Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

My mother spent a year or so teaching at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, one of the posh boys schools, at a time when women didn’t do that (perhaps they still don’t?). It was the early seventies and she was a huge hit with the boys – big tits and sexy legs – and the teachers – big tits, sexy legs…arrhh, no, I mean great mind, they all admired her mind no end. They admired the way it went all the way up to her breasts. I mean the top of her head. All the way up there. One of the reasons she left was because they were all so very kind to her. ‘Monica,’ they’d kindly say to her, ‘you don’t have to bother going to staff meetings.’ The fact that she protested and insisted she wanted to go to staff meetings was of no avail. It is one of those things, isn’t it? Nobody wants to go to staff meetings, every man there must have rather envied the idea that femininity could excuse her, and yet my mother had to insist on her innate right to go to the darn things. To be fair, my mother’s the exception, one of those who really did like doing stuff like that, a trait I have most certainly neither inherited nor acquired.

So she left and went to Methodist Ladies College, the posh girls equivalent. At some point two of the kind male teachers from PAC happened to be visiting MLC, so she took them to the staff room for a cuppa. Afterwards she washed her cup and said to them ‘If you are wondering why I don’t wash yours, I happen to believe that men are just as good as women at washing up.’ ‘Oh, better,’ said one of them to her, ‘Much better.’

And that is pretty much the point of this guide to the literature on the brain differences between men and women. If there were some reason why men suddenly thought that washing teacups was a desirable occupation, there would be an academic redefinition of the brain to fit this. In fact for now it is the other way around. The desirable occupations in life, the ones that are seen as the plums, must be taken up by men rather than women because they have the right brain composition. Depending on how good your sense of humour is, it is either discomforting or hilarious to discover that neuroscience is not above redefining what is ‘necessary’ depending on how their business of deciphering the brain develops.

This explains the choice of word in the subtitle – neurosexism – but it is the sort of thing that irritated me as I read this – I don’t like the current style of pop science where impartiality is a positive defect. It’s like there is something going on which we might call ‘extreme pop science’. You have to outdo the last writer in outrageousness. But while I was aghast at some of the ways she put things, I imagine the reader at large would not have noticed, let alone taken umbrage. Fine probably thinks it was acceptable to do so because all that mattered was getting her very important point across. I couldn’t disagree more. Her material spoke for itself, the relentless mass of it which she brings to bear. She didn’t need to be spurious on top of it. She should have left that for her publicly disgraced subjects. As it is, by waving the flag of her partiality – which she somehow attempts to do whilst claiming that this is the issue with the other side – right in our faces, she left me wondering if she is as trustworthy as she wants to be. Having the longest bibliography in the world doesn’t cut the mustard if the reader is left gasping at the shamelessness with which she prejudicially discusses her data. Take this, for example:

Women in the stereotype threat condition listed more than twice as many negative thoughts about the maths test….As this negativity built up, it increasingly interfered with performance. Although in the first half of the test both groups scored on average about 70%, by the latter half of the exercise the control group’s performance had slightly improved (to 81%) whereas the threat group’s performance had plummeted to 56%.

Does Fine think we are complete idiots? The difference between 70 and 81 is 11%. The difference between 70% and 56% is 14%. Yes, we are idiots, apparently, so we are going to finish these complex sums in full. The difference between 14% and 11% is 3%. THREE PRECENT. But that difference permits Fine to talk of a slight improvement up and a veritable PLUMMETING down. If it were in a Murdoch tabloid telling us why we should vote for the Tories I’d object. Well, I’m not going to keep quiet because it’s about an important topic and Fine has to get her message across whatever it takes. THAT, Ms Fine, is what Murdoch thinks too.

What comes across more than anything from this book is that psychology is still a subject so primitive in its workings that to take anything from it at all is dangerous. Even by the slack standards of the practice of science it is woefully insufficient in both method and attitude. By all means be wary of the pop science you next read saying that the male and female brains are fundamentally different. But equally, but wary of each and every piece of pop science – and the real science from which it emanates. Whatever type of brain it turns out you have, you’ll be a better person for it.


One thought on “Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

  1. I still don’t think she did anything particularly bad in the passage you quote. The important thing is that the changes are in opposite directions.

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