Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

“Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as – poof! - it's gone.” (Delusions of Gender ch. 3, Backwards and in High Heels).

In Delusions of Gender Cordelia Fine examines claims about the supposed “hardwired” differences between male and female brains, debunking them one by one. The subject matter is important and serious but the tone for the most part is light and she avoids using too much scientific jargon, keeping the book accessible for the average reader with a few chuckles along the way.

Fine examines the history of science being used to justify sexist stereotypes, such as the idea that women are less suited to politics, science and mathematics than men, or that women are more emotional and men are more rational. She looks at the way these stereotypes persist today and the effect that they have on women in the workplace and at home. For example, many books have been written attempting to justify the way married women still tend to do the majority of the housework even if they also do paid work. I was especially incensed by the suggestions made by John Gray, writer of the popular Men are From Mars, Women Are from Venus books, who claimed that doing routine housework was good for women's health, because doing cooking and cleaning somehow restores the oxytocin which working women miss out on when they leave the domestic sphere, while at the same time being bad for men, because remembering where stuff goes in the kitchen is “a bit exhausting for a man” (Delusions of Gender p81). I rolled my eyes so hard at this I think I saw my own oxytocin deprived brain.

As a mother I found the parts about attempts at “gender neutral parenting” particularly interesting. While people often joke that gender neutral parenting makes no difference, Fine contended that parents employ gender stereotypes in parenting all the time even if they actively try not to. She found that once the sex of a child was learned via ultrasound the parents already began to think of and speak to their unborn child differently (Delusions of Gender p.192). The deluge of colour-coded clothing and gendered toys starts in utero, and couples who don't want to find out, or make public, their baby's sex ahead of time get people asking them how they will know what to buy or what colour to paint the nursery, as if newborns could even see well enough to notice pastel pink bunny stenciled walls let alone understand their significance. I know in my own conversations with fellow parents and parents to be I have occasionally been startled by comments like “I want a boy so [husband] can have someone to play cricket with”. Fine notes that aliens overhearing such conversations could be forgiven for thinking that female humans were born without any arms or legs.

Fine also criticises a number of studies and experiments that were supposed to prove hypotheses such as male and female babies having an innate preference for “boy” and “girl” toys respectively. This part of the book was a good demonstration of what to look for when reading about a scientific study (eg. Whether it has a decent sample size and proper blinding to prevent biases) and a reminder that it can be valuable to check whether a book's references actually support the author's claims.

Delusions of Gender is an easy to read book about the way science has often been misused in an attempt to justify existing stereotypes about the roles of men and women. It's an eye opening look at an important topic that continues to shape our world. Everyone should read it.

Published: 2005

Rated: ★★ ★ ★ ☆

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