Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I decided to buy this book after reading a positive review of it in Scientific American. As someone who has long been skeptical of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus mentality, I found Delusions of Gender both enlightening and enjoyable.

My skepticism is largely due to my own life experiences of, for lack of a batter term, being a blue girl in a pink world. Despite my mother's best efforts to mold me in her own image (stereotypically feminine extrovert), I am resolutely just like my father (brainy and introverted, with a dash of a number of friends insisting over the years that I'm a dude trapped in a girl's body)-- despite my own failed efforts to conform to the expectations of my mother and those around me. As a child, I hated tea parties and playing dress-up, preferring to read books , and as an adult, it takes serious bribery and/or threats to induce me to wear a dress and heels, and I practically never wear makeup. Obviously, I still spend much of my free time reading.

People like me, who don't readily conform to gender norms for whatever reason, encounter a lot of judgment and friction in their lives. It's caused me a lot of stress and anxiety; at the end of the day, nobody likes being treated like a weirdo because of their honest personal preferences. My mother's continual exhortations to be more like my sister (remember how I've said we're polar opposites?) really did a number on me, too. It took me a long time to accept who I was and stop trying (and failing!) to adhere to societal standards of What Women Are Like and just be myself. That journey has taken me a lot of places, and I've read a number of books on the subject over the years to try to make sense of my life and experiences. My women's and gender studies minor was an invaluable part of the process, as it taught me to think critically about the whys of social expectations and the ways in which they feed into entrenched societal paradigms.

I ultimately wound up taking the view that people who gleefully tout the huge, insurmountable differences between men and women based on vague observations of head scans to be the modern equivalent of nineteenth century phrenologists who firmly believed that the different sizes of cranial bones indicated that white men are superior to everybody else (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Throughout my studies in sociology, it was apparent that the differences within members of a given sex were nearly always greater than the ones between the two sexes, and that research on the subject was plagued by faulty research that includes, but is by no means limited to: cherry picking, confirmation bias, tiny sample sizes, flawed data analysis, non-objective experimental design, poorly-controlled variables, and what Fine dubs the 90/10 Principle: that people, even researchers, will ignore 90% of the data that doesn't fit with their worldview and focus on the 10% that does. Sadly, that tendency carries over to the whole of society: journalists, doctors, teachers, and you and me.

Delusions of Gender provides an excellent debunking of both the bad science that leads to the publishing of Mars/Venus-type books that is easy for laypeople to understand. Though I have a decent background in the social sciences, I nevertheless found Fine's explanations of the way that studies ought to be conducted (versus the way that they actually are) very illuminating and learned quite a bit. Beyond explaining the studies, Fine delves into the meat of the science behind them, making a compelling argument that we simply know too little about how the brain works to be making grand, sweeping statements about intrinsic characteristics of men and women, especially considering what the stakes are. Fine provides a great deal of evidence that much human potential is being lost to these antiquated notions, and that ideas of what men and women (and boys and girls!) are capable has more to do with culture than biology. Her often humorous takedowns of pop-science writers and journalists (along with shoddy researchers themselves) who propagate bad and misleading science are quite enjoyable in addition to being very informative.

Everyone should read this. 5 out of 5 stars.

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