How Our Minds, Neurosexism, and Society Create the “Male” and “Female” Brain


Cordelia Fine’s book, “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference,” just may upend everything you’ve come to believe about males, females, and hardwiring. What if men aren’t naturally good at math and fixing things, and women aren’t automatically nurturing and empathetic? Fine, an academic psychologist and writer, proves that much of the neuroscientific findings in this area aren’t credible, and more of what we believe about the genders is a result of social programming. We spoke to Fine about the subtle (and not so subtle) ways gender stereotyping impacts our culture.

Brain World: What made you want to write on this topic?

Cordelia Fine: It began with a book I read as a parent, which claimed that hardwired sex differences mean that boys and girls should be parented and taught differently. I found this really interesting, but when I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was shocked by how badly the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented. Instead, what I found was a great deal of evidence that our minds are exquisitely attuned to the social environment, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes.

BW: You write that many of the supposed sex differences in the brain are overstated or wrong, but what does separate male and female brains?

CF: There are a few established, uncontroversial differences, such as the male brain being, on average, about 8 percent bigger. There’s also a difference in a tiny region of cells in the hypothalamus. But these differences have not been related to psychological differences.

BW: Is it accurate to say hormones have more of an effect on gender roles than brain wiring?

CF: First of all, contrary to popular belief, there just aren’t neat relationships between testosterone levels and “masculine” qualities, like social dominance or visuospatial skills. But let’s not forget the massive changes that have taken place in women’s lives even in the last 60 years, [which have] taken place in the absence of any such remarkable changes in the differences between male and female hormone levels. The focus now has turned to prenatal hormones — in particular, fetal testosterone. However, there’s remarkably little evidence that higher levels of fetal testosterone hardwire a male brain, or that lower levels hardwire a female brain.

BW: So the fact that the male brain is 8 percent bigger has no bearing on what’s going on inside?

CF: Brain size probably does have bearing on what goes on inside, in the sense that bigger brains may be engineered slightly differently [than] smaller ones. But there’s no evidence that men and women with larger brains — there’s quite a lot of overlap in brain size — think differently, or are better at certain kinds of skills, than men and women with smaller brains.

BW: But isn’t it comforting to think there are innate differences between men and women, and that explains so much?

CF: Yes, I think part of the appeal of information about sex differences in the brain is that it lets us off the hook. There’s so much gender inequality, and if we can pin it on our different brains, then that’s a lot of work making things fairer that suddenly we no longer have to do.

BW: Many mothers will emphatically say they can’t see a difference in the way they’re raising their children, yet from infancy the girls love dolls and the boys love trucks. How do you explain it?

CF: Actually, sex differences in toy preferences are very subtle in infancy, so part of the answer to this question is that we do tend to see our children through the “lens of gender,” as psychologist Sandra Bem put it.

The fact is that babies are born into a world in which sex is the most important social division, and it’s a world which is absolutely saturated with information about what goes with being male and what goes with being female. Babies seem to be primed to prefer what is familiar — which has to make you wonder about the effect of the pink/blue divide that starts from birth — and they are also born to parents who have a head full of assumptions and expectations about gender, whether consciously endorsed and acknowledged, or not. We need to take very seriously how this contributes to the really very subtle sex differences seen in infancy.

BW: Surely parents will be dismayed to learn they’re unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes. What should they be aware of?

CF: I’m actually not sure that all parents will be dismayed! I describe in the book some of the curious contradictions of 21st century parenting. Some parents, at least, genuinely want to rear children outside the constraints of rigid stereotypes, yet even before children are born, parents have different expectations.

Parents say they are open-minded about their sons taking up nontraditional careers, like nursing; but in the very same questionnaire they reveal a preference that their sons behave in gender-typical ways. And, even though they sincerely claim to hold the two sexes as equal, parents simultaneously devalue the feminine and limit boys’ access to it.

This articles was first published in Brain World Magazine.

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