It seems to be an accepted fact that men and women’s brains are somehow hardwired differently. The ‘science’ of difference is commonplace, colloquial, a part of everyday life; from ‘multi-tasking women’ to ‘reverse-parking men’ the stereotypes are everywhere. I currently write this review at a very frustratingly 41 weeks pregnant, and hope when you read it I will have endured the trials of labour and once again be able to see my toes! As someone so evidently ‘with child’ I have had the same conversations with innumerable strangers for the past three months “Oh, what are you having?” My reply is consistent “A baby I hope”. Laughter ensues then a follow-up from said granny / mum / petrol station attendant: “ Yes, but what flavour?, What would you prefer, a boy or a girl?” People are so keen to tell me about what girls are like and what boys are like – but are they really so different?
Reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender has been fascinating as an accompaniment to my pregnancy. The book seeks to give a picture of what is billed as ‘The real science behind sex differences’ and returns to the classic gender ‘nature / nurture debate’. Fine, a Research Associate at Macquarie University, Australia with a PhD in Psychology has produced a book which attempts to blow lots of the current ‘neuroscience’ ideas of sex differences out of the water. She argues throughout the text that this ‘pop science’ (which seems to be espoused regularly in places like the Daily Mail) is a way of returning to old sexist ideas, by giving them what people believe to be an authentic foundation.
Practically I have found applications of the reading in my own work and my own faith. Much like ‘mainstream culture’ I personally believe Christian culture has recently made a return to some old arguments about male/female difference and paraded these on the back of popular neuroscience. Delusions of Gender has helped me, as an egalitarian, really think through and ask questions about essential differences in men and women, and whether these are as disparate as sometimes advocated by some factions of the church. The book has also given me some great ‘ammunition’ when provoking discussions with young people about underlying attitudes to each other based on sex.
The book is biased, it is clearly trying to put forward a case against stances such as Men are from Mars, Women from Venus, but in a society where these views seem to be the accepted norm I found the book a refreshing and challenging read. In conclusion, Fine writes of her research: “Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable. And if we only believe this it will continue to unravel.” (p239)
Reviewed by Ruth Wells, a youth worker in Bournemouth who is currently on maternity leave.