By Antonia Sudkaemper
“I think the whole gender equality issue is essentially a non-discussion, because the beauty of gender lies in the fact that they’re not equal (but opposite), yin and yang as the basis of nature, and anyone who denies that must be out of his mind.”
Inadvertently, this comment taps into a whole field of research, literature, and a fervent ‘very-much-so’ discussion. To start at the very beginning, we are looking at a very traditional nature versus nurture debate here; are the gender differences in behaviours and interests that we frequently observe due to the male and female genetic base, or do they result from the environmental influences that children are exposed to as they develop? Two opposing camps of research have evolved, both of which claim evidence for their assumptions and conclusions regarding the roots of sex differences.
Simon Baron-Cohen (among others) supports gender essentialism, purporting that girls and boys are born with innate gender differences. Baron-Cohen speaks of two types of brains, one being specifically adept to spatial and logical tasks, and the other one excelling in empathy and care. In line with results describing the average brain of a man and a woman, he termed these two types of brains the “male brain” and the “female brain”, respectively. Baron-Cohen presents a series of (arguable, see below) results in his book supporting his theory, for instance a study showing that shortly after birth female babies looked at faces for a longer period of time while male babies looked at mechanical mobiles for longer. These differences are hypothesized to be due the foetus’ prenatal environment’s level of testosterone, with a higher level of testosterone leading to a “male brain” and an increased ability in systemizing. This theory deems the nurture part a somewhat negligible factor.
Cordelia Fine (also among others) sets out to dispute these theories in her book “Delusions of Gender”, one that I recommend to anyone who has ever spent any time thinking about gender. Fine’s brilliant and extremely enjoyable piece of academic work made me frequently and literally laugh out loud. Fine points towards a variety of flaws and biases that occurred within the research mentioned above. To name just one, it could not be guaranteed that the researchers were not aware of the sex of the babies in question, which might have led to differential treatment of the babies and might thereby have initiated observed gender differences. Fine further discusses a variety of environmental factors that are likely to affect the development of male or female babies. The list starts with the toys that are bought for little girls or little boys, continues with behaviours that are encouraged in boys but not in girls, and vice versa, and some factors even spill into adult life, for instance suggestions concerning which disciplines might be suitable for one but not for the other.
Fine deduces that Baron-Cohen based his conclusions on rather volatile results and is serving an agenda which she terms “neurosexism”. Arguing in favour of common gender stereotypes à la Mars and Venus (even though Baron-Cohen specifically distances himself from this kind of literature before presenting awkwardly similar theories) is a disservice to both men and women. Pointing towards testosterone levels and female brains when explaining why it took women until 2014 to win the Fields Medal (mathematics equivalent to the Noble Prize) is denying the vast quantity of educational and occupational barriers that women have experienced over centuries, and are still experiencing today. Moreover, women have to constantly fight the belief that they do not have the means to excel in certain disciplines, a belief very much prolonged by research that genders brains. Equally, by reinforcing gender stereotypes we are robbing men of the opportunity to be more in touch with their caring and emotional sides, which leads to a similarly impoverished life experience.
No, I do not see a lot of yin and yang beauty in the fact that we will likely be fighting stereotypes, disadvantages, and gender inequality for a little longer.
- Bem, S. (1994). Lenses of Gender.
- Baron-Cohen, S. (2004). The Essential Difference.
- Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of Gender.
If you enjoyed reading this and/or liked to learn about the topic of gender equality, watch out for next week’s post discussing the quote “You had some solid arguments (and some less solid), I think you did quite well by staying rational, my compliments.”.
Antonia Sudkaemper is a PhD student at the university of Exeter. Her research focuses on gender equality. You can learn more about Antonia on her website, www.antoniasudkaemper.com , or by following her on twitter, @ASudkaemper.