussion of the science that has tried to explain childhood gender differences in terms of biology – particularly, prenatal hormone environments.

Firstly, Cordelia Fine looks critically at a couple of studies that have been widely cited to show that males are innately more interested in ‘systemising’, while females are more interested in ’empathising’ or ‘nurturing’. The first was a study which claimed to find that female newborn babies gazed for longer at a human face, while male babies looked longer at a mobile. The second study claimed that young rhesus monkeys prefer to play with either stuffed animals or trucks, depending on their sex.

I won’t take up space here summarising the critiques; I would encourage anyone interested to read the book and see what they think. Suffice it to say that the main thrust of the story here is that the evidence, both for very early sex-specific behaviours / preferences and for any kind of correlation with the prenatal hormone environment, is actually pretty underwhelming.

So how does gender work, then? Well, how about this for an idea:

“Thirty years ago, primatologist Frances Burton put forward an intriguing suggestion… She proposed that the effect of foetal hormones in primates is to predispose them to be receptive to whatever behaviours happen to go with their own sex in the particular society into which they are born.”

In other words, gender is a language that is learned in early childhood, and gender identity is the thing that is perhaps conditioned by hormones and ultimately expressed through that language, and the personality shaped accordingly. I got very excited at this point, having had a similar idea myself just recently!

Frances Burton’s reasoning on this came from her observation of ‘culture’ variation in primates, with large variations in gender roles between groups:

“… primate societies have norms regarding which sex does what: who gets food, rears the young, moves the troop, protects the troop and maintains group cohesion. But, these norms are different across, or even within, primate species. Male involvement in infant rearing, for instance, ranges from the hands-off to the intimate.”

Variation like this within a species is difficult to explain in terms of anything hard-wired! There is also an argument that it would make more sense anyway from an evolutionary perspective for gender roles to be malleable:

“As Melissa Hines points out, this would provide a very ‘flexible design’, enabling ‘new members of the species to develop sex-appropriate behaviors despite changes in what those behaviors might be. This hormonal mechanism would liberate the species from a “hard-wired” masculinity or femininity that would be unable to adapt to changes in the environment that make it advantageous for males and females to modify their niche in society.’”

A hard-wired instinct to learn about gender from cultural cues would also make sense of a few other observations: the fact that young children go through a phase of wanting to genderise everything (to be discussed in a future post); the way adults insist curiously heavily on genderising newborns with pink and blue – and monkeys, perhaps similarly, “take great interest in the genitalia of newborns”:

“Is this interest in genitalia purely academic? To suggest that nonhuman primates have socially constructed gender roles seems more or less akin to pinning a notice to one’s back that says, MOCK ME. But does the registration of sex – of others and perhaps of self – play an important role in maintaining traditional sex-division of labour in primate societies? When Burton studied troops of macaque monkeys in Gibraltar, she observed that the head male was intimately involved in neonate care: sniffing, licking, caressing, patting, holding and chattering to it, as well as encouraging it to walk. Interestingly, when the head male was in charge of the infant, he would be followed and imitated by subadults – but only males. The male subadults then themselves became involved in caring for the infant.

As we’ll see in the third part of the book, human children have a powerful drive to self-socialise into gender roles. That is, even in the absence of any encouragement by parents, they are attracted to things and behaviours associated with their sex. Although children from the age of about two have the advantage of an explicit, reportable knowledge of their own sex, is it possible that some primitive sense of sex identity brings about self-socialisation in nonhuman primates? As Hines and Alexander recently asked, ‘if some animals of one sex could be trained to use a particular object, would others of that sex model them?’ If more researchers interested in human gender differences start to investigate questions like this, which acknowledge that nonhuman primates, like us, have social norms that need to be learned, perhaps the answers will surprise us.”

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Delusions of Gender: the domestic sphere

[This is the 4th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

“The managers who don’t get the promotions or salaries they deserve, the saleswomen and investment bankers who determinedly network at topless bars and lap-dancing clubs, and the corporate scientists who endure locker-room culture deserve proper acknowledgement of barriers that still have not fallen. And this includes barriers at home.”

