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 🙂