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Men are from Mars ...

Have you ever caught yourself – watching little boys playing, or men at a football match - thinking that actually, when it comes right down to it, men and women are entirely different manifestations of the species?

If you have, you are not alone: there are some big names in neuroscience (and its popularisers) who promote the idea that gender difference - and its best mate, inequality – are all down to fundamental differences in our brains.

But if you want to get a bit closer to the real, as opposed to the fake facts, take a look at Cordelia Fine’s brilliant book Delusions of gender – The real science behind sex differences. (Icon Books) It’s hilarious, but be warned, it may make you cross!

Fine exposes the folly of considering our highly social brains apart from the complex contexts in which they develop and interact. Our brains are constantly responding to context and experience – intended or not. Learn a musical instrument long enough, and the bit of your brain that retains procedural knowledge will be physically different. See enough vacuum cleaners pushed around by women, and like it or not, our associative memory will pick up that pattern. This process is quick, efficient, and indiscriminate: it happens without much reference to conscious thinking or beliefs.

Fine draws on an extraordinary array of research studies to show how automatic, pervasive and inevitable learning about gender is. Ask prospective parents, and even before their off-spring are conceived, they have gendered expectations: would-be fathers want a son to teach their favourite sport to; some mothers are looking forward to daughters to do “girl things” with – share relationships, buy clothes. The arrival of baby boys is announced “with pride”, and baby girls “with happiness”. By eleven months, mothers asked to estimate the crawling prowess of their babies tended to overestimate for boys and underestimate for girls.

It’s no surprise then, that by four, children become what Fine calls “sophisticated gender theorists”, busily sorting the pink and blue messaging, and exploring and learning gender identity rules. Your little boy may love wearing lipstick when he’s one or two, but as soon as he gets a hint that it’s not generally done in his “gender team”, he will start to uphold the perceived rules – his lot do active, physical, independent, and later on, maths, science, career, high authority: the domestic, pretty, compliant, low authority mob is for his sisters. Fortunately, he won’t be short of role models: in 42 books by Dr Seuss, only one has a girl as the main protagonist….

Gender categories are at their most rigid between five and seven years. Over time, we become more open to other ways of being in the world (not every grown woman has a wardrobe full of pink tulle). But conscious reasoning can be weak competition for what’s stored in implicit memory. There’s masses of research that shows that when gender is “invoked”, stereotypes are automatically primed.

Girls asked to tick one of these boxes

o   Male

o   Female

will rate themselves worse at maths and better at verbal tasks; boys will do the opposite, even though their scores may have been similarly distributed without the gender “clue”. (Think for a moment about how often that particular bit of administrivia may have impacted on your thinking or performance!) This scary data applies even to girls who have chosen advanced maths – in fact the further they go with maths, the more likely they are to believe that “maths is a man’s world”. Could be something to do with who is actually hanging out in that world?

So what will change this? Fine says: When a woman persists with a high level maths course, or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves early to pick up children from school, they are altering  the implicit patterns of the minds around them.

In other words, change the social context and the brains will follow. One human species, sharing a common set of needs for food, shelter, love, safety, community, and growth.

Isn’t that what we’re after?





Further Reading: 

What neuroscience can tell us about the Google diversity memo

The Actual Science of James Damore's Google Memo


Further reading: Cordelia Fine's book -  Delusions of Gender

Further reading: Cordelia Fine's book - Delusions of Gender

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