Cordelia Fine discusses interesting statistics around the relative amounts of housework done by men and women in domestic partnerships. Apparently, the more a woman earns, the less housework she tends to do, but only up to the point where she earns a comparable amount to her partner (and even then it’s not quite equal). For women that earn more than their partners, the situation is strangely reversed: the more they earn, the more housework they do on average.

I’m sure there could be lots of reasons for this curious reversal, but one phenomenon highlighted in the book is what sociologists call “gender deviance neutralisation” – the desire to counteract the discomfort caused by the reversal of the traditional man-as-breadwinner model, by acting extra-womanly at home (or perhaps in the case of the men, asserting their masculinity by avoiding laundry and cleaning). It’s certainly interesting that the relationship between women’s earnings, their partners’ earnings and everyone’s apparent housework drive seems so complex.

It’s no revelation that women do more housework – and, especially, childcare – than men. Women are traditionally associated with being responsible for the housework and childcare, and our eagerness to express our gender identity – through the language of gender we’ve learnt from our culture – helps to perpetuate this.

Equality is, as usual, made even harder by the gendered assumptions that are made around who does what:

“While there are entire chapters – books, even – devoted to the issues of being a working mother, rare indeed is it to come across even a paragraph in a child-rearing manual that addresses the conflicts of time and responsibility that arise from being a working father. This social norm puts women in a weak negotiating position.”

I have to mention another book here, on parenthood – “All Joy and No Fun”, by Jennifer Senior – that makes a very interesting point around cultural expectations of women (in America, but relevant also to the UK). Culture has shifted over time: in the 1950s, women who didn’t work outside the home called themselves housewives; nowadays, they are usually called stay-at-home mums. The difference seems superficial but it actually reflects quite a big shift – while in the past the main expectation on women was keeping an immaculate and tidy house, now it’s on being the “perfect” mother.

Mothers now apparently spend much more time with their children than they ever did, and often deny themselves the free time to themselves that fathers seem to be able to carve out with no guilt. Anyone who thinks this is some kind of innate, inevitable motherly instinct has only to look back a few decades, or indeed to other, perhaps more healthy cultures, to find evidence that this is not the case.

Going back to Cordelia Fine’s book, it seems men can show “maternal” behaviour and feelings just as women can:

“In her study of equal sharers – that is, mothers and fathers who equally share the responsibilities and pleasures of homelife – Francine Deutsch found that equally sharing fathers had developed the kind of closeness to their children we normally associate with mothers.”

It’s not obvious from this statement whether those fathers were closer to their children as a result of practising “equal sharing”, or whether they were just naturally inclined towards both equal sharing and close relationships with their children. But if rats are anything to go by, it’s very possible that it’s the former:

“Male rats don’t experience the hormonal changes that trigger maternal behaviour in female rats. They never normally participate in infant care. Yet put a baby rat in a cage with a male adult and after a few days he will be caring for the baby almost as if he were its mother. He’ll pick it up, nestle it close to him as a nursing female would, keep the baby rat clean and comforted and even build a comfy nest for it. The parenting circuits are there in the male brain, even in a species in which paternal care doesn’t normally exist. If a male rat, without even the aid of a William Sears baby-care manual, can be inspired to parent then I would suggest that the prospects for human fathers are pretty good.”

I’ve also read that taking a couple of months of paternity leave predicts greater continued parental involvement for many years to come. Fathers who spend a period of time being the primary caregiver can form a strong bond with their babies in that time just as mothers can. Which, really, does not surprise me when I think about it. Flexibility in this regard has to have been an evolutionary advantage. Yet it’s cultural barriers that stop us utilising this biological flexibility. In Sweden, it was not until equal sharing of parental leave was incentivised that it actually started to happen routinely – but the effects have been positive.

Jennifer Senior observes stylistic differences between mothers and fathers when “on duty” at home, and concludes that women with male partners (assuming the partners do play an active part at home) would do well to take a leaf out of their partners’ books: be less perfectionistic, for example, and look after themselves a bit more. This is an interesting challenge.

