Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Book Review – Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bad-ass magic lady lawyers in a mystical, steampunk world, have to resurrect a dead god so he can fulfill his obligations to his followers. This is ancient, do-ut-des (“I give to you so that you will give to me”) pagan religion taken to a logical, modernist conclusion. It’s world-building after my own heart, starting with the economy and the magic system and building its way up, with a few interesting things to say about religious devotion and collective projects. Oh, and there are vampires and gargoyles and an adorable chain-smoking young priest.

The premise is so cool and the execution so good, you might miss a few of the other sweet things Gladstone throws in just because well, I assume he’s an awesome person and committed to social justice: 1) Gladstone’s world doesn’t adhere to our notions of race, and the cast of characters are diverse in color, including our main character Tara; 2) when speaking in generalities or about a person of unknown gender, both narrator and characters (with few exceptions) use “she” instead of the universal “he”; 3) in keeping with steampunk’s usual Victorian aesthetic, characters ride in horse-drawn carriages here, but without drivers. Instead, they just pay the horse (who was always doing most of the work). Lovely.

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Book Review – Delusions of Gender

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create DifferenceDelusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this three-part book, Cordelia Fine dissects the prevalent idea that men and women’s minds are biologically different, and that these inherent differences — not the special structural exploitation of women, or deep-seated cultural expectations — explain gender inequality. It is obvious from the title and from Fine’s often snarky prose where she comes down on the debate, even before you read the evidence she marshals. But given that my gut tells me that any inherent male-female mental difference is hogwash, I was curious to see whether this intuition could stand up to any scrutiny.

It can. In the first part of Delusions of Gender, Fine considers the metrices of something like, say, empathy, or scientific aptitude. Clearly responding to the famous contention of then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers that men are naturally better at science, Fine shows how academic performance can be manipulated in men and women simply by making gender — and all the cultural expectations that go along with gender — salient in a group of students’ minds. Women, for instance, do worse on math tests after watching commercials of women doing stereotypically female activities, like vaccumming or doing their make-up. Men do better on empathizing tests when a reward that men are culturally expected to value — money — is offered. Even something as subtle as asking a test-taker to identify themselves as male or female can introduce what sociologists call “stereotype threat” to the results. Without these subtle reminders of what one is expected or supposed to do, men and women show remarkably similar abilities in all kinds of tests.

Interestingly, awareness of one’s gender affects a person’s perceived strengths and interests. So, when asked to rate their verbal and math abilities, for instance, teenage girls tend to rate themselves better at verbal and worse at math than their actual grades would suggest. Teenage boys tend to report that they are better at math and worse at verbal in just the same way. Furthermore, when someone believes they are strong in a particular skill, and that people “like them” are part of a particular academic program or industry, they are also more likely to identify an interest in that arena. All of this, as Fine says, is to illustrate the way that the human mind is context specific: a person’s skills, self-perception, behavior, and interests all depend on what social identity (they perceive) is expected of them at the time.

Fine goes on to present studies of real-life marriages and businesses in which women are seemingly showing their “true selves” — in contexts that constantly tell them that traditional, stereotypical feminity is expected. Most startlingly to me were studies of housework: in male-female relationships, regardless of whether both partners work outside the home, how many hours, and how much money they make, women do more of the domestic work. This isn’t, Fine argues, because women inherently care more about dirty dishes, but because the cultural wiring of gender expectations is so deep that both men and women perceive housework as feminine. When that association contradicts their consciously held beliefs about gender equality, both men and women rationalize: she does the laundry because she really enjoys it; she tucks in the kids because her brain is hard-wired to be more sensitive. In interviews with opposite-sex couples in which the female partner had left the work force to stay at home, both partners reported that this was her choice, and that the male partner would have been supportive of her either way. But when asked how she might have kept working — i.e., if he took over some household responsibilities, if he cut back on his out-of-the-home work hours — overwhelmingly, the interviewer found that the male partners had made no concrete offers to help her keep her job.

It’s precisely the idea of hard-wiring that Fine turns to in the second part of the book. Neuroimaging studies have been used by pop-psychologists and single-sex educators to prove mental differences between men and women. Yet, as Fine explains, PET scans and fMRIs only show which areas of the brain are particularly active in any one moment. Researchers then compare images of a subject’s brain at rest (the control) with images of the subject’s brain during an activity of interest (say, listening to a sad story). These changes presume that the control image is accurate (the subject isn’t overtired, sick, or thinking about the misfortunes of their best friend); that the results are reproducible with other subjects; and that the results will be the same with the same subject at a later date. Because the techonologies involved, however, are relatively new and expensive to administer, most neuroimaging studies simply don’t have the statistical data to back them up. Sample sizes are small; experiments aren’t repeated over and over again as they would be in other branches of science. The images also aren’t easy to interpret in a clear one-to-one way between biological event (part of the brain lights up) and mental event (person is empathizing, analyzing, etc).

