The sexist brain

It looks like I have to add another book to my currently neglected reading list. In an interview, Cordelia Fine, author of a new book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), has a few provocative things to say about gender stereotypes and the flimsy neuroscience used to justify them.

So women aren’t really more receptive than men to other people’s emotions?

There is a very common social perception that women are better at understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings. When you look at one of the most realistic tests of mind reading, you find that men and women are just as good at getting what their interaction partners were thinking and feeling. It even surprised the researchers. They went on to discover that once you make gender salient when you test these abilities [like having subjects check a box with their sex before a test], you have this self-fulfilling effect.

The idea that women are better at mind reading might be true in the sense that our environments often remind women they should be good at it and remind men they should be bad at it. But that doesn’t mean that men are worse at this kind of ability.

But it seems like a Catch-22: Women who pursue careers in math are being handicapped by the fact that there are so few women pursuing careers in math.

Gender equality is increasing in pretty much all domains, and the psychological effects of that can only be beneficial. The real issue is when people in the popular media say things like, “Male brains are just better at this kind of stuff, and women’s brains are better at that kind of stuff.” When we say to women, “Look, men are better at math, but it’s because they work harder,” you don’t see the same harmful effects. But if you say, “Men are better at math genetically,” then you do. These stem from the implicit assumption that the gender stereotypes are based on hard-wired truths.

Here we have a brain, receptive and plastic and sensitive to learning, constantly rewiring itself, with a core of common, human traits hardwired into it, and over here we have scientists who have been the recipient of years of training, often brought up in a culture that fosters an interest in science and math…and somehow, many of these scientists are resistant to the idea that the brain is easily skewed in different directions by the social environment. I don’t get it. I was brought up as a boy, and I know that throughout my childhood I was constantly being hammered by male-affirmative messages and biases, and I think it’s obvious that girls were also hit with lots of their gender-specific cultural influences. Yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that the differences between men and women are largely set by our biology? That women aren’t as good at math because hormones wire up their brain in a different way than the brains of men, and it’s not because our plastic brains receive different environmental signals?

Fine appeals to my biases about the importance of environmental influences, I’ll admit; the interview is a bit thin on the details. But I’ll definitely have to read her book.