Book Review: Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender

Cordelia Fine’s book confronts the nature vs nurture debate and argues that gender difference is not hardwired in the brain.

Boys, Girls


If you believe that the tide of blue and pink that greets children whenever they walk into a toy or children’s clothes shop is just about colours, Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender will make you think again.

The book shows how heavily embedded in our culture the idea of gender difference is and how much we play on it from pregnancy upwards. She shows, for instance, that women who know the sex of their baby already attribute more ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics to it than those who don’t.

She also suggests visiting a children’s clothes shop and telling the salesperson that you are seeking clothes for a newborn baby. “Count how many times you are asked ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ You are likely to have a 100 percent hit rate if you try this one spare afternoon.”

She states: “How should children ignore gender when they continually watch it, hear it, see it, are clothed in it, sleep in it, eat off it?”

“Because he is a boy…..”

As the mother of three girls and a boy, I wanted to cheer at this point. I can’t get through a conversation about my son without someone telling me that whatever he does it is because he is a boy. Whether he sleeps or doesn’t, whether he smiles or doesn’t, whether he is hungry or not, it doesn’t even seem to matter if the so-called words of wisdom are contradictory.

Fine shows how we exaggerate supposed gender differences to such an extent that it is impossible to disentangle the nature from the nurture. The book comes at a timely moment as scientific advances in fields such as neuroscience are being used to reinforce gender stereotypes.

Fine takes on this research and the pseudo-research which spins out from it which appears to be built on inference and wishful thinking more than objective reality.

She shows the deleterious impact of such thinking on all sorts of realms of experience, from job choice to the double shift of work/housework done by most women.

Simplistic certainties

Fine says that neuroscience is very much in its infancy and extracting simplistic certainties from it such as that men think more logically than women/women are more empathetic are just that – simplistic, embedded in a culture which has grown accustomed to such exaggeration. She says people will look back in a few decades and laugh at the naivety of the conclusions being drawn from the research.

She argues strongly that we, in fact, know very little about how the brain works and what we do know suggests it is very malleable and can be influenced by the kind of cultural influences that we pile onto it with our exaggeration of sexual difference.

Exaggerated differences

Fine does not say that there are no differences between men and women, but she says the point is that we exaggerate the differences that there are and that the similarities between human beings are much greater.

How, she says, can you say that men are better at maths and science when women have suffered generations of being told they can’t think logically, have been discriminated against in scientific professions and lack positive role models which might make a career in science seem more normal?

She states, for instance: “The existing gender inequality of occupations, the sexist ads, the opinions of presidents of high-profile universities [here she is referring to Lawrence Summers, the ex-president of Harvard, who said women lack an intrinsic aptitude for science], not to mention all the ‘brain facts’ [discussed by some neuroscientists] – these all interact with, and shape, our minds.”

She cites research showing how the gender gap in maths and science achievement and gender stereotypes may be mutually reinforcing. The book is, indeed, full of references to research which undermine simple male/female stereotypes. There is fascinating research, for instance, on transgender people who find that they are treated differently in the workplace – ie with more respect – if they change from female to male.

She also takes apart the way the language of science has been appropriated to justify ludicrous claims, for instance, that women, particularly high-flying career women, benefit from doing housework whereas men are harmed by it. Apparently John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, argues that doing housework releases oxytocin which is dangerously low in career women. Household tasks like the laundry, shopping, cooking and cleaning are, however, bad for men because they require testosterone-producing tasks.

Fine’s main point, though, is an optimistic one about the brain’s flexibility and openness to change. She writes: “Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.”

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is published by Icon Books, price £14.99. 

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