Alison's Reviews > Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
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's review
Jun 09, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, gender
Read on June 09, 2012

This is the fourth book I've read in roughly seven months dealing with the debate around the neuroscience of gender, and it feels most like the outlier. I found myself wishing that Fine hadn't felt constrained to write as part of this broader debate, as a stand alone book on the topic of how we live up to our own sexist assumptions would be fascinating.

I'll say at the outset that I don't think the book really lives up to the title - the book doesn't ever really prove how differences are created exactly. Instead it focuses on showing the thousands of ways that researchers bring their own gender assumptions into measuring difference, and how, from early childhood, children learn to interpret implicit messages about gender, and how we all instinctively shift our behaviour and confidence to meeting these implicit assumptions. In doing so, it certainly shows the social construction of gender, but if there is a take-home message embedded in here, it is about the impossibility of humans truly breaking free of the culture and society we have constructed to understand who we might be within a different construction.

Many of the studies Fine cites are both fascinating and disturbing. She cites study after study that shows the mere act of being asked to define our gender can change the way we perform on a test, or respond to images. She argues persuasively that we are in fact more likely to change our behaviour from "benign" sexism than blatant discrimination. That our thoughts are governed by dozens of implicit assumptions, and that these assumptions - even when our concious mind understands them to be untrue - extend to our self perception and the expectations we set of others.

While briefly, the book tackles one of the most unasked questions in the other books I've read - if childhood gender differences in academic pursuit and games must be biologically based, what does that say for childhood racial difference (which is generally even more pronounced than gender in tests). Fine examines some of this research, and points to how powerfully we construct ideas about race at an early age as well. When these differences are mentioned in the gender debate, they are often ut down to economic and opportunity difference - to social causes. Boys and girls raised in the same houses, by "gender neutral" parents, it is argued, do not have these differences. Fine strongly challenges, however, this notion. Describing a world in which gender is the first, and strongest, difference children encounter, she points to studies which show children show a social understand of gender often in advance of a biological understanding. Where children pay less attention to what is told to them about gender, than to the patterns of behaviour they see around them.

She briefly talks about experiments with offering children different ways of defining difference, and how they respond, in what for me was the most interesting part of the book. Fine states a truth that I'm very familiar with among my friends and family, the shock that feminist parents encounter when their small children become the most rigid enforcers of gender 'norms' oftens disillusions them into certainty of biological gender difference. But Fine presents an alternative scenario - that children, at heart, just want a group to belong to, want to understand their role in the gender world. Children's desire for clear behavioural boundaries might be biological driven, but the content they put into the stereotype is socially understood. One of the strongest arguments in favour of this is that much of this content - the pink princess phenonoma - is relatively recent, historically speaking. Toy preference is one of the strongest gender differences in children - yet Fine cites studies where simply changing the colour of the toys changed the preference of children markedly.

Fine's approach is mostly look at studies of human assumption, more than to tackle the current theories around testosterone et al. The strong, and powerful, exception is a chapter on studies of human brain structure, where Fine points out the shaky basis for most claims, and even the completely contradictory findings which are both cited as justifying gender stereotypes.

The book is well written, and persuasive. I could have used more details on the differences in some of the studies, but the references are well-organised and easy to check. It's not an 'objective' book and does not pretend to be.

The areas where Fine's argument is weakest for me were in dealing with the multitude of studies of Intersex individuals, which Fine deals with briefly, and simply suggests that these women and girls know they are different, and change behaviour accordingly.

Fine also more or less ignores studies on animals, with a couple of exceptions for apes and monkeys (funniest part of the book for me - fine pointing out that a monkey selecting fake cookware toy could hardly be viewed as the "girls toy" decision it is reported as). There is, I suspect, an entire book to be written on the nature of non-simian and non-human gender construction and how relevant such studies are, but so far I've seen nothing.

This was a powerful, well-written, challenge to our notion that we can ever minimise or understand the way gender is created. Fine castigates us, at one point, for our failure of imagination in being able to envisign beyond the world we have created. In studying history, this failure is striking about other societies, who create their science and their gods alike in thier own image. I'm not sure, to be honest, it is simply a question of imagination. Maybe the world beyond our most implicit assumptions is only ever something we can briefly grasp.


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