I enjoy seeing images and reading descriptions of how people perceived the potential of the near future. For example, I recently saw an illustration from the 1900s that showed a room full of people in the year 2000 wearing full Edwardian dress and sitting around a radium fireplace. What is often amusing about these forecasts is that certain areas of life seem so set in stone that no one can imagine them changing. Clothing and hairstyles are certainly one good example. Gender roles are even more interesting: A 1967 vision of the future features a home computer that mom will use to shop for clothes and dad will use to pay the bills and see how much he owes in taxes. The technology is expected to develop, but the people are seen as fairly static.
The theme of Cordelia Fine’s latest book is that these unexamined assumptions help create the reality we study when we examine human behavior and also influence our interpretation of what we see. The first section of the book examines the way our assumptions about gender influence the very behavior we study when we look for inherent gender differences. For example, spatial reasoning is generally taken to be a particularly male skill. Fine cites a study where women outperformed men on a mental rotation task when it was presented in terms of stereotypically female activities (interior decorating, for example), but men did better than women when it was presented in terms of stereotypically male activities (nuclear propulsion engineering, say). This is just one example of many studies that revealed how responsive we are to social cues—even something as subtle as checking a box to indicate our gender before starting a test. Fine covers other aspects of how expectations color the ways that we perceive other people’s behavior, such as different reactions to more or less the same behavior in men and women in leadership positions.
To me, the chapter on stereotype threat seemed simultaneously the saddest and the most promising part of this section. Stereotype threat is what you’re under when you are performing a task that a social group you belong to is believed to be bad at, and it often has a negative effect on progress or performance. Fine writes, “It’s disconcerting to think that those who belong to negatively stereotyped groups might be pervasively hampered by stereotype threat effects in their academic life.” It seems like such a waste to me that thousands of capable brains, especially young brains, are not performing up to their potential because they are stressed by false beliefs along the lines of “Girls can’t do math” or “Guys are not good with words” (or beliefs about what people of your ethnicity are capable of or good at, for that matter). On the other hand, this does indicate that the human race has reserves of untapped, or inadequately tapped, potential on which to draw.
The second section is about the ways in which new results in neuroscience are often interpreted in terms of the same old gender stereotypes. It was surprising to me how many of the things that I thought I knew about gender differences are in fact not really well established. For example, you may have heard about (shoot, I may have written about) articles investigating the influence of fetal testosterone, which is supposedly the basis of some gender differences. I learned that no one has found a good correlation between any of the measurements made so far and any of the various supposedly masculine skills or behaviors that have been examined. (Fine makes an excellent point in the context of this discussion: Men are sometimes said to be better at science, but we haven’t even identified precisely which cognitive abilities make for a successful career in science, so it’s a bit premature to begin trying to identify the prenatal influences that produce the scientifically minded brain.) Another example: Females are said to have a larger corpus callosum, the band of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s hemispheres, but this finding is not cast in stone; in fact, it was rejected in a 2008 review article.
Furthermore, Fine makes the point that even when gender differences in brain activity are truly identified, they don’t necessarily represent something hardwired. We’re learning to understand the brain as a fairly plastic thing, and the effects of socialization surely show up there (where else would they appear?). She quotes neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier to the effect that “Biology can be said to define possibilities but not determine them; it is never irrelevant but it is also not determinant.” It almost seems to me that we are flexible creatures who for some reason really like to see each other in terms of fixed, either-or categories. Anyway, if you have read much in the way of popular science regarding gender differences in the brain, this section of the book may give you some surprises; it certainly provides a lot of valuable information. Chapter 14, “Brain Scams,” is particularly useful as a corrective to some of the pop psychology takes on gender differences.
The third section goes into how socialization occurs, and in particular how parents pass their beliefs about gender on to their children. For example, she has a fascinating discussion of gender-neutral child-rearing. This much-lauded concept is extremely hard to realize in practice; she describes the efforts one couple made to provide a truly gender-neutral background for their children, and it was a Herculean undertaking. People tend to overlook the many influences at work and attribute their children’s choices to genetics if they do not match what the parent is overtly promoting. (If I give a little girl toy trucks and a chemistry set but she wants dolls and a makeup set instead, it must be her hardwired femininity coming out, not all the advertising she sees, the trips down the toy aisle at the store, the television shows and books and movies that promote gender stereotypes, my own unconscious beliefs and behaviors, or the way her friends behave.)
It was almost amusing to read about some of the studies of supposedly gendered preferences measured in very young children. Six-month-old babies acted more interested in a pink doll or a blue truck depending on whether they were female or male, respectively, which is taken to indicate innate gender-based preferences. Has evolution really had time to teach human babies much about trucks (or the color blue, for that matter)? The people who care for them, on the other hand, have had time to teach them plenty, even at six months. (By the way, one interesting fact I picked up is that the current color-coding scheme using pink and blue is fairly recent; in fact, through the end of the 19th century, babies and young children of both genders generally wore white dresses, and when colors began to be used, pink was originally the color for boys.)
Fine has many other amusing but pointed observations about parent-child interactions. For example, even parents who want to stretch the gender boundaries for their daughters will be much more rigid about maintaining them in their sons. She quotes a mother whose son kept asking for a Barbie, so she and her husband “compromised” by getting him a NASCAR Barbie. (There are negative words for women that have no male equivalents—think of “slut,” for example, and words of that ilk—but males get the short end of the stick on this one: the word “tomboy” is, at least these days, attractive in a way that the rough male equivalent, “sissie,” is not.)
I highly recommend the book. The science of human behavior acquires various encrustations of half-baked or misunderstood sorta-facts as it works its way into the popular consciousness; aspects are emphasized or ignored for political or social reasons, and in some cases, the studies are over-interpreted or poorly done to begin with. Gender roles are one of the more touchy areas where science is easily misinterpreted or influenced by biases, although as Fine points out, “to those interested in gender equality there is nothing at all frightening about good science. It is only carelessly done science, or poorly interpreted science, or the neurosexism it feeds, that creates cause for concern.” Regarding that untapped potential I mentioned earlier in this review, Fine has this to say in the epilogue:
When a woman persists with a high-level math course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotion, values, interests, hormones, and brains—because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.
Notes for the curious:
The mental rotation study is described in Spatial Cognition and Gender: Instructional and Stimulus Influences on Mental Image Rotation Performance, M. J. Sharps, J. L. Price, and J. K. Williams, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18(3), 413–425, 1994.
The study about toy dolls and trucks is described in Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual Interest in Toys, G. M. Alexander, T. Wilcox, and R. Woods, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(3): 427–433, 2009.
For more on color-coded children’s clothing, see this Smithsonian Magazine article. Check out the slide show, which features Franklin Roosevelt as a little boy. Coincidentally, This Is Not Porn just posted a photo of a very young Ernest Hemingway.