Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

by Charlotte Phillips

Despite the suggested neurological and biological focus of the tag line of Cordelia Fine's game-changing book Delusions of Gender ('The Real Science Behind Sex Differences'), her extended study of the ways in which the male and female brain differ (or, more often, do not) draws on multiple areas including psychology, sociology, politics, history and pure science. The book, published in 2010, has more academic references than any publication I have ever come across before, all used in order to debunk the myth that gender differences are an inevitable part of our 'hardwiring'.

The overriding message of the book, recurring repeatedly throughout the thought-provokingly named chapters, is that the relatively new idea of 'biological essentialism' as a reason for innate gender differences in behaviour and skills is based upon sketchy evidence found from technologies which are only in their infancy. Biological essentialism, as Fine explains in her concise and sophisticated tone, is the concept that it is our biology that causes innate personality differences- that our genes determine our preferences, tastes and attitudes. A number of popular 'science' novels have drawn on this shaky theory to further spread the message that conforming to gender stereotypes is an inevitable part of life. Fine destroys these assumptions with reams of academically acclaimed and proven evidence, which although can make the book feel a little like periodically reading the reference pages of a biological journal, is no doubt impressive.

The book is split into three sections, each building on the evidence provided in the one before to construct the logical conclusion that it is overwhelming socialisation that leads to the majority of gender differences, rather than genetic factors. One of the most resounding examples of this is the discussion about 'gender neutral' parenting. Fine argues against the many parents who say they have tried to raise their children free of gender influences- pink and blue toys, play cooking stoves and play guns. Without discrediting these parent's efforts, Fine points out that gender neutrality is much harder to achieve than it seems on the surface. Gender neutral parenting means splitting all domestic and child caring tasks exactly 50/50- cooking, washing, cleaning, nappy changing. 

Books must be hand-revised to change all pronouns to 'they' rather than he or she, along with the pictures. This may sound drastic but this is just the tip of the iceberg- and these are only measures you can implement in your own home. More must be done to ensure a more gender neutral society, Fine explains- because how else are we going to encourage girls to think it's normal to go into science, politics or engineering? And, for that matter, how are we going to encourage boys to think it's normal to take up a profession as a therapist, secretary, or cleaner?

In a book full of astonishing statistics, thought provoking ideas and solid science, Cordelia Fine coherently puts forward a world where we treat men and women equally- and she has the evidence to prove why we should. Fine manages to combine intellectual and accessible with great skill, adding interest and fun with occasional snaps of her sharp wit in amongst the research studies. I encourage anyone with even a vague interest in biology, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, or just our place in the world to read this book. You will not be disappointed

1 comment:

  1. Helena Nelson-Smith29 January 2016 at 12:26

    Excellent review of an excellent book. This is a really important topic to talk about, because public perception - and indeed the work of some scientists - is so far from the verifiable facts, as set out by Fine. And important because gender stereotyping has a huge impact on the ability of all people to fulfil their potential, male or female.

    If you want some further reading which takes you deeper into the science with a meta-analysis of most published research on gender difference (but with fewer jokes than Cordelia's!) you might like Rebecca Jordan-Young's book, "Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences".


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