Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Word of the day: Neurosexism

Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers made a short post commenting on an interview with Cordelia Fine, who is the author of a new book entitled Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. In the book Fine attacks much of the research done on sex difference in the brain saying that it is not only deeply flawed but also dangerously misleading. This flawed research can actually bee seen as creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by perpetuating social stereotypes.

From the Salon.com interview:

Women's brains are wired differently from men's. It's why so few women do well in math. It's why women gravitate toward dolls and tea sets as young children, and why they're so much better at understanding other people's emotions. It's why they're so good at housework! (Men are more wired to focus on one task — like arithmetic.) At least that's what a host of recent studies in the field of neuroscience have argued. Too bad they're wrong.

In her new book, "Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference," Cordelia Fine, a research associate and the author of "A Mind of Its Own" (also about brain science), discovers that, far from supporting the existence of vastly different male and female brains, much of the research on the topic is not only deeply flawed, but dangerously misleading. Women aren't worse at math (as Fine proves in the book, bad neurological research is one of the reasons women are still struggling to catch up in the field), and girls' preference for girlish toys probably has more to do with social expectations than what's in their skulls. Fine's book is a remarkably researched and dense work that, even while tackling highly complex subject manner, retains a light, breezy touch. (read more)

The book seems to focus on dismantling such pop culture stereotypes, that women are inherently bad at math, that men are less socially perceptive etc. These kind of stereotypes are important to challenge for equality sake but the concept of sex and gender binaries must also be challenged. While I'm hearing some things in reviews that give me hope on how this book will treat non-binary gender and the idea of gender construction, there are moments that give me pause.

Once the children reach the age of 2, which is the age they discover which side of this gender divide they're on, all bets are off. Parents may prefer that girls not play with Barbies and boys not play with guns, but by that age children know what tribe they belong to, and will want to be part of it.

This plays into the idea of not only a binary gender but that gender is hard socialization, unchangeable socially enforced destiny. I'm not sure how, or even if, this book will treat gender from the perspective of a non-binary. Though even if the book itself does not do well on issues of non normative gender identity; chipping away at this bad brain business may help future discussions of sex and gender that are queer inclusive.

-b

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