Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Delusions of Gender

My husband would probably like you to know that, for the sake of my research for this chapter, he has had to put up with an awful lot of contemptuous snorting.  For several weeks, our normally quiet hour of reading in bed before lights out became more like dinnertime in the pigsty as I worked my way through popular books about gender difference.  As a result of my research, I have come up with four basic pieces of advice for anyone considering incorporating neuroscientific findings into a popular book or article about gender: (1) unless you have a time machine and have visited a future in which neuroscientists can make reverse inferences without the nagging anxieties that keep the more thoughtful of them awake at night, do not suggest that parents or teachers treat boys and girls differently because of differences observed in their brains; (2) if you don't know what a reverse inference is, read the previous chapter of this book; (3) exercise extreme caution when making the perilous leap from brain structure to psychological function; and (4) don't make stuff up.
(Chapter 14: Brain Scans; pg. 155)

...when I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine's claim that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence to feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me.  I do this sort of thing for pleasure.)  There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression it was no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not.  Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices.  For example, let's work our way through the middle of page 162 [of The Female Brain] to the top of page 164 in her book.  We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions.  Casually, Brizendine notes, "All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women."  For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.
(Chapter 14: Brain Scans; pg. 158)

When I am in the mood to be irked, I flip through Brizendine's book.  Perhaps because of the particular stage of life I happen to be in, I found myself most enraged by her claim that only when "the children leave home, the mommy brain circuits are finally free to be applied to new ambitions, new thoughts, new ideas."  But it's the sexism that bursts through the doors of preschools and schools, cleverly disguised in neuroscientific finery, that I find most disturbing. [...]  The medal for the most outrageous claim must surely go to an American educational speaker.  According to reports sent to Mark Liberman's Language Log, this educational consultant has been informing audiences that girls see the details while boys see the big picture because the "crockus" -- a region of the brain that does not exist -- is four times larger in girls than in boys.
(Chapter 14: Brain Scans; pg. 162)

When I tell parents that I'm writing a book about gender, the most common response I get is an anecdote about how they tried gender-neutral parenting, and it simply didn't work.  (The next most frequent reaction is a polite edging away.)
(Chapter 17: Preconceptions and Postconceptions; pg. 189)

These are just a few quotes from Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference...Cordelia Fine is easily one of my favorite academic writers now.  Her wit is incredibly sharp, and she makes a scientific academic study interesting -- enjoyable, even! -- to read.  Additionally, the facts she brings to light and the historic studies she dissects (and often delicately rips apart, piece by piece, "fact" by "fact") are both interesting and alarming, in that so much of the sexism in the world is seemingly inherent because it's seeped into psyche before we're even born, pretty much.  What is particularly saddening is the amount of math and science talent in girls that is squandered and ignored because they are not approached the same way with math and science teaching -- they aren't inherently encouraged to become mathematicians, etc.  So is it any wonder that women aren't equal in the fields?  Oh, the reverse inferences!  Galling.

But perhaps one of the most striking things about the book is the study of how merely thinking that one is presupposed to be good or bad at something based on one's gender influences performance.  If you're told that this is something females do well and you're female, you're probably going to do better than if you're told that females do worse. Worse, if you're a female in a room full of male students and you're all taking a math test, simply being in the minority can cause you do to worse.  A multitude of different studies in which the presentation of simple information about a test and it's predicted outcome or lack of such information highlights the psychological aspect of sexism that is rampant in society.  A simple sentence or ratio of gender in a room can really make a difference in performance, seemingly regardless of someone's actual skill level.

I would venture to say that this is the best book I've read in 2011 so far.  Cordelia Fine is an engaging writer, and when I finished reading Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference I had the urge to flip to the beginning to start all over again.

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