It does seem reasonable to me that just as we want work environments to change with the shifting gender balance and not merely assimilate women into a masculine culture, the same principle must apply to home environments. If we want the men in science, and economics, and executive management, and so on, to be open to the possibility that women could bring something different but of equal value to these roles – to temper and rebalance ‘yang’ cultures that are out of control – perhaps it’s equally true that the ‘yin’ in the domestic sphere has become problematic and could benefit from a rebalancing.

These are huge challenges, I guess. They involve changing habits of a lifetime; overcoming the internal discomfort of acting in ways that don’t “fit” with internalised cultural notions related to your self-identified gender; and dealing with the guilt that is piled onto mothers who don’t sacrifice their whole selves for their children. Equality has a long way to go.

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Delusions of Gender: more on work cultures

[This is the 3rd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

In the previous post, I highlighted what I’ve learned around work cultures, gender, and belonging. Highly gendered work cultures tend to be a problem for people who don’t identify with the dominant stereotype. Not fitting in, apparently, can even affect a person’s interest in the very content of the work, something that seems like perhaps it should be intrinsic and not subject to social forces.

If this is really true, it suggests that interest and motivation are somewhat arbitrary. When we have a developed passion, we might think we just ‘inherently’ love solving equations or holding forth in a courtroom or whatever it is, but that’s because we don’t readily see the part this activity has played in shaping our identity, in our becoming who we want to be (in reference, of course, to the culture around us); we don’t see the extent to which social rewards have nurtured our growing interest.

(Now that I think of it, I did realise recently that my guitar interests can only be explained by a gender-related sense of ‘fit’. I’m gradually cottoning on to this. Very gradually… :-) )

But why are work cultures the way they are? Are they intimately tied to the nature of the work, or is the dominant culture of a work area also somewhat arbitrary, dependent to a large degree on the luck of history?

Work-area culture can certainly change, sometimes quite dramatically. One study Cordelia Fine describes looked at the effect of a change in the admissions policy for computer science degrees at one particular university, where the requirement for extensive prior experience in programming was dropped. This changed the dominant culture of the student cohort almost overnight, and also changed the self-perception and self-expression of the more senior students who had been selected with the old criteria:

“… as the researchers suggest, the years spent in an increasingly gender-equal environment ‘had shaped their image of themselves. We might also speculate that such a transitional culture gave the men “permission” to explore their nongeeky characteristics’.”

The association between a work area and gender also varies geographically:

“… across countries, over and above the effect of consciously reported stereotypes, the more strongly males are implicitly associated with science and females with liberal arts, the greater boys’ advantage in science and maths in the eighth grade. (In some countries, it’s worth saying, girls outscore boys.)”

I actually have first-hand experience, too, of how arbitrary the connection between a work area and a culture can really be. Starting a new, somewhat similar quantitative job in a much more gender balanced setting than my university department, has been… well, a culture shock, in a good way. It has really highlighted how much my experience to date has shaped my own implicit associations. I find myself constantly surprised at how comfortable the women seem in being feminine.

I think the content of a work area can certainly play a part in determining its gender balance – in so far as it interacts with notions about gender in the wider culture. When women started to enter the workplace, they probably tended to choose (or be most accepted in) work for which the required skills overlapped with their female self-identity and its expression in British culture – caring, nurturing, supportive, or otherwise people-oriented roles, such as nursing or secretarial jobs. Meanwhile men have retained a monopoly in areas that don’t seem a natural fit for a feminine personality – such as quantum physics, or economics. (In terms of my own similar-work-area-but-different-culture experience, it probably comes down to university research being much more prestigious and competitive – and somewhat better paid – than my new public-sector career path.)

However, I think that in most work areas, there is no one ‘type’ of person who would do the work well, or best. We tend to take the dominant culture of a workplace to be representative of the traits needed to do well at the work, or to ‘belong’ in the work area, and that is often a mistake; it is not as black-and-white as that. The “luck of history” is surely a factor in the dominant culture – and history has played out differently in different places. I can imagine that in some other countries, software development has become a career in which the more feminine ‘pro-social’ and ‘supportive’ attributes are emphasised, for example.

