Delusions of gender
A dispatch from the gender wars: are there”male“ and “female” brains?
The gender wars take no
prisoners. In 2005, suggesting that there might indeed be innate
between men and women derailed the career of Harvard
Larry Summers. He reemerged, years later, as President Obama’s sometime
finance guru). Meanwhile, a host of
neuroscientists report differences between the brains of men and women
they say, account for different abilities and career choices.
Psychologist and author Cordelia Fine disagrees
with the neuroscientists.
In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds,
and Neurosexism Create
Difference, she has no
time for the “special powers” that pop brain science currently imputes
female brain, reminding us that such claims were made long before the
resonance imaging machine was invented.
She takes aim at books
What Could He Be Thinking?
hear that images of male and female brains were “marriage saving” for
Michael Gurian and his wife, to say nothing of Gurian’s Leadership and the Sexes which “links the actual
male/female brain differences to every aspect of business.”
that doesn’t make you feel like Employee Double X or XY
“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for
The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and
systems,” says Cambridge psychologist
Cohen. But is that true? And is it why right-brainers (= mostly women)
rule the future?
distinguished by the absence of shrill feminist rhetoric. Thank heaven,
we’ve all heard enough of that. Put another way: Men could be smarter
women. That might not seem fair to the rest of us. But what doesn’t seem
the rest of us could still be true, and we would still have to live with
Unless, of course, we prefer Potemkin Villages of mandatory half-female
in all subjects, so we can demonstrate that bureaucracy trumps reality.
However, Fine’s main point - massively documented throughout the
is that so many of the findings in this area are flawed that it would be
not to base any judgment on them. She assembles a pretty good case by
not primarily at the distortions of pop psychology, but at flaws in the
literature. There she found much evidence of “gaps, assumptions,
inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.”
much of the primary literature is based on determinism - in an
world. Whether due to “neural or hormonal roots” (The Sexual
surge of fetal testosterone which will decide “the very nature of the
(Brain Sex), the fix is in, we
are told. Fine
argues, by contrast, that the mind is a cluster of psychological
cannot be understood apart from the culture with which it interacts.
Most of the way, I am with her. It’s refreshing (and
- at last - a careful psychologist takes aim at the pop culture science
degrades both pop culture and science. For example, her book is
of the evolutionary psychology nonsense about what Neolithic
man or woman
“would have done” and so, the argument runs, it’s in our genes to do it
But then, at page 4, something changed: I was asked
write down what I thought males and females are like. My ideas did not
approved research findings of rampant sexism, and by page 5, I was
my mind harbours stereotypes (big, beefy vs. pink, frilly) without “the
encumbrances of awareness, intention, and control.” So, after all this
still don’t know what I think, but the researchers do? Many readers, I
would share my restlessness at that point ...
That said, Fine
exhaustive job of critiquing neuroscience and psychology research that
have begun with its own premise - that men and women have different
structures or styles - and tries to find evidence to match. The brain is
ocean, so no surprise they found something. She introduces much research
contradicts the Difference model, and anyone writing on such a sensitive
should definitely look into it. That sort of caution might have saved
Still, in the end, I find myself asking: If
no significant differences between men and women, why did women
short end of the stick - or so we are told - for thousands of years? And
we eventually need a women’s rights movement, not a men’s rights
not till recently anyway)? And why are
so many Muslim
women supporters of what seems like oppression to non-Muslim
Westerners, in spite
of the women’s rights movement?
One possible clue is offered by a
traditional religious source: The curse on Eve after she ate
apple was that “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule
you.” (Genesis 3:16b) Many people have assumed that “he will rule over
you” is a
legal prescription, but that is far from clear. What’s predicted there
Eve will desire a relationship with Adam and accept his domination in
Is it true? I’ve seen many women suppress
instincts if they sense that the man they desire doesn’t find such
attractive. In their case, brain-based theories, pro or con, are just so
whistling down the wind. The answer is much simpler: The women made a
relationship over achievement, irrespective of their testable abilities.
But hats off to Cordelia Fine for providing enough balancing
to give us cultural freedom to discuss these questions without losing
O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual
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