Furthermore, definite biological differences between men and women — such as levels of sex hormones — have not been reliably shown to cause or even correlate with mental differences, skills, or behavior. Indeed, the cultural obsession with documenting differences in men and women, Fine argues, may blind researchers and their audience to the overwhelming similarity of male and female minds. There is nothing in the universe so like a male brain as a female brain, and vice versa. And some biological differences may in fact be diverging paths to the same destination, not the biological basis for social distinction. Women, for instance, tend to have smaller bodies than men, and proportionally smaller brains. In Victorian times, this size difference was held up as definitive proof of women’s lesser intelligence. Nowadays, the justification is more nuanced: men’s brains tend to light up in specific areas in just one hemisphere of the brain during a task; women’s brains tend to light up in both hemispheres, regardless of a task’s nature. This has led to the theory that men’s brains are more specialized, supposedly explaining men’s superior spatial skills; women’s left-right-hemisphere activity supposedly explains their better verbal skills (gender differences that, we remember from Part 1, disappear when stereotype threat is neutralized). But, when neuroimaging subjects are separated by brain size instead of by sex, researchers find that a more generalized brain response is simply part of the way smaller brains work, regardless of gender. Instead of both-hemispheres-in-use being something uniquely female, it is something characteristic of brains, male or female, on the smaller end of the size spectrum — and means nothing whatever about intelligence or skills in the real world.

Another biological difference is hormonal. Developing male fetuses experience an extra wash of testosterone at six weeks of gestation. This has been argued by some to explain the particular “systematizing” nature of male minds; but some females also experience extra exposure to testosterone in utero, a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). Such girls are born with ambiguous or male genitalia, even though they are genetically female. They have not been documented to be more analytical or mathematical than other girls.

CAH girls have, however, shown a stronger preference for “male” things like trucks and sports, and less interest in “female” things like pink dresses. This, Fine argues, is likely, at least in part, the result of socialization from parents and peers, the topic to which she turns in Part 3. A parent herself of two sons, Fine takes on the notion that parents can raise their children in gender-neutral ways, and still see inherent gender differences assert themselves in a child’s interests, toys, friends, skills, and ambitions. Using studies of birth announcements and expecting mothers who know — or don’t know — the sex of their child, Fine argues that even progressive parents have culturally-determined expectations based on their offspring’s gender. Parents express more pride in birth announcements for boys; more happiness in birth announcements for girls. Expecting mothers speak more soothingly to female babies in utero, more forcefully and in lower tones to male babies. This continues after birth, when parents spend more time “babying” their infant daughters, apparently expecting infant sons to be more independent.

Young children in fact quickly learn not only through what parents say, but what parents do — and teachers, day-carers, relatives, peers, etc, etc. Unconscious clues about what toys to play with, what colors to wear, and how to primarily identify oneself (think of all those birth announcements, “It’s a Girl!”) tell young children not only that gender matters, but what’s expected of the members of each gender. Even if parents take herculean measures to treat their child in a gender-neutral way, to anesthize them to gender lessons in television, books, and advertizing, once a child reaches school-age, peers quickly socialize one another into doing what’s appropriate for their gender. Often this can be perfectly blunt: “Boys don’t wear barretts!” “Girls don’t play with guns!” Studies of preschool children show, for instance, that peer pressure strongly influences their play choices. When no one is around to watch, little boys will play more with dolls; little girls will play more with fire engines. Children are also sensitive to gendered coding: when My Little Ponies were masculinized with butch haircuts and scary teeth, the boys in one study were happy to play with them. Little girls in the same study were entranced by pink guns and purple plush army helmets, suggesting that children care not so much about the content of their toys, but that they be perceived playing with the “right” toys for their gender.

Is it possible that young children are so socially sensitive? Fine leads us through a compelling thought experiment: what if it were possible to tell, before a child was born, whether it would be left-handed or right-handed. What if the child’s clothing, room, and toys were color-coated: pink or purple for left-handers, blue for right-handers. What if direct forms of address, and storybooks, all used the label “left-hander” or “right-hander” to distinguish some people from others? “Go play with those other ‘right-handers.'” “Good morning, ‘right-handers and left-handers!'” “Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful ‘left-hander…'” What if the adjectives applied to left-handers were about appearance, while right-handers were always shown doing useful work outside? You get the idea. In such a world, how could children avoid the lesson, never directly stated though it might be, that there was something fundamentally important and inherent in the difference between being a right-hander and being a left-hander?

Finally, Fine leaves us with a plea for skepticism, a plea for honesty in science and science reporting, and a plea for awareness. We may not, she argues, ever achieve a world in which there is complete equality of men and women in all industries, in all social levels, in childrearing, in respect and value. We should not, however, accept that what we currently have is as close as biologically possible.

***One final note on the animal rights front: Fine does discuss a number of animal studies in Part 2, both to show the fluidity of gender in other species, and as examples of studies that sexists use to prove the naturalness of gender. Those who know me know that, as a vegan, I don’t condone animal experimentation, whatever we may or may not learn from them. To her credit, Fine explicitly notes that animal studies have an underlying contradiction:

“Working from an implicit we’re-all-God’s-creatures framework that we do not apply when it comes to the right to not be killed and eaten, enjoy access to education, or drive a car, there’s a tendency…to assume that what goes for the rat can be readily applied to humans.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, animal experimenters argue in the same breath that animals are enough like humans that experiments on them can teach us something about ourselves, and that animals are different enough from us that we can ethically do whatever we like with them.

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