A more diverse set of skills and approaches, I would say, would do a world of good for many work areas whose cultures are entrenched in problematic and exaggerated aspects of gender. Most work types (and human problem-solving endeavours in general) probably stand to benefit from having a reasonably diverse workforce. But diversity cannot mean assimilating the occasional token woman/man/person of colour into the dominant culture. We need to be open to our work cultures changing.

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Delusions of Gender: careers and ‘belonging’

[This is the 2nd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

The previous post focussed on the power of gender as a social identity in influencing and organising our behaviour. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also influences our sense of belonging in a given social environment. Experiments have apparently shown that even in the very short term, subtle messages received about the genderedness of a career path – through the gender balance of professionals featured in an informational video, or even the culture of a workplace as implied by its interior design – can affect people’s sense of whether they belong in it.

This fits well with a psychology lecture I attended a while ago, in which studies were described that show very clearly that the experience of “worklife balance” is well-predicted by whether we feel like we fit in at work, whether we feel like ourselves at work. If we don’t, then long working hours are likely to feel like a huge personal sacrifice. Gender-related norms were highlighted in the lecture as a big factor in “fitting in”. It’s not actually about gender per se, but about being able to feel that there are people like you around, thriving in the job; whether the individuals identified with are male or female doesn’t matter. It’s just that, so often, work cultures and work social environments are highly gendered and people can seem almost like caricatures of the dominant sex. (Even some of those who are of the opposite sex!)

Studies reported in Cordelia Fine’s book further develop this picture: apparently, the experience of ‘lack of fit’ is also what drives lack of interest in certain degree subjects or career paths.

The idea that ‘not fitting in’ not only makes you less happy but can actually make you less interested in the content of a subject of study or work area, for some reason, was quite revelatory to me. I spent my mid- to late-twenties scratching my head trying to understand interest, or ‘passion’, since I found it so elusive. I figured it had something to do with confidence; I couldn’t figure out which came first, a lack of confidence or a lack of interest – or for that matter, why confidence seemed so hard to come by. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that both could actually be a result of just not feeling I fitted in.

I keenly remember my struggles with gendered self-expression during my physics degree, my struggles against the experience of feeling “too feminine” for physics and the need to convince myself that wearing makeup and gushing over the prettiness of crystals forming in an experiment did not mean I was doomed to failure just because nobody else was doing that. (Indeed, I achieved a first!) I didn’t make a single real friendship with a classmate in those four years. I got used to being lonely.

Little did I know just how big the struggle was going to be in the long term, and the unconscious extent to which it would affect my motivation and confidence. ‘Lack of fit’ makes perfect sense of the otherwise maddeningly inexplicable struggles I’ve had in these areas – motivation and confidence – in the face of objectively good performance.

This quotation from the book could be the story of my life:

“With horrible irony, the harder women try to succeed in quantitative domains, the greater the mental obstacles become, for several reasons. Stereotype threat [an effect where stress and anxiety is created by having to perform against a low expectation generated by a stereotype] hits hardest those who actually care about their maths skills and how they do on tests, and thus have the most to lose by doing badly, compared with women who don’t much identify with maths. Also, the more difficult and nonroutine the work, the more vulnerable its performance will be to the sapping of working memory [caused by the stress], and possibly the switch to a more cautious problem-solving strategy. There is also the problem that, as she proceeds up the career ladder, the mathematically minded woman will become increasingly outnumbered by men. … This can compound her problem in more than one way. Her sex will become more and more salient, which in itself can trigger stereotype threat processes. One study even found that the more men there are taking a maths test in the same room as a solo woman, the lower women’s performance becomes. And, surrounded by men, she herself may come to grudgingly believe that women are indeed naturally inferior in maths…

“As our mathematical woman moves up the ranks, she will also progressively lose one very effective protection against stereotype threat: a female role model to look up to. People’s self-evaluations, aspirations and performance are all enhanced by encountering the success of similar role models – and the more similar, the better.”

