Delusions of Gender is a truly interesting study of the (mostly flawed) studies in neurological science intended to explain gender differences between men and women that originate in the brain. It got a lot of press when it first came out a few years ago, and deservedly so — with nearly 100 out of 340 pages dedicated to footnotes and the bibliography, it’s impressively researched and satisfyingly comprehensive.
Cordelia Fine’s main argument, after definitively surveying the field, is that neurological claims to identify and explain “hard-wired” sex differences are greatly exaggerated. She posits that the conclusions drawn by various researchers pointing to such differences are rooted in bad science and, possibly, just good-ol’ bias on the part of the researchers. Published studies completely lacking statistical proof, relying on unproven or faulty methodology, omitting or failing to provide data from control groups, and incompletely considering confounding or mediating factors seem to be par for the course, at least as far as the myriad studies documented by Fine go.
She focuses, quite a bit, on studies performed with children, following from the assumption that the earlier the subject can be observed, the less likely s/he is to have absorbed cultural messages that impact gender performance. Many of these studies, and parents of young children who have been interviewed, suggest that regardless of valiant attempts to maintain a gender-neutral atmosphere, their children seem to find a way to fall along gender lines. Girls pick up dolls; boys play with trucks. In covering these studies, Fine offers counterpoints: a study, purportedly explaining differences in empathy between human men and women, measured brain activity in — wait for it — dead salmon. In less absurd cases, when tests are performed on actual humans, Fine still has compelling examples of other contradictory studies. For every paper showing that women underperform compared to men on math tests, Fine has a handful documenting the “stereotype threat” phenomenon, where women only seem to do more poorly than men in a mixed-sex testing environment, or when women are “primed” to remember that they are women and women don’t score as high in math; women who receive neutral or positive messages about test performance do just as well as men on identical tests. For every study documenting that young children perform gender in “expected” ways, Fine details several pointing out that children are remarkably sensitive to their environments, and that they notice and assign gender very early on as social indicators. As such, it’s not ludicrous to suggest that “nurture” creeps in early, and in subtle but still defining ways.
Fine particularly takes issue with the idea of “neuroplasticity,” or hard-wiring. Even where she concedes that some studies pick up small differences — for instance, one study where one-year olds of both sexes spent a similar amount of time during observation playing with “girlish” toys, but boys spent longer playing with “boyish” toys than girls did — she points out that the boys and girls both played with the others’ toys for a significant amount of time, and it’s as children advance in age that differences become more pronounced. Put more simply, studies in the youngest children, even those that detect minute differences, don’t suggest that “all boys” or “all girls” behave a certain way from birth that is distinctly and significantly different from each other. That the drift toward opposite sides of the room is learned behavior and, furthermore, that some boys and girls — in significant numbers — never completely follow prescribed gender behavior suggest that there are enough exceptions to the “hard-wired gender rule” that it shouldn’t be a rule at all. Maybe the two bell curves differ slightly, but they’re still more similar than different in the brain.
And in the brain is where Fine gets into some really interesting data. In conjunction with psychological studies and data, many researchers have attempted to use the brain — starting from primitive techniques that measure the size of the brain based on head circumference, to fancy fMRI imaging studies today. Some of these studies, taken together over time, are downright hilarious: contradictory claims from researchers saying that men are better at spatial processing (good for math and physics) because they have greater white-matter volume and can better process data within a hemisphere, to learning later that fMRI that men show better activation across hemispheres than women during spatial processing tasks, which, fine, except that the previous wisdom was that bilteral brain activity used to be the explanation for why women are so good at empathy and emotion. This isn’t the only example, but it’s indicative of a field that, overall, likes to use the newest technology to try to explain the brain — which, for all of the pretty pictures we’ve taken, we still understand very poorly — and finds ways to do so in favor of men’s abilities.
I only have one complaint about the book, which is that it gets a little repetitive. This is partly because the same handful of rebuttals works really well across a wide swatch of arguments in favor of the gender binary. I’ve already mentioned two of them: the powerful impact of stereotypes and living up to them is a real phenomenon, and that the larger observed differences between men and women don’t appear to be so ingrained as much as learned and applied. Where those two criticisms don’t apply, Fine critiques the methodology of the studies themselves and makes important points about introducing bias as a researcher. Overall, I think this is an important read, and it’s delivered with enough humor and panache so as to not be completely dry. As a feminist and scientist, this book was right up my alley, but you don’t need to be either to enjoy it.