We are regularly told that men and women play different roles in society because of fundamental biological differences. It is often assumed, for instance, that women are less able to think logically because their brains are less structured for reasoning than men’s brains.
Men, meanwhile, are said to be better suited to disciplines that use logic, such as maths and science, but not so good at communicating, empathising or multi-tasking.
In reality, these myths are a cover for a system that continues to discriminate against women.
The human mind is much more fluid than the stereotypes claim, and differences between male and female behaviour aren’t biologically determined—they are learned from society.
Cordelia Fine, a scientist researching the brain, has written a new book called Delusions Of Gender—The Real Science Behind Sex Difference.
She told Socialist Worker, “I’ve been really horrified by how information has been misrepresented in books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
“When I got knee deep in the scientific literature, what seemed to be a very solid structure is actually full of holes and crumbles away in your hands.
“I decided to write my book to explain how these popular books misrepresent and misunderstand what neuroscience can tell us about the differences between men and women.
“I wanted to take all this fascinating research that tells a much more complex and interesting story about gender—and make it accessible to everyone.”
Fine looks at research that knocks down some of the myths about male and female behaviour, and highlights the impact that the stereotypes themselves have on the way people act.
One study looked at two groups of students in France. The first group was asked to rate the accuracy of stereotypes about gender differences in maths and art capabilities.
They were then asked to rate their own abilities in these subjects. Next they reported their scores on art and maths tests that they had taken a couple of years earlier.
The girls reported that they had done better in the art test than they really had, while they underestimated how well they had done in maths—and the boys inflated their maths scores.
A second group of students were not asked about gender stereotypes before reporting their scores—and did not distort their results.
Fine says that, because the first group had gender stereotypes at the forefront of their minds, this influenced how they assessed their own abilities.
She also draws on studies in schools and universities that have shown that stereotypes and expectations not only affect how people rate themselves—they can also affect actual performance.
Shape-rotation tasks are frequently used to measure gender difference in cognition and 75 percent of those who score above average are male. This is used to justify the fact that men are over-represented in science and maths.
But expectations based on gender play an important role in shaping the results.
Fine reports that, when a group of students were told that the task was linked with success in aviation engineering and nuclear propulsion engineering, “men came out well ahead”.
But when the test was “feminised”—and students told the task tested skills needed in clothes design, interior design and flower arranging—the effects were reversed.
In other research, different groups took the same tests. One group was told that, due to genetics, men do better. Another was told that women do better for the same reason.
Women’s performance differed between the two groups—they performed just as well as men in the “women do better” group.
The pseudo-science that declares different behaviour in men and women to be rooted in biology also draws on differences in brain size and shape.
But as Fine writes, “Unless we’re happy to start comparing the spatial or empathising skills of big-headed men and women to their pin-headed counterparts, we may have to abandon the idea that we will find the answers to psychological gender differences in grey matter, white matter, corpus callosum size or any other alleged difference in brain structure that turns out to have more to do with size than sex.”
In any case, as Fine shows in the research quoted in her book, it is impossible to separate the way people’s brains work from the society that surrounds them.
And Fine stresses another failing of this idea—that scientists can’t examine gender in a vacuum.
Fine told Socialist Worker, “Nobody is just male or just female. We’re all lots of other things, based on class, ethnic background and so on.
“Gender interacts with all these other social identities so it won’t affect everyone in the same way.”
Myths about male and female biology aren’t new, but they are resilient.
The Essential Difference—a book by Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen—is an irritating reminder of how far we have to go. He still pushes the theory that, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
But real changes in the way we live have had some impact on science.
Fine points out that the transformation that has taken place in men’s and women’s lives undermine claims that biology determines our behaviour.
If women are “naturally” maternal and hardwired to have children, for example, why are more and more women choosing not to?
“The differences that ‘hardwired brain’ theories are trying to explain are getting smaller,” said Fine.
“No one would put forward a neurological theory now explaining why women shouldn’t be able to vote—because women have not only proved themselves capable of voting but also of being voted for.”
So why do such theories persist and become so popular?
“Scientists are influenced by the society they live in—and the gender inequality that surrounds them,” said Fine.
“Our society is so stratified by gender that it seems like a very important division. It has an impact on science—so when scientists look at male and female brains they will, by default, look for differences.
“Any difference they do find seems important. That study will then get picked up by the media, which is also preoccupied with sex differences, and it feeds into popular culture.”
Despite the changes that have taken place in women’s lives and the resulting changes in ideas, Fine argues that these shifts aren’t automatic. She stresses the need to keep fighting against ideas that turn women and men into caricatures.
“We can’t just assume that gender inequality will continue to decrease,” she said. “It reduces our motivation to work at gender equality.”
Fine concluded, “There is a popular, widely held view that science has definitively shown that we are hardwired in such a way that to strive for equality is pointless and futile.
“But science has not shown this and it’s very important to remember that.”
The impact of gender stereotypes is not confined to the classroom.
Men and women are constantly bombarded with messages about how they “should” behave and what roles are “suitable” for them. For women, the message is often that there is a limit on our horizons.
The prevalence of the pseudo-science that backs this up, despite evidence to the contrary, reinforces how much we still have to fight for.
Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £14.99. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848