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Delusions of Gender: social identities are powerful

My first book of 2015 was ‘Delusions of Gender‘ by Cordelia Fine. And it was the most absorbing, paradigm-shifting, and well-written book I’ve read in a long time! I think I must have highlighted about half the book on my kindle, so there is a lot for me to digest and unpack. My intention is therefore to do this in a series of posts. It will probably take me a while – it’s already been a couple of weeks since I finished the book :)

Cordelia Fine is a research psychologist, and her book is a comprehensive review and discussion of the science around sex differences in the brain structure and functioning, thinking and behaviour. The overwhelming message of the book is that there is, in fact, no good evidence that males and females are hard-wired to be different in these ways, despite popular notions to the contrary. In fact, these “popular notions” turn out to be very powerful, and undermine some of the science in a fundamental way, as she begins to show in the first section.

She focuses on numerous experiments that show a difference in people’s behaviour or performance at tasks depending on whether gender is made ‘salient’, that is, brought into their minds in some way, at the start of the experiment. It seems people unconsciously become more inclined to act in line with cultural notions of typical male and female behaviour or abilities, as soon as their gender identity is brought into focus – by being told that it is a gender-related test, say, or even by something as simple as having to tick a box to indicate their gender before doing a test.

Indeed, this is true not just of gender but of all sorts of social identities (or ‘hats’) that we assume.

“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’.”

These results, of course, cast serious doubt on other studies that claim to show an inherent gender difference without having accounted for or recognised this ‘priming’ effect. One prominent scientist who has produced a lot of work in support of gender differences is Simon Baron-Cohen, who also contributed to the collection of essays I read a while back on the women-in-science question. Cordelia Fine points out that self-report questionnaires, as used in some of his work, are problematic in various ways and particularly vulnerable to the effect of gender priming. It was found in subsequent research that:

“… if you want to predict people’s empathic ability you might as well save everyone’s time and get monkeys to fill out the self-report questionnaires. And so to find, as Baron-Cohen does, that women score relatively higher on the EQ [“empathy quotient”] is not terribly compelling evidence that they are, in fact, more empathic. Nor is it hard to come up with a plausible hypothesis as to why they might give themselves undeservedly higher scores. As we saw in the previous chapter, when the concept of gender is primed, people tend to perceive themselves in more stereotypical ways. The statements in the EQ could conceivably prime gender on their own.”

She describes a much more realistic experiment in which two participants are left to converse freely while waiting for the experiment to “start”, then have to watch a video of their conversation and report how they felt at certain points. They also have to state what they think the conversation partner was feeling – and this is tested against what the partner actually reports.

“There are no actors posing expressions, no narrow strips of eyes, no disembodied voices and hands, no carefully choreographed and scripted scenes. Instead, people are interacting in a natural and unscripted way that generates a stream of successive mental states to be inferred from a rich variety of clues. You might expect men to struggle with such a demanding test, but they do not. As Ickes reports in Everyday Mind Reading, much to everyone’s surprise, in the first seven studies to use this measure no gender differences were found…”

She also recounted an experiment where, as an incentive for inferring another person’s mental state,

“… they earned $2 for every correct answer. This financial incentive levelled the performance of women and men, showing that when it literally ‘pays to understand’ male insensitivity is curiously easily overcome.”

So: it’s not that there aren’t gender differences in performance at various tasks, or behaviours. It’s that our gender identities, combined with our culturally-inherited beliefs about gender, have such a strong effect that we can’t really say for sure they aren’t entirely responsible for these differences. And the effect they have is scarily hidden from our awareness (and, seemingly, from that of some high-profile researchers). It’s all too easy and natural to ascribe traits to an inherent gender-specific personality type, since we already acquire such a view from the cultural “language” of gender (e.g. the Mars and Venus thing) – and this, of course, only makes the view more deeply ingrained.

What difference does it make whether gender is innate or socially-primed, if the end result is the same? Well, when one sex is privileged over the other in society, it matters a great deal that we don’t reinforce the stereotypes that work in service of such power dynamics. If gender is a cultural language, it’s arguably a matter of social justice that it should be dismantled and redefined, to some extent. But more on that later :)

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